Born to Be Mild


Just a few minutes into his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Rick Lazio broke into his very first sprint to greet voters along a Memorial Day parade route on his home turf. He fell flat on his face. People smirked at the time. But the guy still hasn’t gotten up.

Considering his background as a Long Island Republican Party favorite son who’s had his political career practically handed to him and hasn’t had to do much brawling to keep it, it’s not surprising that he’s done little more than attack his controversial opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and portray himself as a nice young man. This light-on-substance approach, coupled with ardent public relations work on behalf of the powerful people to whom he’s beholden, defines Lazio’s career.

Being handed a political career isn’t serving Lazio well right now. He’s like a trust-funder suddenly called upon to do some heavy lifting. He ain’t used to the hard work. Maybe it’s the way the machine raised him.

He’s a true product of Long Island’s Republican machine, nurtured as a pretty flower in the fetid hothouse of the Suffolk County GOP.

Lazio’s father, Tony, was a key fundraiser and top campaign aide to Suffolk County GOP chairman Buzz Schwenk in the early ’70s, during a time when Schwenk was playing fast and loose with the party’s money. (Schwenk was later convicted of tax evasion.) Rick was the fresh-faced youngster who wrote the numbers on the GOP’s blackboard on election night.

While Hillary was getting her start as a young lawyer working for the congressional committees investigating Watergate, Rick Lazio was earnestly defending Richard Nixon, whom his father idolized, to college classmates.

Lazio’s own baptism as a lawyer was in the mid 1980s, when a job as “executive assistant” was created especially for him by Suffolk County district attorney Patrick Henry, whom he helped try to stonewall an investigation into corruption in the D.A.’s office and the police department.

But Lazio wasn’t an inner-circle operative; he was just a new face to put before the public.

Being handed a political career isn’t serving him well right now. He’s like a trust-funder suddenly called upon to do some heavy lifting. He ain’t used to the hard work. Maybe it’s the way the machine raised him.

“Long Island is a Republican welfare system,” says Robert Gottlieb, a veteran Democratic lawyer who almost upset Henry in 1985 but was ultimately steamrolled by the GOP machine. “By controlling the bureaucracy, they can line their pockets and hire their families—and they don’t have to work for it.”

Born into that machine, Lazio has been almost as good a fundraiser as fellow Long Island Republican Al D’Amato. But unlike D’Amato, Lazio didn’t have any past experience in dealing with a tumble in public. When D’Amato, a veteran inner-circle deal maker, was attacked, he fought back. And he loved that kind of fight. Rick Lazio’s a bantamweight in comparison.

Lazio has credited his father with being a major influence, but understates his dad’s role in the party. Tony Lazio, formerly in the auto-parts business, made a living from the Republican welfare state. Steadfastly loyal to his party and his party’s leaders, Tony Lazio was the detail guy, the one who put together the county committee’s fundraisers, cocktail parties, and galas at Colonie Hill, a catering hall owned by the notoriously corrupt Local 138 of the operating engineers’ union, and at the GOP’s clubhouse on 38 acres in Blue Point.

“He was always for a class show,” recalls Schwenk. “Black-tie or a two-tiered dais? If that’s what it called for. Or just a cocktail party? He’d do that.

“He always felt it was important to make it a class show—make it look like a good act.”

Schwenk fondly recalls the late Tony Lazio as a politically savvy guy. “He knew what was going on, not only in fundraising,” says Schwenk. “There wasn’t much going on in Republican politics that he didn’t know about.”

While Tony Lazio was energetically setting up events to burnish the GOP’s image, his boss was doing such things as furtively taking envelopes of cash from state Court of Claims Judge William Drohan of the Bronx, who was making payoffs on behalf of a company that got county business on the scandal-ridden Southwest Sewer District project. And Schwenk was hanging out with Teamster racketeer John Cody, the most powerful labor boss in New York City-area construction. Cody’s Local 282 pension fund owned the Hampton Hills Country Club at the time.

In 1978, Tony Lazio had a stroke, and Buzz Schwenk nearly had one. Schwenk wound up accidentally putting his friend Cody in the middle of a jackpot by insisting that he meet with a shady figure named Vic Puglisi who was being used by an undercover IRS agent. It was the same investigation that nailed Mafia boss Carmine Persico. Schwenk was acquitted of bribery at the same trial in which he was found guilty of tax evasion. But his meetings with Puglisi and Cody were undisputed.

Schwenk denies that Tony Lazio walked on the dark side of Suffolk politics with him when it came to dealing with Cody, the corrupt judge, and other racketeers.

“Tony absolutely had nothing to do with it,” insists Schwenk. “And I’m not saying it for any reason other than it’s true. That was my responsibility—whatever happened there and whatever dealings there were with those people.

“I’m not the purest guy in the world.”

Tony Lazio never was accused of any wrongdoing. But his name did come up in Schwenk’s 1981 federal trial. At one point, Republican town leaders trooped to the stand to testify that they didn’t really care what Buzz Schwenk did with the GOP county committee’s money because they had their own patronage setups to take care of and their own machinery to oil.

Members of the county party’s executive committee testified that they signed blank checks on behalf of the party so that Schwenk could write checks to himself by just filling in the amounts and adding his own signature. (He didn’t get a salary at the time). One of the leaders, Anthony Noto of Babylon, testifying on May 27, 1981, characterized the town leaders as often “piggish” and more interested in their own patronage operations than in what Buzz was doing in his little fiefdom. But Noto testified that he got nervous in the mid 1970s about signing blank checks for Buzz after receiving a party bank statement at his house.

PROSECUTOR NEIL FIRETOG: Did that have any effect on why you didn’t want to sign checks?

NOTO: That had some reflection. Absolutely. I saw a couple of paychecks in there for a couple of employees that I had no idea that they were receiving that type of retainer.

FIRETOG: Was Mr. Schwenk one of those individuals?

NOTO: The two people I am talking about were Lazio—Mr. Anthony Lazio and Sam Markowitz. [Markowitz was another public relations operative for the party.]

After that, Noto said, he stopped signing blank checks for Buzz to use.

Tony Lazio’s name didn’t surface in the extensive press accounts of the Schwenk case in Newsday or The New York Times. Reporters had enough to do covering higher officials. One of them was Rick Lazio’s first boss.

When Lazio returned to Long Island in the early 1980s from American University Law School in D.C., he landed a job in District Attorney Patrick Henry’s office in 1983 because of who his dad was. “His name helped him,” recalls Frank Jones, a former Islip town supervisor and GOP official. During the time that investigators began looking at Henry’s operation, Henry created a fancy title for young Rick that press accounts say was the talk of the courthouse. He was the embattled Republican D.A.’s pleasant public face for talking-head purposes.

There was plenty to talk about, all right. Suffolk County’s cops and prosecutors were out of control, according to state investigators. The county led the nation in the number of wiretaps and was accused of brutalizing prisoners, coercing confessions, bungling investigations, and covering up misconduct by cops and prosecutors. Thanks to astounding overtime deals, many Suffolk cops cracked six figures in annual income in the ’80s. In 1985, after a jury had acquitted a murder suspect, Suffolk County Court Judge Stuart Namm, who presided at the trial, publicly blasted police and prosecutors, accusing them of misconduct in the case. Namm’s point backed up jurors’ contentions that the cops’ testimony, in that case and another, was not believable, and Namm contended that guilty men had thus gone free. The state’s Commission of Investigation, led by former federal prosecutor David G. Trager, conducted public hearings in 1987 and blasted the Suffolk County officials, particularly the D.A.

Patrick Henry fought back by trying to suppress Trager’s final report. Long after the public heat of the controversy cooled, Trager’s commission issued its harsh report in April 1989, including allegations that a chief of detectives had initiated a cover-up of his son’s cocaine case. The D.A., the report said, “has engaged in stonewalling instead of reform” and “has had a remarkable tolerance for misconduct by his own staff and by law enforcement personnel in general.”

A couple of years before, while the commission was preparing its report, a local judge appointed a “special district attorney” to probe the Suffolk cops. But the special prosecutor hired a Suffolk cop as his chief investigator and the Trager commission refused to turn over its materials. D.A. spokesman Rick Lazio weighed in with a politely executed rip of the Trager commission. “The evident lack of cooperation by the [Trager] commission with the special district attorney is disturbing,” Lazio told The New York Times in 1987. “If [the special district attorney’s] characterization is accurate, there is serious question as to the agenda the commission has.” Despite his lofty title, Lazio was a “nonplayer” in the controversy, says longtime Henry opponent Gottlieb. “He was irrelevant,” Gottlieb says of Lazio. “When I see his comments about being a former prosecutor, I have to laugh. But to be fair to him, I don’t believe he had any impact on Patrick Henry. He wasn’t part of the inner circle, but he was a fresh face they could put out there. I never took him as a serious player.”

Lazio carefully occupied negative space, mostly announcing arrests in noncontroversial cases. While all the corruption boiled and bubbled, he kept his mouth shut, except to defend the D.A. and cops in a nonthreatening way. “Anyone committed to having a professional law-enforcement operation would have been outraged,” says Gottlieb. “And he was a young lawyer. But from Lazio down the line, the absence of voices from that office was deafening.”

Speaking out would have ended Lazio’s political career right there.

“He consciously avoids controversy,” says Gottlieb. “If he had spoken out, he would have never been nominated for the legislature or anything else. There were a bunch of other bright-eyed guys waiting to take his place.”

Patrick Henry wobbled to the end of his term and the GOP got him a seat on the Supreme Court bench. Lazio briefly established a private practice before winning a seat in the county legislature in 1989, where he spent two uneventful years. Those who spoke out in the D.A. controversy didn’t do well. Even the Democrats who made waves weren’t backed by their own party, whose leaders made deals with the GOP to preserve their own areas of patronage. Judge Namm, for one, knew his years on the bench were nearing an end—despite his having been a law partner of county Democratic boss Dominic Baranello—when a fellow Democrat who was a bigwig administrative judge told him, “If one day you wake up and everybody is walking on one side of the street, and you find yourself on the other side of the street, you’re on the wrong side of the street.”

In 1992, incumbent congressman Tom Downey, who had found himself on the right side of the street in 1974 when Watergate swept him and other Democrats into office, was on the wrong side, mortally hurt by the huge negative publicity of bouncing checks to the House’s internal bank.

Rick Lazio ran an anti-Downey campaign (similar in style to his current anti-Hillary approach) and walked right into Congress, helped by a steady stream of campaign contributions from, among others, the Suffolk police unions, whose members he had tried to shield from state investigators during the Trager commission’s work.

During the past eight years, Lazio has found other steady sources of campaign funds, particularly the securities industry. And he still doesn’t like it when outside investigators come sniffing around. Among his bills that are awaiting action is a measure devoutly sought by securities traders that would reduce the transaction fees they have to pay to fund the Securities and Exchange Commission. Lazio’s bill is even harsher on the regulatory agency than a similar measure sponsored by Senator Phil Gramm, the rock-ribbed conservative from Texas who chairs the Senate Banking Committee.

When it comes to monumental legislation, though, even some of the industries that like Lazio don’t see him as a player, although he’s the only member of Congress on both the Banking and Commerce committees and chairs Banking’s subcommittee on housing. His lawmaking style prompted a mocking item last month in the magazine United States Banker, hardly an opponent of a pro-banks congressman like Lazio. The magazine noted that Lazio has “left no footprint at the banking committee, even on its most important legislation,” the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

“The Laz,” as the magazine for bankers called him, “could often be seen walking into important committee hearings late and then uttering a few remarks, often with a touch of levity. But he is unknown for making any major initiatives or rolling his sleeves up on the big bills.”

Apparently, walking through Congress is fine. It’s when he has to start running hard that he’s liable to hurt himself.