News & Politics

Barrett: Gillibrand and Paterson – The D’Amato Connection

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The pudgy papa awaiting his hug and kiss when 42-year-old Kirsten Gillibrand walked toward the podium at her senatorial debut last week was Alphonse D’Amato, still the most powerful Republican in New York, a full decade after he lost his senate seat to the bookend on the other side of the podium, Senator Chuck “Brady Bill” Schumer.

Gillibrand barely acknowledged Democratic Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, who she passed before greeting D’Amato for several minutes. Even Schumer, who has taken to calling D’Amato on his wedding anniversary in recent years, planted himself in front of the high-priced lobbyist for an extended chat before moving on.  

D’Amato wound up in the camera frame throughout the hour and a half press conference by design. Governor David Paterson’s staff kept the dignitaries in a holding room and walked them onto the stage in a prearranged order, positioning D’Amato at center stage, where his presence was a not-so-subtle advertisement of his influence with both the governor and the state’s new senator, a potential boon to Park Strategies, his multi-million dollar Washington and Albany lobbying business.

Gillibrand’s first job was as an intern for two summers in D’Amato’s
senate office, and her father, Doug Rutnik, was so close to D’Amato
that, while still married to Gillibrand’s mother, he covertly
double-dated with the then single senator, squiring a D’Amato press
aide on a two-week Caribbean tryst to celebrate the senator’s
re-election in 1992.

D’Amato’s reach is so long and wide that one of
his partners at Park Strategies is Sean King, who was hired in 2006 a
few months after his father, GOP Congressman Peter King, became
chairman of the House Homeland Security committee. That puts D’Amato in
a bit of a bind since Peter King, who is so close to D’Amato he sponsored
the bill to name the federal courthouse in Long Island after him, has
been saying for several weeks that he plans to run for the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. If that’s not enough irony for you, how about the fact
that Clinton was the target of D’Amato’s seemingly endless Whitewater
investigation in the 1990s, a probe that so angered Clinton she
was the only member of the senate to vote against the confirmation of
D’Amato’s counsel, Michael Chertoff, when he was nominated in 2003 for a
federal judgeship.

Because Rutnik’s ties to D’Amato, George Pataki,
and the former GOP senate majority leader Joe Bruno are Albany legend,
it was hardly a surprise that Gillibrand wanted D’Amato there. What no one
could quite figure out is why Paterson did.

A Voice review, however, of
two campaign finance committees–Paterson’s and the New York State
Democratic Committee, which Paterson controls–reveals that D’Amato may
be Paterson’s largest single fundraiser.

D’Amato hosted a
$1,000-a-plate dinner for Paterson at the Coyote Grill in Island Park on
November 2, and Paterson went to the Christmas party sponsored by
D’Amato’s firm on December 10, and most of the $581,400 in contributions
connected to D’Amato that the Voice has identified were given to
Paterson’s committees near those two dates.

Remarkably, D’Amato also
hosted a fundraiser for John McCain last March, and at least 15 of the
donors who gave to McCain around the time of that Manhattan event gave
to Paterson a few months later, a symmetry that knows no ideology, only
D’Amato connections.

Most of these donors were contributors to D’Amato
in his final, 1998, campaign, and have long histories as contributors,
primarily to Republican candidates. D’Amato attracted assembly
investigators and banner headlines in 2004, when it was revealed that
he was paid $500,000 for a single phone call he made to the MTA to get a
client a lease. The client, Tamir Sapir, is a partner in Bayrock/Sapir,
which gave $5,000 to Paterson in late September.

The oddest of the
D’Amato donors was Citizens for Tom Gulotta, a campaign committee for
the former GOP county executive in Nassau who hasn’t held public office
since 2001 and, according to Newsday‘s Spin City blog, was listed on
the invitation of the D’Amato fundraiser. Gulotta gave $15,000 to
Paterson, and the campaign committee for Joel Giambra, the former
Republican county executive of upstate Eric County who joined D’Amato’s
firm last year, gave another $10,000. Gulotta’s contribution was
recorded by the Paterson committee on November 3, the day many of
D’Amato-tied contributions arrived, and one of Giambra’s was listed in
October, shortly before the party.

Eight subsidiaries of Engel
Burman, a Long Island developer who has partnered with D’Amato and other
members of his family on at least two deals, combined to donate $10,000
on that same November day. Al Benjamin, another island developer whose
connections to D’Amato have been chronicled for decades, gave $62,000
through his corporations and employees, the lion’s share of it in mid
October. In the same time frame, two of D’Amato’s senate aides, Rick
Nasti and Ed Lewi, kicked in a thousand apiece. The High-Need Hospital
PAC, whose treasurer and lobbyist is Barbara King, the daughter of
D’Amato protégé Peter King and brother of D’Amato partner Sean King,
gave $3,000, the first donation coming on November 3.   

Anthony
Bonomo, who co-hosted the McCain fundraiser with D’Amato, steered
$47,500 into Paterson’s coffers– $10,000 from himself, $25,000 from one
his companies, Physicians Reciprocal Insurers, and the rest from
executives at his companies, much of it recorded by Paterson on
November 3. Robert
Catell, the National Grid executive who was also listed on D’Amato’s
invitation and maxed out to McCain at the time of the D’Amato
fundraiser, gave Paterson $22,500 individually and through his PAC.
Scott Rechler, a Long Island developer who has described D’Amato as an
“adviser” and was listed on the invitation, contributed $10,000. Larry
Elovich, a Long Beach attorney who has represented D’Amato, gave $1,000,
as did the campaign committee for a Long Beach councilmember close to
Elovich, Denise Ford.

Other donors whose contributions are recorded
either on November 3 or immediately before it are Robert Wild and
Burton Weston, lawyers in a Long Island firm that also includes the
daughter of D’Amato partner Ron Gade (combined with Wild’s wife’s
contribution, they gave $7,500). Robert Avallone and Frederick Johs,
partners in another law firm who maxed out to McCain at D’Amato’s
fundraiser, gave $10,000 to Paterson on November 3. Anthony Barbiero,
who also was listed as contributing the legal maximum to McCain shortly
after the D’Amato event, gave $2,500 to Paterson that day. Jaspan
Schlesinger, a firm that includes the counsel to all four of D’Amato’s
senate campaigns, donated $5,000 on November 3. Charles Modica, the
Credit Union PAC, Public Affairs Ventures, the Bank of New York Mellon,
and the Blackstone Companies, all of whom gave to Paterson on or just
before November 3 (a combined $25,000), have a variety of D’Amato
connections, with two of them giving to McCain at the D’Amato event as
well.

The other big days for D’Amato donations were the lead-up to
the Christmas party Paterson attended in December. Two partners in the
law firm that D’Amato’s brother Armand helped found and returned to
after his federal conviction was reversed on appeal contributed
$15,000, with $10,000 of that coming on December 9 from Jeff Forchelli,
who is vice chair of the Nassau GOP. Armand D’Amato’s conviction
involved payments to the Forchelli firm (D’Amato is not currently
listed on its website). One of the companies named in Joe Bruno’s
indictment last week, Wright Risk, also gave $1,000 that day. Michael
Chasanoff, a Port Authority commissioner appointed by Pataki who was
named in news stories when D’Amato reached out to him on behalf of a
Florida client seeking a $21 million authority contract, gave $10,000
the same day. Michael Falcone and Robert Congel, two Syracuse mall
developers who have been D’Amato clients, gave a combined $25,000 on
December 8 and December 10, part of the $76,400 they and Scott Congel
have contributed to the party or Paterson since September.

Anthony
Nastasi, a longtime D’Amato associate who donated to McCain in March,
gave $5,000 to Paterson on December 5. Chesapeake Enterprises, a
Washington-based GOP lobbying firm headed by D’Amato friend Scott Reed,
gave $20,000 to the state Democratic committee on the same day, and
another $5,000 to Paterson two days earlier. Jobco, a Long Island
developer long tied to D’Amato, gave $1,000 on December 8, and another
thousand earlier. Aetna PAC, a D’Amato client, kicked in $5,000 on
December 15. Judlau Company, whose principal donated to McCain at the
time of D’Amato’s fundraiser and is a D’Amato associate, gave $1,000 on
December 10.

Leonard Litwin, a D’Amato client who has been a giant
donor for decades on behalf of rent control and rent stabilization
landlords, has given $183,000 to Paterson or the state committee
through many different corporate vehicles, and it’s unclear how much of
that can be attributed to D’Amato. Now in his 90s, Litwin has been
listed by D’Amato as a lobbyist client on and off for years (he also often
provides “strategic advice” to clients and doesn’t register as a
lobbyist). The fact that $100,000 of that came on a single day,
December 9, when several other D’Amato-tied donations came in, suggests
a D’Amato hand. Another 90-year-old, Ruth Mack, whose developer sons
have a long history with D’Amato, also gave $10,000. Dan Cremins, the
co-executive of the development company that owns the Park Avenue
building where D’Amato’s office is located and another McCain March
donor, gave $10,000.

While no one has acknowledged that D’Amato
lobbied Paterson to select Gillibrand (and many of these contributions
precede any indication that Paterson had a senate vacancy to fill),
Paterson also had to deal with major donors unconnected to D’Amato that
favored Gillibrand. David and Chris Boies, Gillibrand’s former law
partners and the biggest backers of her political career, gave $75,000
to Paterson, with $50,000 donated in the middle of the senate process.
Businessman Bernard  Schwartz  and one of his employees have given
$58,900 to Paterson, including $10,000 to the state committee as late
as January 9. Schwartz hosted two fundraisers for Gillibrand at his
house for her congressional races, one featuring Mario Cuomo as a guest
speaker, and is said to have pushed Paterson to appoint her. His press
office refused to answer Voice questions about any efforts he might
have made on Gillibrand’s behalf.

Research Credit to: Dene Chen, Jesus Ron, Jana Kasperkevic, Sudip P. Mukherjee

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