Call it Troopergate, Choppergate, or the The Dirty Tricks scandal, as the New York Post has taken to calling it lately, but no matter what the name, state Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno’s questionable use of state aircraft is a story that might stick around longer than Gov. Spitzer’s ham-handed investigation of it.
The Post reported on Thursday that Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith of Queens, an ally of Governor Spitzer, somehow leaked a draft letter to the IRS regarding the Senate leader’s travel, being circulated among Democrats, to the Bruno camp. Bruno aides then used one of their typical judo maneuvers, saying the letter shows that the governor and his surrogates are still up to more tricks.
As Smith noted his statement:
“Clearly, recent published reports have said that Senator Bruno could have a tax problem with the IRS. If the facts show there is something there, it should be looked into by the appropriate authorities. There were communications between my staff and the governor’s staff about this matter. I want to be clear. We – my staff and I – decided not to pursue this matter after concluding it would be a distraction from us getting back to the people’s business.”
But Cuomo clearly does have subpoena power in any tax investigation—yet he chose, curiously, to ignore that inviting investigative trail. For even if Bruno’s use of the aircraft met the state’s minimal regulatory standards, as Cuomo concluded, it might well have been inconsistent with IRS requirements.
State travel guidelines say that a trip has to include at least one meeting involving a governmental purpose. But as Mario Cuomo’s press secretary explained when news stories appeared about his flights, a 1985 IRS ruling “required that Cuomo and his family pay taxes on the value of trips that weren’t made primarily for state business.” (Emphasis added.) From 1985 through 1989, for example, the Cuomos were taxed on $22,686 worth of personal travel paid for by taxpayers under the provisions for “imputed income.” In 1993, Mario Cuomo reported $5,660 in private trips on state aircraft and paid a third of that in taxes. But Bruno press secretary McArdle told the Voice flatly: “No, the senator didn’t pay taxes.” McArdle also used precisely the same word as Mario Cuomo’s press secretary did an eon ago, insisting that the trips were ” primarily for legislative business.” But Andrew Cuomo’s report rebuts any claim that Bruno’s trips were first and foremost for legislative reasons. “On several occasions,” Cuomo found, based only on an examination of this handful of Bruno excursions, “the legislative business constituted a minor portion of the day’s schedule.”
Had Cuomo simply applied the same tax standard that was used for the flights his father had made, he could have gained subpoena power for the probe, and perhaps identified illegal (if not criminal) actions by Bruno.
The Daily News Bill Hammond suggests “Bruno should have hired an accountant to figure out what he owes in back taxes – before the IRS picks up a copy of the Voice.