Though it haunted the Pataki administration for more than three years and led to four federal convictions, the saga of the state parole board fix is not even on the media’s radar screen in this gubernatorial campaign.
In a July 2000 summation that preceded the conviction of a top Pataki fundraiser, one federal prosecutor branded it “the biggest fundraising scandal that this state has seen in a very long time,” with $40,000 in contributions launching a frenzy of Pataki-tied attempts to get three violent felons out of jail early.
Yet all the devastating evidence of the corrupting of the state parole process—detailed in two trials and the guilty pleas of two other high-ranking state officials—has disappeared into the ethical ether of the Pataki era, where quid pro quo is the status quo. A Voice examination of the under-reported record of these cases, following the trail of $708,366 in campaign and public dollars used to pay the Pataki lawyers who fought the prosecutors in this case, has pinpointed the reasons why George Pataki should be personally held accountable in Campaign 2002 for this disgraceful scandal.
Brion Travis is still the chair of the parole board, one of the most powerful law enforcement posts in state government. On July 19, 2000, U.S. District Court Judge Frederic Block formally declared Travis an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the parole-for-sale conspiracy that, according to prosecutors, led to the release of one armed robber and influenced the handling of two other cases. The court declaration, offered toward the end of the two-week trial of Pataki fundraiser and Korean community leader Yung Soo Yoo, was the culmination of the disturbing evidence of Travis’s complicity.
Ron Hotaling, the board’s former number-two official, testified at the Yoo trial that Travis ordered him to tell two parole commissioners that the governor’s office wanted John Kim, whose parole application was vigorously opposed by the Queens district attorney, to be released at his first hearing. After Kim was convicted of three armed robberies—including one that involved the stun-gunning of a store owner and another the terrorizing of an 8-year-old at gunpoint in her home—his family and friends donated $7000 to the Pataki camp.
With Travis telling Hotaling that he was under “a tremendous amount of pressure from the governor’s office to release Kim,” Hotaling testified that he relayed the message that “the governor wants this guy released” to the two commissioners who were deciding the April 1996 case. Hotaling initially lied to federal investigators about his role in this fix and wound up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, while the two commissioners were also convicted of perjury for lying about the Hotaling approach. None of these three is still at parole, but Travis, a neighbor of the governor’s in Garrison who baby-sat for his children, remains in charge of a board with the power to judge and shape the lives of thousands.
Listen to prosecutor Eric Friedberg’s summation two years ago about Travis: “Travis delivers the message to Hotaling and it is outrageous and it is illegal. There is the payoff. It’s the exact form of corruption that Mr. Yoo promised and it is the corruption as charged of members and of officials of the Division of Parole. The conversation that Brion Travis had with Ron Hotaling is what Mr. Yoo and the family’s money bought and paid for.”
After this investigation began in January of 1998, Travis, one of the earliest donors to Pataki’s 1994 campaign, hired Albany attorney William Dreyer to represent him, and never cooperated with prosecutors. The day of Hotaling’s testimony, Travis’s spokesman adopted virtually the same language as Yoo’s attorney, calling Hotaling “an admitted liar and convicted criminal who was fired from his job.”
The government summation answered that argument: “First you have to believe when Hotaling told us nothing happened, that was the truth, and then for no reason at all, he decided I am going to make up a false story about the corruption just so I can get indicted, just so I can plead guilty. Why would anyone in their right minds do that?”
Patrick Donahue is still the finance director for Friends of Pataki, setting new state fundraising records every day. Also named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the parole case, Donahue helped bring Yoo into the campaign, collected the contributions from Yoo, met with the families who’d been promised early release (apparently telling one, “No problem”), and sent memos to the governor’s office on their behalf. A defense witness for Yoo who denied any knowledge of the conspiracy, Donahue was laid bare on cross examination, as Friedberg put it, “completely contradicted by his prior grand jury testimony” and by taped conversations he’d had with one family. Donahue, said Friedberg, “willingly and knowingly participated in the scheme.”
Though three witnesses, including Donahue’s assistant in the campaign finance office, testified that they’d had conversations with him about the promised paroles, and though one memo from Yoo said flatly that he had to either get the releases or refund the donations, Donahue insisted he knew nothing about it. Ridiculed by the government in summation as “the shining beacon of truth” and “Mr. Yoo’s co-conspirator,” Donahue, who took over the finance office in his mid twenties, was represented by a gaggle of high-priced criminal lawyers paid for by the Pataki campaign.
In addition to the $577,567 paid directly to Donahue since 1993, Friends of Pataki paid $257,378 to Tom Puccio, Leo Kayser, and Paul Windels to represent Donahue in this case, as well as another $328,961 to Rod Lankler and others to represent the governor’s campaign. Donahue testified that a month or so before he appeared as a Yoo witness, he was shifted onto the payroll of Pataki’s outside fundraising consulting firm, Cathy Blaney & Associates, rather than being paid directly by the campaign. That makes it impossible to determine just what Donahue was making when he took the stand in 2000—but he was being paid as a fundraiser for the governor and for Senate candidate Rick Lazio, who also used the Blaney firm. Blaney was paid a combined $841,163 by the two campaigns that year, and $1,136,027 since, with Donahue still on her tab.
Friedberg recounted how Donahue’s aide, Julie Pyun, told him that she’d had dinner with one of the families, that they’d pressed her to get Donahue to give them information about their son’s release, and that Donahue said he’d let them know. “Right there you know that Patrick Donahue is involved in the conspiracy,” said Friedberg. “He’s telling her I already know about the fact that these people are looking for the prison releases and it is because he and Mr. Yoo are part of the conspiracy to spring these kids.”
The family Donahue was reassuring were the Jhangs—whose son had been convicted with John Kim and who had donated $23,000 to Pataki, meeting with Donahue several times. The day John Jhang delivered $20,000 in checks to Yoo and Donahue, he heard Yoo mention “work release” to Donahue and Donahue reply “No problem.” The Jhangs were so upset about this broken promise that they went to the police and ultimately the feds, so unconcerned about their own culpability that they didn’t even get immunity until shortly before the trial began.
When Donahue took the stand, prosecutor Margaret Giordano started by asking him if he understood that he’d been “a target of the investigation for several years now” and he said, “Yes ma’am.” He said the same when asked if he understood that, as he sat there that day, he was still “a target of the investigation into federal bribery.” In a sidebar talk with the judge, Yoo’s attorney objected to the use of the word target, saying it suggests “the government’s belief in the guilt” of Yoo’s prime witness, but the judge refused to make any mitigating comment to the jury. In her rebuttal summation and her Donahue questioning, Giordano also offered another motive for him to lie: “his fear of losing his job” at the Pataki committee.
Even Donahue concedes he wrote and called officials of the Pataki administration about the cases. He insists he was simply seeking “status reports” about the release dates, even though he had the dates, provided by Yoo, before he made the government contacts. Pataki’s decision to retain Donahue demonstrates the governor’s belief that it is OK for a campaign fundraiser to make inquiries at the highest levels of his administration on behalf of donors, even ones as odious as these. Like the decision to keep Travis on parole, the retention of Donahue sets the ethical bar so low that no conduct, even when acknowledged, merits any form of even temporary reproach.
Pataki named Jeff Wiesenfeld to the board of City University and the United Nations Development Corporation, and Grace Koh’s state salary has nearly doubled since both were implicated in this scandal. Though the government assailed their truthfulness at the trial, the governor’s office put through $66,587 in special state payments for their lawyer, Andy Lawler, whose billings indicated constant contacts with what he referred to as the “joint defense counsel,” including the lawyers paid for by the campaign and state.
Yoo’s lawyer taunted the government during the trial about why Wiesenfeld, the governor’s executive assistant, who left to take a job with a major investment banking house, and Koh, who worked under Wiesenfeld and is now a $70,000-a-year aide to the lieutenant governor, weren’t called as witnesses. They were the key Community Affairs aides who, in response to extra-governmental inquiries from Yoo and Donahue, put pressure on parole officials, with Wiesenfeld writing a memo prosecutors called “outrageous” that told parole officials that young Kim had made a “stunning turn” from a gang life to a good life.
Giordano responded to the defense taunts in her summation: “Do you think the government would be calling office managers and secretaries who had minimal knowledge and minimal culpability if the real manipulators in the case—Grace Koh and Jeff Wiesenfeld—were going to get up on the stand and provide truthful information to you?” Noting that a postal inspector testified that these witnesses were “hostile” and that they “had to be subpoenaed to the grand jury because they wouldn’t go voluntarily,” Giordano said that the defense had subpoena power and chose not to use them either. “Maybe one liar self-destructing on the witness stand for the defense”—a reference to Donahue—”was enough for them.”
In addition to paying the fees for Wiesenfeld and Koh’s attorney Lawler, the governor’s office also arranged for state payment for attorneys representing a host of others questioned in the case, totaling $122,026. Austin Campriello, whose firm Robinson, Silverman was paid $70,275 by the Pataki campaign, also collected $12,204 in state funds for representing Jim McGuire, the governor’s counsel. The statute requires that lawyers be paid only “in connection with an appearance before a grand jury which returns no true bill against the employee,” but McGuire’s lawyer was paid even though he made no such appearance.
The same firm was paid $9072 for representing Pataki’s prior counsel Michael Finnegan, who like Wiesenfeld left government for a lucrative investment banking job. Finnegan did voluntarily appear before the grand jury, but McGuire himself inaccurately certified that Finnegan was “employed by the Office of the Governor at the time of the appearance” when, in fact, McGuire had replaced Finnegan in late 1997 and the appearance occurred on November 3, 1998. Not only was McGuire approving a payment to his own law firm a day after the payment for him was certified by his deputy, but the two submissions totaled over $37,000, almost twice what the comptroller paid after examining the bills.
The bills for Wiesenfeld’s attorney, Andrew Lawler, reflected meetings and conversations with lawyers extremely close to the governor personally, such as Bill Plunkett and John O’Mara, neither of whom are known to have represented a client in the case. The submissions for McGuire and Finnegan indicate that their lawyer, Campriello, had 128 contacts with at least one individual whose name was repeatedly redacted by Campriello from the bills, a unusual occurrence that might cover discussions with the governor himself.
What all the campaign and public subsidies of this criminal defense team revealed, as did the stonewalling of the prime Pataki witnesses, was the circle-the-wagons mentality that gripped the Pataki camp throughout this high-octane probe. The governor’s office tried to put a spin on the verdict when Yoo’s jury only convicted him of the obstruction charge, deadlocking on the other five—with 10 jurors reportedly for conviction on all counts. When Yoo subsequently pled guilty in another case, taking a one-year jail sentence for lying to the FBI about illegal contributions to ex-senator Al D’Amato, the government agreed not to retry him on the parole case.
But the evidence is still there, in a dusty court file in Brooklyn. Four players in the conspiracy have been nailed, and a half dozen witnesses with no motive to lie have given us a breathtaking snapshot of the Pataki heartland, where, as he moves sleepily into a third term, no bad deed goes unrewarded.
Research assistance by Sandy Amos, Yi Chen, Will St. John, Clementine Wallace