Entertaining as they may be, most of those over-the-top tirades exchanged this month between Eliot Spitzer and Joe Bruno can be dismissed as just that: schoolyard taunts launched more for effect than accuracy.
Say what you will about Bruno, those who deal with the state senate majority leader hardly find him “senile”—as the new governor hasn’t denied calling the 78-year-old Republican. And while there’s a nasty little nugget of truth when Bruno refers to the governor as a “rich spoiled brat” (the full private phrase, Bruno friends attest, is “spoiled
fucking brat”), no one believes that Eliot Spitzer got where he is today solely because of his dad’s fortune and some snotty Horace Mann-bred attitude. (See Stein, Andrew, and Lauder, Ron, for true specimens of the political limits of inherited wealth.)
But there has been at least one volley in the Spitzer-Bruno air war that has landed dead center in the political truth zone: the charge that whatever it was the governor’s people did with the state police to track Bruno’s helicopter travels, it hasn’t exactly burnished Spitzer’s reputation as a straight-shooting, nonpartisan guardian of ethical principles. And the next time Spitzer or his appointees decide to level allegations of ethical misconduct against anyone he’s not terribly fond of, they’re going to appear that much more suspect. For a young, ambitious governor who rode into office on a pledge to bring ethics back to an integrity-crippled state government, that could be a disabling injury.
You might be able to brush off those concerns as the unfortunate consequence of a zealous governor a little too eager to show who’s boss in the New Albany. But the Bruno affair comes at the same time that Team Spitzer has also apparently decided to dispense with the services of the one guy at the state capitol who’s earned a reputation for effectively nailing ethics transgressors. That would be David Grandeau, 48, the feisty director of the state’s lobbying commission, whose state employment is currently slated to come to an end on September 22 when his agency goes out of business, subsumed by Spitzer’s new (and wholly controlled) Commission on Public Integrity.
Since taking over the state’s Temporary Commission on Lobbying in 1995, Grandeau has managed to make enemies on both sides of the political aisle, infuriating many of the state’s most powerful lobbyists. Under his leadership, the lobbying commission levied $300,000 in fines against a powerful private correctional-services company that was closely aligned with Assembly Democrats. It hit Republican favorite Donald Trump and his Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts with a $250,000 fine for what Grandeau’s investigation found was a secretly funded anti-Catskills-casino push. It slammed the New York Yankees not once but twice, for a total of $225,000 in fines, for doling out tickets and perks to lawmakers and officials. It fined tobacco giant Philip Morris $75,000 for lobbying violations and slugged Madison Square Garden for $75,000 last year for its own transgressions.
In 2005, Grandeau called for a criminal investigation of former state attorney general Dennis Vacco after the commission investigated a consulting contract that promised Vacco’s lobbying firm a $5 million “success fee” if it landed a casino deal for an out-of-state Indian tribe.
In the interim, Grandeau also managed to enrage hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons by questioning his expenses in pushing for Rockefeller drug-law reforms, and the New York Civil Liberties Union for insisting that a billboard it put up in Albany should be considered a lobbying expense. He even slapped a fine on one of his most stalwart supporters, the good-government group Common Cause, when it was late filing its own lobbying reports one year.
If that doesn’t establish his independence bona fides, consider this: Grandeau, a Republican, originally got his job through the intercession of his former employer, one Joseph Bruno, for whom he formerly worked both as a legislative aide and as a counsel for Bruno’s private telecommunications company. That was then. These days, Bruno loyalists view the lobbying watchdog as the devil incarnate—an ungrateful wretch who is primarily responsible for the current FBI probe that is digging into possible improper ties between Bruno-steered state grants and private businesses.
Oh, and there was also a mutually acrimonious exchange between Grandeau and then-state attorney general Spitzer back in 2000, when Spitzer didn’t like the way Grandeau was handling a tobacco lobbying probe. Back then—shades of the Bruno tempest—Spitzer allegedly said he’d “pillory” Grandeau in the press if he didn’t fall into line.
Clearly, this is not your average Albany insider going along to get along as he works the corridors of power.
“He was the real sheriff of Albany,” says Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the New York State League of Women Voters. “He went after lobbyists big and small, and everyone knew he was going to do his job, whether you were a Democrat or a Republican.”
Grandeau, says Russ Haven, legislative counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group, “was the most effective public-integrity policeman on the beat in the 13 years I’ve been in Albany. Many would say he was the best ever. He brought the lobbying commission into the modern era.”
Grandeau’s gritty independent streak is going to be most sorely missed once the new public integrity commission opens its doors, Bartoletti says. The commission will have 13 members, with the governor appointing a seven-member majority. “Even though the governor’s choices so far are beyond reproach, in the current food fight we’re seeing here, I’m not sure anyone’s going to believe that anything they do against the other political party isn’t simply tit-for-tat,” she says. “They’re going to have to prove they’re being even-handed.”
So how come a smart guy like Spitzer didn’t decide to give himself a leg up in the ethics wars by enlisting someone considered too independent to be corralled? You won’t find out from the public comments of the governor’s advisers.
“David Grandeau has stood for ethics and integrity,” says Richard Emery, the civil liberties attorney and Spitzer adviser. “He was a lone voice in Albany for a long time.”
John Feerick, the former Fordham Law dean who headed a prominent 1980s panel on government ethics for Governor Mario Cuomo—and who has been tapped by Spitzer to serve as chairman of the new integrity commission—calls Grandeau “very important to the transition,” adding that his designee for the new executive director of the integrity commission, a veteran litigator named Herbert Teitelbaum, was already drawing on Grandeau’s knowledge.
Privately, Spitzer’s crew has a different spin. “David Grandeau was the greatest friend to journalists in the history of Albany,” says one gubernatorial pal. “He played a very dangerous game, but his constituency has always been the media, as opposed to even his own board. He used his leverage to get good stories out there to perpetuate his own interests.”
What? A public official using the media? No wonder Eliot Spitzer doesn’t want anything to do with him. The man who enjoyed the greatest press in a generation of attorneys general—thanks in no small part to the uncanny way the newspapers got the inside story of his own investigations—could never run the risk of having loose lips on his team.
And besides: There’s room for only one sheriff in town.