The current attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, is throwing allegations by the boxload at the man who thinks state government is his personal hostage, Senator Pedro Espada, while one of the AG candidates who wants to replace Cuomo, Senator Eric Schneiderman, hired Espada’s right-hand fixer, lawyer Stanley Schlein.
The Voice asked Schneiderman at the state Democratic convention why he’d picked Schlein as his election lawyer in view of Schlein’s identification with the very Senate baggage that’s widely seen as weighing Schneiderman’s candidacy down, and Schneiderman mumbled something about how he’d have to consider that.
His office gave out a statement this morning claiming that “like Andrew Cuomo in 2006,” Schneiderman “received assistance” from Schlein “at the convention,” a bizarre slap at Cuomo, since Schlein’s representation of Espada and “the Gang of Three” didn’t occur until years later. In any event, Cuomo’s office says he did not use Schlein in 2006, and no payments to Schlein appear on Cuomo’s filings.
Schlein, the top lawyer for a succession of Bronx party bosses whose scandalous career has been detailed by my colleague Tom Robbins, said that he “didn’t find it at all ironic” that Schneiderman enlisted him as his counsel. Schlein now insists it was just “a two-day retainer,” ostensibly for the three-day convention, acknowledging that he did represent Schneiderman in the meetings and conversations with the state party and lawyers for the other four candidates over the issue of who would qualify for ballot positions in the September primary.
Fined $15,000 by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board in 2008 and removed by Bronx judges from the list of attorneys eligible for court appointments in 2006, Schlein hardly seems a likely confidant for Schneiderman, who has earned his reform credentials over his 12 years in the Senate. Indeed, Schneiderman was on the opposite side of the table from Schlein just a year ago. Schlein says that “Eric was representing the Senate in some of the negotiations” that led to Espada’s return to the Democratic fold in July 2009, and that he dealt directly with Schneiderman “as an advocate for the Democratic conference.”
“Eric encouraged the reconciliation” with Espada, says Schlein. As most New Yorkers recall, Espada bolted from the Democratic conference and joined the Republicans, bringing the Senate to a screeching halt, knotted in a 31 to 31 tie, with Espada named president of the Senate by the GOP. After a month of tumult, he rejoined the Democrats and, as part of the deal, was made majority leader, a position he holds to this day, even while he threatens to separate himself again from the Democratic conference and refuse to vote for budget extenders with cuts, possibly forcing the state into a shutdown.
Schneiderman and his colleagues worked out a way that they could technically claim that they didn’t actually vote to make Espada their majority leader, literally turning the title on its head. Instead of a direct vote, the Senate Democrats, including Schneiderman, approved a rule that allowed Malcolm Smith, who had been majority leader but was instead given the title president pro tem of the Senate, to appoint Espada as the new leader.
Adding to the oddity of Schneiderman’s use of Schlein is the fact that the lawyer was, until a few months ago, the registered lobbyist for both of the top landlord organizations in the city, the Rent Stabilization Association and the Real Estate Board of New York, and Schneiderman has made his mark as an energetic tenant advocate. After Schlein negotiated the 2008 deal that made Espada chair of the Senate housing committee, Schlein got his $8,000-a-month retainers to represent the two organizations in their dealings with his other client, Espada (I read that charge to Schlein today from prior stories written by Robbins and he confirmed it as factually correct). Schlein says that now, however, he neither represents Espada nor the landlord groups, having ended his retainer agreements with all three in 2009.
Sources connected to two of the competing campaigns say that Schlein tried to blow up the agreement that Cuomo engineered at the convention guaranteeing that all five of the candidates would get the minimum vote required, 25 percent of the delegates, to qualify to appear on the primary ballot.
In the lead-up to the convention, Cuomo was reportedly trying to prevent candidates other than his apparent favorite, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, from getting the 25 percent. But, after a Times editorial denouncing this exclusionary tactic, Cuomo relented and agreed to push party bosses to get all five on. Schneiderman, who was railing against Cuomo’s earlier attempts to limit the primary field as anti-democratic, then appears to have shifted position himself, trying to block candidates from getting the 25 percent and counter Cuomo’s new strategy, which was to leave Rice the only woman in a sea of male candidates on the primary ballot.
One person involved in the negotiations said that Schlein reached out to at least one other candidate to try to convince him to reject the deal. Another involved source says that the Schneiderman forces declined at one point “to release their delegates,” which state party officials and Cuomo insisted was a prerequisite so that the vote “could be managed” in such a way as all five candidates got the required vote as quickly as possible. Schlein’s theory, as recounted by these sources, was that if Assemblyman Richard Brodsky or former insurance commissioner Eric Dinallo could be denied the 25 percent, they would drop out of the race rather than try the expensive petition process, the only other way to qualify.
The fifth candidate, Sean Coffey, a lawyer who may put millions of his own money in the race, was widely expected to go the petition route. Had Schlein been able to blow up the deal, the possible elimination of Brodsky, who appeals to the same unions and other liberal groups Schneiderman is courting, could have been a major coup. The narrowing of the number of male candidates could also have benefited Schneiderman.
Asked about Schlein’s actions at the convention, Schneiderman’s spokesman offered half a denial. He said Schneiderman “did not instruct” Schlein to try “to disrupt the agreement to put all the candidates on the ballot, nor “was he aware of any” such effort. Schlein declined to discuss it as a lawyer/client matter, and efforts to get Schneiderman to release Schlein to discuss it were unsuccessful. Of course if Schlein did it on his own, as Schneiderman’s statement suggests, it wouldn’t be a lawyer/client matter.
Robbins’ stories lay out chilling tales of Schlein misconduct, including the COIB fine, which was levied after he used the offices of the city’s Civil Service Commission, which he chaired, to run his legal practice. Court administrators found that he mishandled several guardianship cases awarded him by the very Bronx judges he helped install, damaging the interests of his own court-appointed clients ranging from an 87-year-old retired domestic servant to a brain-impaired construction worker.
Research assistance: Gavin Aronsen and Jenny Tai