Will Schumer Stand Up?


New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Subcommittee, which oversees all federal court appointments, has had a home-baked hot potato in his lap for three weeks. It is a test of character and will.

At the end of January, the Bush White House sent him a nominee for the critical post of United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, one of the country’s premier prosecution offices. Based in Schumer’s home county of Brooklyn, the office serves almost 8 million people, including Long Island, Queens, and Staten Island. Its star convictions over the years have ranged from the Abscam prosecutions—which nabbed half a dozen congressmen and a U.S. senator—to the imprisonment of the city’s two most notorious gangsters, John Gotti and Vincent “the Chin” Gigante.

The candidate, Roslyn Mauskopf, is so inappropriate that Schumer, the only man with the power to stop the sullying of this office, must say no. Bush took nine months to finally recommend the 44-year-old Mauskopf—who was handpicked in April by Governor George Pataki, her current boss—a delay that sends its own message.

Pataki knows the importance of the office—it convicted four of his own supporters and aides in the most wide-ranging probe of the governor’s campaign fundraising ever, putting one Pataki parole board appointee in jail. In sharp contrast, Mauskopf, who has been the Pataki-appointed state inspector general since 1995 and is charged with probing corruption within the administration, has not helped make a single significant case against a high-level Pataki official.

She is in fact so chummy with the Pataki brass that the New York Post has reported her penchant for partying with them and even staying in the apartment of Zenia Mucha, the governor’s longtime top aide until last year. In 1999, The New York Law Journal cited two unnamed legal sources familiar with her office who criticized her for being “too close to the officials she is charged with investigating and failing to bring probes aimed at the top levels of government.”

Take the case of James Copeland, an obscure architect who runs a small firm in upstate Garrison, New York. Copeland is the next-door neighbor of George Pataki, the owner of a large, yellow Victorian home off the Hudson River in rural Putnam County. Copeland’s brother is married to the sister of Pataki’s wife. The two families go to the same church and dine together. Though Copeland unsuccessfully sought state architectural contracts before Pataki became governor, his firm, Hudson Design, has won eight contracts since, totaling $800,000.

Newsday, whose investigative teams have won Pulitzers, published a story about one contract—a $102,000 state university construction fund award. The paper found that the agency had put Copeland to work—doing a study of a police academy at SUNY Old Westbury that was later scrapped—almost two months before it conducted the competitive selection process required by law. Newsday‘s coverage forced Mauskopf to launch a probe.

Copeland’s retroactive selection was made by a screening panel so determined to pick him that it gave his firm, which had never designed a police academy, the same points in a “similar projects” rating as three firms that had designed such facilities. A senior fund official who played a key role in the Copeland selection was quoted in an internal e-mail that preceded the January 25, 1999, screening panel meeting as saying, “We want to select Hudson Design.”

When Newsday asked about the strange juxtaposition of the pre-selection work and payments, SUNY gave them an even stranger document that purported to show that the selection had actually occurred in November 1998, long before the screening panel met. Newsday hired three forensic experts to analyze the document, all of whom concluded it had been fabricated. The alarms were so shrill that State Comptroller Carl McCall ordered an audit.

McCall publicly instructed his auditors to work with Mauskopf’s investigators, but he clearly had little confidence in her. Back in July 2000, the comptroller had audited the IG, finding that half of her investigations weren’t completed within the time limits set by her office, and that she had abandoned the long-standing practice of issuing annual reports documenting the office’s work. The audit also blasted her for stonewalling his two-year review, and said that she’d ended the practice of including a representative from the comptroller’s office in her monthly information-sharing executive meetings.

In November, McCall issued his Copeland findings, adding to the Newsday charges. The audit found “serious contracting irregularities and improprieties” that McCall said “adds up to a violation of the public trust,” raising questions of “favoritism.” Also reporting that “the validity” of the allegedly fabricated document was “questionable,” McCall said the fund could produce no evidence of its authenticity. McCall referred his findings to Mauskopf, noting that though his auditors had attempted to “coordinate” their work with hers, the IG had declined to do so.

Mauskopf has been on the case for almost a year. McCall’s audit, written by career civil servants, was finished three and a half months ago. State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who once worked with Mauskopf in Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office, said through a spokesman that though he’s “usually informed” about the “results of such a case,” he has yet to hear from her on this one.

Brian Donovan, the head of the Newsday team, says Mauskopf never asked him which SUNY official gave him the fabricated document, nor did she seek the document itself, which investigators would need to advance any serious criminal inquiry. Key sources identified in the Newsday stories—from the forensic experts to an accountant—have yet to be contacted by the IG.

Copeland was contacted, however. He told the Voice: “I met with the IG and told them everything they wanted to know. I think they dropped it.” Copeland said he was questioned under oath by Mauskopf investigators last summer, and received a phone call from them soon thereafter. “They were running down details. I got the sense they were wrapping it up. It was minutiae.” Copeland said he also concluded the probe was over “because I haven’t heard from them in so long.” While not disputing any of the findings about the apparent rigging of the SUNY process or manufacturing of the document, Copeland described himself as “a political pawn” in this hunt.

So did Pataki’s appointees at the SUNY fund, who wrote a hot-air response to McCall’s findings, almost boasting that the comptroller “has no reason to assume that the IG will issue findings” about “the validity of the contract,” or that it is “even part of their inquiry.” The fund and Copeland attribute the audit to McCall’s gubernatorial candidacy, though the comptroller has been anything but an aggressive overseer of the Pataki regime. McCall told the Voice that it’s “outrageous that the governor would recommend Mauskopf to be U.S. attorney,” adding that “she’s failed to follow up” on the SUNY audit and that “she’s not the type of person who should be in that position.”

Maybe Chuck Schumer, like Pataki and Mauskopf, will dismiss McCall as politically motivated. Maybe Schumer would prefer to listen to Bob Morgenthau, the 82-year-old patriarch of New York law enforcement who’s championing Mauskopf as one more notch on his mentoring belt. Maybe Schumer’s willing to install precisely the same person that the man he defeated in 1998, Al D’Amato, would have put in this sensitive spot. Maybe Schumer, who should know better as a former target of an Eastern District grand jury himself, thinks some other deal with Bush or Pataki is more important than whether a hack gets an arsenal of federal prosecutorial power. This office has meant so much in the life of our city and state. It is crying out for a senator to have the courage to defend it.

Research assistance: Martine Guerrier, Lauren Johnston, Peter G.H. Madsen, Jess Wisloski