City officials on paid leave from the Department of Youth and Community Development have played key roles in the campaign of Republican/Conservative James Molinaro for Staten Island borough president, the Voice has learned.
The department, which provides funds for youth and social service programs, is run by Commissioner Jerry Cammarata, a strong Molinaro supporter who is also the Board of Education appointee of current borough president Guy Molinari. Along with their boss, former assistant commissioner Mario Bruno and special assistant Joseph Kovac serve as officers of the Molinari Republican Club, which has been actively backing the Molinaro campaign.
The use of city jobholders to aid the Molinaro campaign is potentially embarrassing to the Giuliani administration, because the mayor endorsed Molinaro last December. Molinaro, the current deputy borough president, is the chosen successor of outgoing president Molinari, who has been the mayor’s closest GOP ally for years.
According to Molinaro’s Campaign Finance Board reports, department employees Mario Bruno and Joseph Kovac were reimbursed numerous times from April to September, indicating they were actively involved in the election effort.
It now appears Bruno and Kovac may have been hired specifically to aid Molinaro’s political activities. Despite having little relevant experience, the two were whisked to high-level posts in the department. Bruno and Kovac previously held city jobs, but upon being hired at the Department of Youth and Community Development, both were given salaries in far excess of their previous pay. Kovac’s salary jumped by $11,500 and Bruno’s by $21,000. Both spent just eight months at the department before taking leave and working for the Molinaro campaign.
His new $70,000 salary and promotion notwithstanding, Bruno resigned his post in May and now works as Molinaro’s campaign director. Bruno says he began drawing a salary from Molinaro’s campaign only after his left the department. He said he was actually using leave he’d accumulated during 15 years at the Department of Transportation.
The links between city workers and Molinaro’s campaign have not gone unnoticed in Staten Island. “I know Kovac was brought in, given immediate leave time and an inflated salary so he could work as a notary on the Molinaro campaign,” said former Conservative Party chairwoman Mary Lou Shanahan, who claims Molinaro strong-armed her out of her position in the party late last year. In a recent interview, Shanahan—who said she has known Molinaro “since I was two,” and whose father, Neil Joseph Shanahan, founded the Staten Island Conservative Party—charged that “Jimmy’s become the Pez dispenser for jobs at Borough Hall.”
Shanahan may have an ax to grind, but even those outside the fray suggest she has a point. One Republican City Council staffer who asked to remain anonymous recently said it was widely known that the Molinaro campaign had several workers who were on the public payroll. Records indicate six of Molinaro’s campaign volunteers work in the borough president’s office.
Public workers also give to their bosses’ campaigns. Finance reports indicate 18 Borough Hall workers have made 25 contributions to the Molinaro campaign, totaling $2410—all but $250 of which was matched by funds from the Campaign Finance Board. One employee, also a campaign worker, donated as much as $500.
Some of this campaigning has been quite industrious. Shanahan—who herself carried petitions for Molinaro’s competitor, State Assemblyman Bob Straniere—said she saw Kovac at the Board of Elections during the recanvassing of petitions. She said he claimed to have collected a ridiculous number of signatures: “You usually get between 10 and 20 a day and he was saying he was getting 40 or 50 a day, and this is during the daytime when people aren’t even at home!” she said.
Shanahan also cited data from the Board of Elections indicating Kovac gathered 1166 signatures for Molinaro in the Republican primary. A Voice count shows that in addition to working for Molinaro’s Republican and Independence bids, Kovac also collected a total of 550 signatures in two different primaries for the Bloomberg campaign, which Molinaro is supporting.
Kovac remains on the youth and community development payroll, but reaching him wasn’t easy. The Voice left several voice mails for him and notes with his secretary. A call to his office on October 18 yielded the recorded greeting: “I’m sorry but there’s no room right now to record your message.” Finally reached in person, Kovac promised three times to return Voice calls but did not, despite continued attempts to reach him.
Since August 31, the Voice has waited for the department to provide an account of any leave time granted to Bruno or Kovac. At press time, the best that Intergovernmental and Public Affairs officer Eduardo Laboy could tell us was that Cammarata was “aware of our request.”
Staff arrangements such as these raise important legal questions. The department administers the Federal Community Services Block Grant for New York City and is therefore governed by federal regulations that prohibit the employment or assignment of any “personnel in a manner supporting…any partisan or nonpartisan political activity…associated with a candidate…in an election for public or party office.”
A “job deal” in which public agencies hired people to work for a political campaign “would be something we would want to look at,” said Jane McFarland, director of congressional and public affairs at the Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C.
Interviewed on the day of September’s primary elections at Molinaro campaign headquarters, Molinari dismissed allegations of impropriety as “nonsense,” adding, “We’ve been very scrupulous. They wouldn’t be on the payroll when they’re working for us.” Molinari, for his part, claimed his administration had “de-politicized Borough Hall.”
If politicking has been kicked out of public quarters, it’s as least still a good neighbor. The Molinaro campaign maintains a secondary headquarters across the way from Borough Hall, at 152 Stuyvesant Street. “All of the Borough Hall workers can just walk across the street and do work for him,” said Shanahan.