The Seduction of Mario Cuomo
January 14, 1992
The most disturbing mystery surrounding the saga of Donald’s brief career as a football phenom was the questions it raised about his curious, yet unmistakably compelling, influence at the highest levels of the Cuomo administration. Vincent Tese was no renegade commissioner, in fact no one in Mario Cuomo’s government was in closer touch with him. And the Urban Development Corporation’s supine performance for Trump had its equivalents in other state agencies on matters wholly unrelated to the stadium, especially at the State Transportation Department, which championed Trump’s agenda in planning improvements on the West Side Highway, adjacent to Donald’s 60th Street yards.
Donald had long had a special knack for ingratiating himself with public officials, but Mario Cuomo was not just another inviting political target. Donald’s penetration of the Cuomo inner circle was a textbook case in seduction, and his compromising relationship with the administration would last even into the months of Trump’s collapse in 1990. Other than Tese’s golf dates with Donald in Florida and New York, there was little of a personal touch to the mutually beneficial Cuomo/Trump arrangement. It was all business.
What made Cuomo such an unusual government target for Trump was that when he defeated Ed Koch for governor in 1982, he ran against virtually every monied interest in New York politics, most of whom, like Donald, rallied to Koch because of his 30- to 40-point lead in the early polls. And almost from the moment he became governor, there was an extraordinary undercurrent about the dignified and brilliant Cuomo that marked him as a man who might be President. His speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention transformed this onetime unarticulated presidential murmur into so persistent a question it became, both at home and occasionally across the country, a Democratic preoccupation. This national fascination helped Cuomo become, through the eighties and into the nineties, the master of New York politics, isolated from the pack by his deliberate hermetic style, a recluse in Albany whose intelligence and rhetorical passion were seen only in glimpses.
Part of Cuomo’s above-the-fray appeal was his religion. It wasn’t just that he was a Catholic; his predecessor, Hugh Carey, was Catholic enough to have twelve children, yet no one ever thought of him as a man to whom morality was a mission. Cuomo publicly wrestled with the Lord, weighing the heaviest questions of life and death as if it was the responsibility of a leader to help the people to understanding. He talked soaringly about values. He invoked Saint Thomas More as his guardian, a man who died for a principle. This spiritual quality, combined with the hometown presidential hopes that seemed to last forever, insulated him from inspection and criticism like no other public figure in the state.
From the beginning of the Cuomo reign, the insiders who bankrolled and benefited from the government game were studying the new Albany team, looking for weaknesses, waiting for messages, hunting for opportunities. They read every signal, interpreted every nuance, and none did it better than Donald. Figuring Cuomo out was a riddle for Donald, finding a path to him was a necessity.
Trump knew he had a bit of history going for him. In 1958, Mario Cuomo had joined his first law firm — Brooklyn’s Comer, Weisbrod, Froeb and Charles. Senior partner Richard Charles, who became Cuomo’s mentor at the small firm, had already been representing Fred Trump for decades, and Cuomo was assigned as a young associate to help with the Trump work. Fabian Palamino, then a young associate with Cuomo who became his counsel as governor, remembers their travels out to Fred Trump’s headquarters on Avenue Ζ for business lunches at which Trump dished out the cheese sandwiches himself.
When Cuomo became Hugh Carey’s running mate in 1978 and was elected lieutenant governor, Trump contributed $4000 to his minuscule campaign committee. While Trump had backed Koch in the 1982 race, he’d called Cuomo’s old friend and finance chairman, Bill Stern, on October 11, 1982, and made a $3500 donation for the general election.
Trump did not contribute again to the Cuomo committee until November 13, 1984, a month after the stadium project was approved and a month before he submitted his own plan. Several Trump business entities combined that day to give the Friends of Mario Cuomo $15,000 — making Trump one of the top donors at Cuomo’s annual fund-raiser. Cuomo had personally approved Trump’s invitation that August to serve on the campaign committee’s board of advisers. The board was formed as “a permanent finance committee” of thirty to fifty prestigious individuals, from every major region and industry in the state, to raise a minimum of $30,000 each at Cuomo’s dinner.
But the contributions were merely door openers. Donald was looking for the right insider who could get him beyond access. All he had to do, it turned out, was look at the top of the governor’s fund-raising apparatus, just as he had in 1975 when he recruited Carey’s finance chief, Louise Sunshine, as a lobbyist.
Bill Stern had long since stepped down as the head of the Friends committee, which he’d formed way back in 1978 to help pay off the costs of Cuomo’s losing mayoral campaign the year before. Stern, who stopped fund-raising for Cuomo when he became head of UDC, was replaced at the campaign committee in 1983 by Lucille Falcone, a thirty-year-old lawyer so unknown in the circles that fund political campaigns that she was seen as merely an appendage of the governor’s office. Falcone had surfaced publicly in early 1983, when she was hired by Stern at UDC, a job she quickly resigned when news stories described her as the girlfriend of Cuomo’s twenty-five-year-old son, Andrew. She then scurried back to her law firm and took over the Friends committee. It was Falcone who recommended that Trump be named to the board of advisers in a letter to Cuomo.
Falcone was the only person to have worked at both of Mario Cuomo’s law firms. She was a young associate at the Charles firm in Brooklyn, recruited from law school in 1976 by Cuomo’s close friend, Pete Dwyer, the treasurer of his 1977 mayoral campaign. In early 1981, she was asked to join a new firm that had just been formed at Cuomo’s request by Jerry Weiss, who had been Cuomo’s special counsel as lieutenant governor. Cuomo encouraged Weiss to put the firm together so he would have something to fall back on if he lost the gubernatorial campaign.
The small firm that the thirty-eight-year-old Weiss assembled was intimately connected with Cuomo from the beginning — law student Andrew worked summers there, the campaign finance committee met there, and the firm’s biggest client became the campaign’s most generous donor.
Shortly after Cuomo won his astonishing victory, the firm was recast with two new partners as Weiss, Blutrich, Falcone & Miller and began to prosper quietly, though every one of its partners was only “30 something.” Andrew joined the Cuomo administration as a $l-a-year special assistant and soon became the second most powerful state official, but Cuomo insiders openly anticipated that he would soon wind up at the family firm, and he never denied it. He’d begun dating Falcone in 1982 and worked closely with her on the annual dinner dances in 1983 and 1984. Though she frequently worked round the clock on the committee’s activities, the struggling new firm was generously understanding about her unpaid efforts.
A few days after Trump’s December 1984 meeting with Cuomo about the stadium, Bill Stern got a surprising call from Donald about Lucille Falcone’s little law firm.
“Bill, I saw Lucille Falcone at this fund-raising meeting and I got the feeling I should retain her law firm,” Donald told him. “What do you think?”
It was an awkward moment for Stern, who had been bickering with Andrew and Mario Cuomo for months, complaining, among other things, about what he saw as the increasingly disturbing signs of the Weiss firm’s attempts to influence state agencies. He had informed them about Weiss’s call to him raising questions about the propriety of a UDC bid process on an upstate job where Weiss represented a client who’d lost the contract to another builder by more than a million dollars. Stern had also told the Cuomos about Falcone’s call to him claiming that he was excluding big-time developer Bill Zeckendorf from UDC’s gigantic 42nd Street development project. Zeckendorf had retained the Weiss firm in 1984, the developer later conceded, on the recommendation “of somebody who knew their way around the Democratic side of state politics” because “we thought they could help us politically.”
Stern also recounted to the Cuomos the insight of another 42nd Street developer, frustrated at the small slice of the project he was getting. “I know a way I can get a bigger cut,” the developer told Stern. “Hire Jerry Weiss’s law firm.”
As Stern saw it, Trump was hardly alone in picking up the Cuomo signal. “I don’t recommend law firms,” Stern told Trump. “But Lucille Falcone is a good person and a fine lawyer.” It was the best compromise Stern could work out in his head, but it still troubled him, He had already had one bitter scene with Mario Cuomo about the firm, back in November, with Stern demanding that Cuomo distance himself from it and Cuomo responding: “You’re holier than everyone else, Bill. You judge souls; I don’t.” Stern had been shocked at the personal attacks Cuomo had heaped on him that day — related and unrelated to the law firm controversy. He decided to get out of the administration, but he wanted to get out cleanly, without a war with Cuomo.
Forty-five minutes after Stern’s conversation with Trump, Andrew Cuomo called him. He said that he’d heard Trump had called about the firm and asked Stern what he’d said. When Stern told Andrew that he had praised Lucille’s legal ability, the young Cuomo said, “Lucille told me you said that.” Andrew thanked him, and said: “I respect you very much.”
Unbeknownst to Stern, a storm was stirring inside the firm. Not only would Andrew soon become a partner, he would replace Weiss himself. Stern first learned about Weiss’s departure from the governor himself, who in late December casually mentioned to him: “Jerry’s leaving. Did you know he made $800,000 this year?” When Weiss left, the State Investigations Commission was examining some of his activities on behalf of upstate developer Shelly Goldstein. The allegation was that Weiss had used his influence to dramatically reduce the value of a state lease in a building that Goldstein was trying to buy. The state official who ordered the lease reduction — which was theoretically done to force the owner to sell to Goldstein — was Andrew Cuomo. After Andrew joined the firm in May of 1985, Goldstein would become his principal client and partner in real estate and banking ventures. (The investigation closed without any findings against Weiss or Andrew.)
Shortly before twenty-five-year-old Andrew became the young firm’s youngest partner, Trump quietly retained it. His relationship with the firm would last for almost two years, though it did not surface publicly until August of 1986. The legal work it did for Trump remains unclear, apart from Andrew Cuomo’s concession that it represented Trump in lease negotiations involving possible commercial tenants in the stores planned for his West Side yards project. When Trump’s retention of the firm did hit the newspapers in 1986, Trump’s response was: “They are now representing us in a very significant transaction.”
Though Andrew insisted in later interviews that the firm did not interact with state officials on behalf of clients, Falcone did just that for Trump on another project. She arranged and attended a July 21, 1985, lunch at the World Trade Center with Trump and Sandy Frucher, the president of the state’s Battery Park City Authority. During the lunch, Trump expressed an interest in being designated for a choice hotel site on the Battery Park site, just off Wall Street. Frucher urged him to bid when a request for proposals was announced, but Trump was looking for an inside track. When Frucher didn’t offer it, Trump didn’t bid.
Donald was not the only one with an interest in Trump projects to retain the Cuomo firm. Abe Hirschfeld, Trump’s limited partner on the West Side and an increasingly close ally, also hired the firm in November 1985 to represent him in a disputed real estate closing. Hirschfeld publicly said in a later interview that he thought hiring the firm was a way “to get in the good graces with the governor.” While Andrew Cuomo and his partners have attempted to lowball Trump’s business with the firm — never offering a total for him or Hirschfeld — the fact is that the unwanted publicity about the long-secret retainer killed the relationship before the “significant transaction” Trump cited could close, obviously limiting the Cuomo firm’s fees.
The retention of the Falcone firm was hardly Trump’s only Cuomo move. In November 1985, Donald hired Albany lobbyist and former transportation commissioner Bill Hennessy, who’d just resigned as chairman of the state Democratic Party. When Cuomo installed Hennessy as head of the party, the Times saw it as an indication of the governor’s “intent on staying deeply involved in organization politics, since Hennessy has never held a party post and thus has nothing to fall back on other than Cuomo’s support.” On a $2000-a-month retainer, plus a $500 per diem rate, the Hennessy firm’s main job for Trump was to lobby some of the very transportation officials he had appointed for favorable rulings on an array of West Side yard issues.
As potent as the Falcone and Hennessy combination was, Donald did not stop there. In the spring of 1986, Trump hired UDC’s in-house counsel, Susan Heilbron, who had worked extensively on the stadium project for the agency. The two first discussed the job while they sat together in December 1985 during the final stadium designation talks. Well known at the top levels of the Cuomo administration, Heilbron helped engineer the selection of her best friend as Tese’s new counsel, Joanne Gentile, an attorney who had worked under Trump attorney Harvey Myerson at Finley Kumble.
Trump also tried, over a period of six months in 1986 and 1987, to lure Sandy Frucher into his lair. Frucher, one of the governor’s half dozen top advisers, eventually declined, after countless courting sessions.
On Falcone’s recommendation, Sive Paget & Riesel, the ten-member environmental law firm Trump retained for the lucrative West Side yards approval process, hired Richard Gordon, the executive director of the Friends of Mario Cuomo. Gordon, who had worked with the Cuomos since the 1982 campaign, remained director of the campaign committee, even though his law firm had a multiplicity of matters before state agencies.
Trump’s most unusual reach, however, was for a very special driver and bodyguard, Joe Anastasi. A state trooper assigned to UDC, Anastasi had been Mario Cuomo’s personal bodyguard for years, starting when Cuomo was lieutenant governor, and had accompanied him throughout the 1982 gubernatorial campaign, starting most mornings in Cuomo’s kitchen in Queens over a cup of coffee. After Cuomo became governor, Anastasi was on his security detail in New York City until, in late 1984, Bill Stern told Cuomo that his agency needed an investigator to do background checks on state contractors and Cuomo suggested Anastasi. Anastasi worked at UDC for three years, but was seldom seen there, reportedly because he was “in the field” at UDC construction sites.
In 1986, Anastasi began accompanying Trump on various trips across the country. He told friends he was setting up his own security business and that the Trump work on his résumé would help him attract business. Top Cuomo officials, including the governor himself, learned of Anastasi’s Trump duty and viewed it as a conflict with his UDC post. He was told to end it, and he soon resigned from state service.
In addition to surrounding himself with everyone from the governor’s son to his bodyguard, Donald tried to score political points with Cuomo on several fronts. He let it be known to the Cuomos that he’d been recruited by state GOP boss George Clark to run against the governor in 1986, and he went public in 1987 with a highly questionable account of a meeting he had with national GOP kingmakers, including Roger Stone, the GOP consultant Trump had hired as a lobbyist. They had supposedly tried to convince him to oppose Cuomo in the next election, which would not occur until 1990. In both instances, of course, he’d said no. He also cooled down his irate partner, Abe Hirschfeld, who ran for lieutenant governor in the 1986 primary but was knocked off the ballot by Cuomo. Hirschfeld was considering backing Cuomo’s GOP opponent and assailing Cuomo publicly, but Trump convinced him not to.
More important, though, than any of these local political gestures was Trump’s willingness to talk openly and favorably about Cuomo’s possible presidential candidacy. From the governor’s perspective, the public praise of a Republican icon like Trump had a national impact, enhancing Cuomo’s plausibility as a pro-business candidate. Of course to Donald, his calculating praise of Cuomo had nothing to do with the governor’s public performance. Trump had not even bothered to vote in either of Cuomo’s gubernatorial elections, nor when Cuomo ran for mayor in 1977.
The final thread connecting Trump and Cuomo was Tese himself. Tese’s business connection was not with Donald directly, but with Donald’s lawyer. Neither Harvey Myerson nor Tese disclosed — to the NFL or to the federal court in the antitrust case — that Tese was a private client of Myerson’s firm. In fact, Myerson had the nerve to object, in a sidebar conversation with the judge, about a small retainer one of the NFL firms had with UDC, charging that it “raises a potential or actual concern for impropriety.” But he misled the court about his own UDC work — claiming it was “unrelated” to the stadium when he had a contract to handle the stadium bond issue for the agency — and failed to report at all his deeper, private ties to his witness, Tese.
More surprising was that Myerson’s firm decided to waive payment on $122,000 in fees due from the Tese companies in 1986 — the same year Tese testified — and wrote off another $157,000 the next year. The bankruptcy trustee in the Finley Kumble case ultimately labeled these forgiven fees — as well as waivers granted other favored clients — a “fraudulent transfer” of the firm’s rightful earnings. Indeed Myerson was personally involved in some of his firm’s legal work for Tese.
The bankruptcy trustee eventually brought a lawsuit to recover these fees plus interest, and lawyers for Tese’s companies responded by contending that Myerson’s firm had agreed to the write-offs because it had overbilled the companies. The trustee’s suit wound up going nowhere — with the Tese firms assailing Myerson’s “inflated, overstated and padded” billings and the trustee insisting that compliance with discovery demands could not be made without violating the lawyer/client privilege. But what appeared to be beyond dispute in this two-year litigation was that in the midst or aftermath of Tese’s USFL testimony, the Myerson firm was slashing the fees it once claimed Tese’s companies owed it.
What was particularly disturbing about the Myerson/Tese intrigue was that Tese’s companies got this apparent $279,000 write-down during the same period that Tese’s UDC was awarding the firm $288,000 in new retainers for bond counsel work and was greatly increasing its payments on a suit involving Dow Chemical that had begun before Tess arrived at the agency. Myerson’s UDC earnings on the Dow case soared from roughly $200,000 under Stern to $4.4 million under Tese. Top UDC staffers at the time reportedly went to Tese and complained about Myerson’s bills, but Tese did nothing. While the lawyers for Tese’s companies would later claim in the bankruptcy case that Myerson’s firm had not only overbilled them, but had acknowledged it and reduced the bills, the companies and UDC continued to use Myerson after the collapse of Finley, Kumble, moving on to his new firm with him. Tese even insisted in a 1990 interview — shortly before Myerson’s indictment on overbilling charges — that Myerson had never overbilled his agency, a contention belied by counts in the subsequent indictment which specifically involved UDC overbilling. The confluence of these factors left Tese in a classic conflict of interest position — lending the state’s credibility to his own personal attorney by testifying inaccurately as his witness in a major lawsuit, as well as hiring and allegedly overpaying that lawyer on the public tab, while accepting waivers of at least part of his company’s private fees.
(Confronted with these appearances of conflict, Tese insisted that he paid his share of the fees but that his partner, James Sinclair, refused. Asked to provide documentary evidence of the payment, he declined, and Sinclair refused to discuss it. While Sinclair was the only individual defendant cited in the bankruptcy trustee’s suit, Tese was co-managing partner of the companies named in the action. It is difficult to understand how Tese could have paid all of his share of the billings since the trustee asserts that the companies he and Sinclair owned did not make payments at all for the 1987 and early 1988 work. Though Tese was no longer involved in these inoperative companies, he concedes he would have been partially liable if they lost the lawsuits that the Myerson firm was handling at the time.)
The casual ethical judgments implicit in this disturbing intertwine occurred against the backdrop of all the other Trump ties to the Cuomo inner circle. In fact, the Myerson firm itself — at least at the point in 1986 when Tese testified — was part of the Cuomo circle; Bill Hennessy was its Albany lobbyist as well and Andrew Cuomo would personally spend several weeks during this period at the firm’s office, negotiating a major real estate deal with Myerson’s closest friend in the firm. Through Myerson, and all his other levers of compromise, Donald had managed to insinuate himself, almost imperceptibly, within the Cuomo government, and the benefits of this relationship would extend far beyond the doomed stadium.
On the West Side, for example, Donald’s grand Television City design required the approval of several state agencies and, from late 1985 through 1987, Donald was methodically lobbying for special favors, especially at the Department of Transportation. Trump wanted changes in DOT’s planned rehabilitation of the elevated West Side Highway, which ran over the 60th Street site along the waterfront. When the site was owned by another developer a couple of years earlier, DOT decided that a partially built and never-used southbound ramp off the highway at 72nd Street — the tip of the Trump site — had to be removed entirely for safety reasons. Donald wanted it retained and converted into a permanent ramp running right into the retail mall he planned to build underneath his office and residential tower complex. Not only did DOT back the new plan, but the agency was also willing to let Donald pay for only part of it, while the other developer had been required to finance the entire cost of removing the old structure. The ramp — which state memos freely conceded “was needed” for Trump’s project “but would otherwise not be needed” — was designed to deliver customers to the very stores whose leases Andrew Cuomo’s law firm was trying to negotiate. When the plan was presented to the federal highway officials who were funding the rehabilitation project, they warned DOT that the ramp was so clearly designed to benefit the Television City project that the traffic and other impacts of both TV City and the highway improvement would have to pass environmental review standards to be built. That warning killed federal funding for the ramp.
DOT also approved a new connection from a northbound ramp off the highway directly onto the boulevard that Donald planned to run through the heart of Television City. The state’s anticipated widening of the West Side Highway was likewise designed to meet Trump concerns, with the new roadway extended exclusively on the western, waterfront side, rather than on the east, where Donald wanted to construct his project as close to the highway as he could. This decision meant that the widened road would hang out over 1.4 acres of the already small park that Donald had promised along the water, reducing the opening to the sky by fourteen percent. Trump’s planned southbound ramp would have also cut into the planned park, narrowing it to a mere thirty feet in width — barely the size of a sidewalk — in some places. And while the state had removed that ramp from its federal rehabilitation agenda because of the objections raised in Washington, it quietly encouraged Donald to construct the ramp on his own before the rehabilitation formally started. DOT so closely tracked Trump’s desires for the site that internal memos acknowledged the agency’s acquiescence but observed that this high level of cooperation was being extended “as discreetly as possible.”
Trump’s success with DOT was largely a result of the lobbying of Hennessy. In fact, John Shafer, the assistant commissioner at DOT who helped steer much of the Trump plan through the agency, was so close to Hennessy that when Cuomo named Hennessy to chair the Thruway Authority in 1987, Hennessy made Shafer the Authority’s executive director. Lucille Falcone was also involved with the West Side planning, occasionally attending the weekly meetings Donald chaired of his West Side working group. While there was no indication that either she or Andrew played any personal role with DOT, there are memos indicating that the governor’s top staff at the Capitol was monitoring very carefully the department’s handling of the roadway issues.
The Grand Hyatt, the midtown hotel that UDC had helped Donald build in the ’70s, also got its own special state service in the Cuomo years. The benefactor again was Vincent Tese, whose agency was still the Hyatt’s landowner and was required to collect the hotel’s annual property tax payments and pass them on to the city. When Trump suddenly slashed his payment by 80 percent in 1987, UDC just accepted it without raising any questions, though it had a right to audit the Hyatt’s books under the terms of the lease. Several months later, the city asked UDC to allow its auditor general, Karen Burstein, to audit the hotel’s paltry $667,000 payment, and UDC went along. The city audit revealed that Trump had shortchanged the city by $2.8 million.
In meetings between city and UDC officials, however, Tese and his counsel vigorously resisted the audit’s findings and its release. Though UDC was merely acting as a pass-through collection agent for the city, Tese formally notified the city that he had hired an independent accounting firm “to review the audit.” His counsel adopted Trump’s position that the public release of the audit “would breach the mandate of confidentiality” in the lease. The tensions between Tese and the city were so great that Koch, Burstein, and other top staff didn’t tell UDC until the last minute that they were going to announce the audit findings at a City Hall press conference. Tese responded by criticizing the audit in public statements to the newspapers, his spokesman saying that they wanted an outside accountant to determine that the city’s charges were the result of sound accounting practices, not of “a special political agenda.”
Tese even refused to serve a demand notice on the hotel for payment as requested by the city, forcing the city to threaten legal action against UDC. The city, which calculated that Trump had already saved $60 million in taxes since the Hyatt opened, was adamant, and Burstein demanded to know “whose side” UDC was on at one heated meeting. Tese finally had to give in, agreeing to seek payment from Trump.
In the middle of the audit dispute, Lucille Falcone hosted the annual Cuomo fund-raiser at the Sheraton. Trump bought the most expensive ringside table, and Tony Gliedman, the former Koch housing commissioner who had become Donald’s main emissary on the audit issue, spent the night mingling with a crowd that included the governor, Tese, and Andrew. Trump was Cuomo’s biggest 1989 corporate giver, donating $25,000.
A few nights after the fund-raiser, Donald went to a second, private, Cuomo affair — Andrew Cuomo’s birthday party at a midtown pub. The party was cohosted by one of Andrew’s closest friends, Dan Klores, the fast-talking aide to public relations czar Howard Rubenstein, who had handled the Trump account for years. But Donald barely spoke to Klores at the party, instead huddling with Andrew for a half hour. Andrew would later claim that it was the first time he’d ever met Trump — his way of minimizing the client relationship that had a transparently troubling side to it. It was just one more rhetorical Cuomo ploy — hiding a compromising business arrangement behind the supposed detachment of personal distance.
By Donald’s decade, this sort of political intrigue had become the essence of what it meant to be a real estate mogul in New York — a specialized form of social engineering. Without a flair for ensnaring the public officials whose discretion could make or break development schemes, the New York entrepreneur was dead in the water. It was the only way to bring grand projects to life, the inevitable route to publicly allocated wealth. The Cuomo episode just demonstrated what a master Donald had become at it. Tempting, captivating, inveigling, and baiting those with public power were the tricks of his trade, and for the moment, Donald, preserving miraculously his air of innocence, was its unchallenged, brash new champion.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 4, 2019