Driving Miss Libby
As governor, George Pataki has never skimped on providing help and protection for his own family—regardless of who picks up the tab.
Take the case of Edward Keegan, a retired New York City police officer who first went to work for Pataki in 1993, when the soon-to-be-elected governor was still a state senator from Peekskill. Keegan, who is 6-foot-4 and lives about 10 miles from Pataki’s home in Garrison, acknowledged last week that some of his chores back then as a $1,200-a-month part-time senate staff aide included driving Pataki and his wife, Libby. After Pataki was elected, Keegan remained on the state payroll for the next decade, almost all of it as a special assistant to the commissioner of the New York State Office of General Services, the agency responsible for managing state buildings, procuring supplies, and various “support services.” The ex-cop did well. His salary in 1995 was $64,415; when he retired in March 2005, his official pay rate was $95,000 annually, although his total earnings including overtime over the last three years averaged $102,000.
Keegan, 68, declined last week to say exactly what he did in his state job. But five separate sources—all of them Republicans with lengthy histories of service to Pataki and the state GOP—told the Voice that Keegan was one of several state and political-party aides who appeared to spend most of their time tending to the needs of the governor’s wife and family around their home in upstate Garrison.
Reached at his home in Putnam Valley last week, Keegan initially agreed that his tasks were similar to those of Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s aides, whose chores for Hevesi’s wife have sparked a pre-election tumult and an unprecedented push by Republicans to boot the comptroller from office for ethics law violations.
“That’s somewhat right,” Keegan said. “I don’t do it anymore. I am retired. I would
suggest if you really want to get the poop, go to OGS,” he said, referring to his old agency.
Keegan later called back and denied driving Libby Pataki at all. “She was never in any car other than a trooper’s car,” he said, although he acknowledged that he did accompany the governor’s wife to events if so ordered.
Keegan didn’t deny what one source said, that he had a state car and a state credit card. That’s in contrast to the Hevesi aide, who used the comptroller’s family car and credit card to escort Mrs. Hevesi.
A spokeswoman for Keegan’s former agency said she could not comment on personnel matters.
According to a lawyer who was in the Pataki inner circle at the time, Keegan started out driving for both Pataki and his wife but was later reassigned to work for only Libby Pataki. “I knew he was the driver,” said the source. “Keegan regarded it as a demotion when he was switched to Libby.”
A former Pataki aide said Keegan often
drove with Libby Pataki and her state trooper bodyguard to events in New York City, and sometimes waited in the car outside.
After driving Libby Pataki for the first couple of years of the administration, however, according to two GOP insiders, Keegan had a dispute with Pataki’s friend and top state police aide Daniel Wiese, who was then overseeing security for the governor. As a result, Keegan was shifted again, this time to driving Pataki’s mother, Margaret, according to the sources.
“When the mother came to the State of the State speeches in Albany, Keegan would
sit in the chamber next to her. Otherwise he was rarely seen in Albany,” said one insider.
If Keegan did spend much of his time devoted to helping the governor’s family, he wasn’t the only one.
Last year, the New York Post revealed that the state’s Republican Party was paying $50,000 a year to a woman to serve as Libby Pataki’s “maid and personal valet.” GOP officials acknowledged that Michelle Stubbs had been detailed to work with the governor’s wife since 1999 and that she handled scheduling appointments and political-party affairs for the state’s first lady. But local merchants told reporters that Stubbs shopped weekly for groceries for the governor’s family, and Republican officials later conceded that Stubbs had “on occasion” driven meals prepared by staff at the Albany governor’s mansion to Pataki’s Hudson River home 100 miles away.
“We were calling it ‘McMansion’—the source of state-funded takeout for the governor,” one pol quipped to the Post.
Campaign filings by the state GOP showed that Stubbs received more than $40,000 in expense reimbursements, sometimes as high as $3,800 a month. The payments were listed on the forms as being for “travel, mail, and dinner” or “travel and office,” but their purpose has never otherwise been explained. Stubbs also managed to obtain a $47,000-a-year post for her 25-year-old son working with the state Department of State. According to a former agency official and Pataki insider, the son was hired as an athletics activity assistant after it was requested by the “second floor”—a reference to the governor’s office in Albany.
Nor was Stubbs the first person assigned by the party to help the governor’s wife. A woman named Janine Robinson was plucked out of the state’s Office of General Services, where she had been working, and placed on the party’s payroll to carry out similar full-time duties for Mrs. Pataki in 1995 and 1996, earning $44,500 over two years, Republican officials acknowledged last year.
The work by Stubbs and Robinson for the governor’s wife didn’t cost the taxpayers anything, but it raised a different ethics question, one that the governor and his ethics commission managed to sidestep. Since public officials are required under state law to report gifts of more than $1,000, reporters questioned why Pataki had never disclosed the substantial free help he and his wife received on his personal financial disclosure forms.
The governor responded that there was no need to do so, maintaining that the work was primarily “political” in nature. But the state ethics commission, which could have interviewed Stubbs and Robinson under oath to get to the bottom of the affair—just as it did with Hevesi and his aides last month—was never heard from on the matter. Officials of the commission refused to say last week whether any inquiry had been undertaken, but acknowledged that the panel made no finding of possible violations.
It wasn’t the first time the commission showed little interest in taking a hard look at the Pataki family’s finances. Since Pataki became governor, his wife has become a highly paid business consultant. Over the past decade, she’s received more than $650,000 from cosmetics fortune heir Ronald Lauder, a key GOP contributor. Last year, Libby Pataki earned $222,600 in overall consulting fees, including $55,000 from a real estate trust owned by Cendant, a mega-corporation that regularly lobbies state government over regulations and other matters. In 2000, the first lady was paid $30,000 by another entity controlled by Cendant.
The potential ethics questions concerning the overlap between her consultant services and her husband’s powerful role became painfully evident when Pataki appointed Cendant CEO Henry Silverman in 2002 as a commissioner of the powerful Port Authority. But there’s no indication that the ethics panel has ever examined the matter.
THE SHECHTMAN CONNECTION
Joe Gawloski was talking this weekend about his old boss Paul Shechtman, the chairman of the state ethics commission and the man behind the report that has turned state politics upside down. Gawloski is uniquely positioned to describe the glass house from which the 57-year-old Shechtman threw stones last week at State Comptroller Alan Hevesi.
Gawloski retired as executive director of the state’s division of parole years ago and shuttles now between his upstate and South Carolina homes. So he was barely aware that Shechtman’s commission recently concluded that Hevesi had used his state position “to secure unwarranted privileges for himself and his wife,” provoking Governor Pataki to launch what has to be the first-ever impeachment process anywhere to revolve around a driver and state-subsidized trips to the hospital.
In September 1998, Gawloski spent two days before a federal grand jury testifying about Shechtman’s role in the fixing of parole board decisions. Prosecutors at the time branded it “the biggest fundraising scandal that this state has seen in a very long time.” Shechtman, who refused to comment for this story, was the governor’s director of criminal justice, overseeing the parole board and other agencies until he left in 1997 to enter private practice. Pataki immediately named him to take over the ethics commission, a panel he was leading when he appeared before the same grand jury about troubling calls he made to Gawloski and others.
Four Pataki-tied campaign and state officials were convicted in the parole-for-contributions case, but neither Shechtman nor two state officials under his jurisdiction who were targeted by prosecutors were indicted. One of the officials, state parole board chairman Brion Travis, was named an unindicted co-conspirator by U.S. District Judge Frederic Block. The other, state police colonel Daniel Wiese, took the Fifth Amendment in the grand jury.
According to Gawloski’s testimony, which was obtained by the Voice, he twice upbraided Shechtman about the ethical propriety of his interventions at the agency, once while Shechtman was his boss and the other when Shechtman was a private attorney and still calling him about possible parole in individual cases. Gawloski testified that attorney Shechtman called him to speak on behalf of two convicts up for parole, one of them a murderer who “blew someone’s brains out on 14th Street in a van.”
“I asked Mr. Shechtman if his having left state service—probably less than a year before at that point—would be cause for a conflict of interest with his calling me or anyone else in the division about a particular case,” Gawloski told the grand jury. He was referring to state laws that bar, for two years, former state officials from doing business with the state agencies they oversaw.
“He said it was not a conflict,” adding that he would “run it by the ethics commission,” Gawloski continued. Gawloski says now that he did not know that Shechtman had already been installed by Pataki as the unsalaried head of the commission, which might well have examined the question of whether his calls to Gawloski constituted an attempt to secure an “unwarranted privilege” with the state officials he’d supervised. “Subsequent to my question about conflict of interest, Mr. Shechtman did not call back,” Gawloski testified. Two sources at the commission say he never sought an opinion on the matter either.
Even more disturbing to Gawloski was that he’d already been importuned about the same murderer by Leon Perlmutter, a leader in the Orthodox Jewish community and major fundraiser for the governor. This was not the first time Perlmutter and Shecht-man had double-teamed him. In fact, it was Shechtman’s relationship with Perlmutter, who Gawloski said represented a group of “heavy contributors” to Pataki, that had prompted their first tough exchange, when Shechtman was still Gawloski’s boss.
Perlmutter and Shechtman had pestered parole officials about three other cases, leading to early releases of a rabbi convicted of kidnapping a minor, and two Israeli nationals jailed in major drug cases. The two drug dealers were released—over law enforcement objections—under a new Pataki deportation program designed by Shechtman, who personally urged parole board members to increase the number of felons they let go under the program, leading to get-out-of-jail-early tickets for 1,277 convicts. Though a top parole executive determined that the kidnapping of a young boy required that the rabbi, Shlomo Helbrans, be placed on the sex offender registry, Shechtman, according to the testimony, intervened to make sure he wasn’t.
Gawloski testified that he believed “the parole board was influenced” in all three of these cases by Perlmutter, who he said was “in regular contact” with Shechtman. “I expressed concern to Mr. Shechtman that his discussions with Perlmutter, perhaps even if there was nothing involved, would convey a poor impression,” Gawloski told the jurors. “What did Mr. Shechtman say to you?” asked the prosecutors. “Basically, not a problem,” he responded. Gawloski added that Perlmutter had visited Shechtman at his house, delivering hot challah. “I did not feel that this type of access should be available to any group,” testified Gawloski. He also said he knew that parole officials had even attended fundraisers for Pataki hosted by Orthodox leaders.
The experience left Gawloski shaken years later. He said Shechtman, in view of his various positions at ethics and criminal justice, “should know what’s right and what’s wrong more so than I would.” Asked if he did, Gawloski replied: “I don’t know. I really can’t say whether he should be there at the ethics commission or shouldn’t be.”
Shechtman also came under grand jury scrutiny for his own role in the parole investigation. When the feds targeted Patrick Donohue, the finance director for Pataki’s campaign committee, and focused on $40,000 in contributions alleged to be quid pro quos for early release for three Asian convicts, Donohue retained Shechtman as his criminal attorney. Wiese, a top state police official personally close to the governor, who oversaw protection for the family, tried to penetrate the probe, barging in on city police officials who were initially spearheading it. His efforts earned him the enmity of federal prosecutors, who investigated him for obstruction of justice.
Incredibly, Wiese, posing as a law enforcement official aiding the parole probe, called the U.S. Attorney’s office and got the phone number of the federal prosecutor handling the case. “Within minutes” of that call, according to the testimony, Shechtman phoned the prosecutor on behalf of Donohue. Donohue’s boss, Shechtman, and Wiese then had a three-way conversation, according to grand jury evidence. These events suggest that the attorney for the target of a federal investigation was freely interacting with a top state police official who had troopers assigned ostensibly to aid the probe.
Grand jury records also reveal that parole chair Travis was so close to his neighbor and friend Libby Pataki that he regularly babysat for the kids and even “took them to movies.” He and Wiese, another Peekskill neighbor and close friend of the family, prospered despite the taint of their status in the parole case. Travis stayed on as chair for three years after he was declared a criminal co-conspirator by a federal judge. When Travis finally left he was promoted to deputy superintendent of insurance, retiring recently at a salary $40,000 higher than his parole board pay. Wiese left the state police around the same time, getting a waiver to collect his $73,000 pension and new $160,000 salary as inspector general for the New York Power Authority simultaneously.
The state ethics commission has never so much as raised a question about the conduct of either, even though it is the commission’s job to examine misconduct that falls short of indictment—and Paul Shechtman had a bird’s-eye view of all the wrongdoing. Shechtman could have asked for an inquiry and then—just as Eliot Spitzer did last week with Hevesi—recused himself. State law enforcement officials like Wiese, for example, can be removed if they take the Fifth Amendment.
But the indifference of the commission about the biggest scandal of the Pataki era is par for the course. Asked what the commission’s strongest action against the highest-ranking Pataki official has been, officials cited a proceeding against Jim Natoli, the governor’s director of operations. Natoli paid $2,000 in March 2000 to settle a probe of meals he took from a lobbyist that exceeded the state’s gift limit. He got a $5,000 raise the same month. He technically wasn’t even fined—his payment was “in lieu of an assessment” of a fine. Natoli is the biggest fish Shechtman and company could catch in an administration that New York Times and Post editorials have agreed is a “government for sale.”
Research assistance: Keach Hagey, Damien Weaver, Luke Jerod Kummer, and Marty Rosenblatt
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 24, 2006