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Congressman's wife called police
Sweeney campaign says the document concerning a domestic incident is ``false and concocted''
By BRENDAN J. LYONS Senior writer
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Last updated: 8:53 p.m., Tuesday, October 31, 2006

CLIFTON PARK -- The wife of U.S. Rep. John Sweeney called police last December to complain her husband was ``knocking her around'' during a late-night argument at the couple's home, according to a document obtained last week by the Times Union.

The emergency call to a police dispatcher triggered a visit to the couple's residence by a state trooper from Clifton Park, who filed a domestic incident report after noting that the congressman had scratches on his face, the document states. No criminal charges were filed.

Gaia M. Sweeney, 36, told a trooper that her husband had grabbed her by the neck and was pushing her around the house, according to the document.

Sweeney campaign aide Maureen Donovan issued a statement late Tuesday attacking the authenticity of the document, labeling it ``a piece of campaign propaganda.'' The six-line statement does not address whether police were called to the residence for a domestic dispute that evening.

The Times Union confirmed several months ago, through multiple law enforcement sources, that State Police had responded to the Sweeney residence in early December to investigate a domestic dispute. The sources confirmed that Sweeney had scratches on his face when a trooper arrived, but they provided no additional information about the incident.

In the past 10 months, at least three news organizations, including the Times Union, have filed formal requests seeking disclosure of police records about the incident. State Police denied those requests and, according to agency sources, ordered that all inquiries about the matter be directed to headquarters, where officials have declined comment.

Early Tuesday, copies of the document obtained by this newspaper were provided to State Police headquarters and to Sweeney's offices in Washington, D.C., and Clifton Park.

State Police Superintendent Wayne Bennett declined a request to verify its authenticity. He also declined comment. The record appears to be a report printed from the agency's electronic blotter system.

A State Police spokesman issued the following statement late Tuesday: ``Our agency already responded to your newspaper via the Freedom of Information Law procedure and there is nothing further to discuss.''

Sweeney has declined repeated requests to discuss the incident. The Times Union initially contacted Sweeney's office for comment last December, about three weeks after police responded to his residence. The congressman did not return telephone inquiries about the incident that month. He also did not respond to requests for comment, which were made through his spokeswoman, on Monday and Tuesday.

The statement issued by Sweeney's campaign states: ``This barley (sic) legible document that is currently being circulated is a piece of campaign propaganda in the continued smear campaign against Congressman John Sweeney and his family. It is not authentic. It is false and it is a concoction by our opposition.''

The statement continued: ``If any media outlet plans to run a story based on this unauthentic, false and concocted document the outlet should be prepared to deal directly with our counsel. The document is hardly legible and there is no signature, date, or seal on the document. It's unethical, it's disgusting and it is beyond reproach.''

A Sweeney spokeswoman did not respond to a follow-up request from the newspaper inquiring whether the congressman is disputing the facts contained in the document. The newspaper also asked whether Sweeney would authorize State Police to release records from the incident. The spokeswoman did not respond.

Sweeney's wife, Gaia, placed the emergency call to a police dispatcher in Saratoga County at 12:55 a.m. on Dec. 2, according to the document.

``Female caller stating her husband is knocking her around the house,'' a dispatcher wrote. ``Then she stated `Here it comes, are you ready?' and disconnected the call. Upon call-back, the husband stated no problem ... asked the wife if she wanted to talk. Wife (caller) then got on the phone and stated that she's fine and that she's drunk. Caller sounded intoxicated. She advised that she was endangered for a moment, but everything is fine.''

On Jan. 27, State Police denied a Times Union request for information about the incident. Their denial was partially based on the fact no arrests were made, a spokesman said. Also, the release of the records ``would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of those concerned,'' according to the agency's written response.

The newspaper appealed the decision; the appeal also was denied by State Police attorneys.

The information about the incident is surfacing at a time when Sweeney, R-Clifton Park, is in the midst of a heated re-election bid.

The alleged incident at the couple's home off Kinns Road took place at the end of a tumultuous year for Sweeney. Less than two weeks earlier, his son, John J. Sweeney, then 19, pleaded guilty to felony assault charges for his role in a fight that left another young man with skull factures and blurred vision. The younger Sweeney initially faced the prospect of spending up to 15 years in prison, but a plea deal gave him youthful offender status and a sentence that included four months of weekends in jail and community service.

Sweeney, 51, has blamed his political opponents for his son's prosecution on felony charges.

Sweeney and Democratic challenger Kirsten Gillibrand, who resides in Columbia County, have been embroiled in a bitter campaign for the 20th Congressional District seat, and both sides have been running advertisements challenging each other's integrity.

Sweeney has called on Gillibrand to release her tax returns and accused her of profiting from the war in Iraq while criticizing it.

Gillibrand has asked Sweeney to release all police reports regarding any brushes he's had with law enforcement, including alleged arrests for minor offenses in 1977 and 1978, when he was in his early 20s. She also has called on Sweeney to disclose more information about a one-car accident in 2001, when he was not given a sobriety test even though he admitted consuming a small amount of alcohol before the crash.

Sweeney recently produced a television advertisement in which he and his wife are seated side-by-side as he accuses his opponent of launching inappropriate attacks on his family. Gaia Sweeney, who is Sweeney's second wife and goes by the name ``Gayle,'' does not say anything during the brief commercial.

The congressman says in the ad that Gillibrand and her supporters have ``intimidated my wife and smeared my children with anonymous phone calls, negative fliers and lies.''

``I've never had a problem standing up for what I believe -- regardless of party,'' Sweeney continues. ``And I'm willing to defend it. But when you attack my family to promote yourself -- when you lie and deceive to advance yourself -- it's wrong.''

Gaia Sweeney, who works at the Albany offices of former state Republican chairman Bill Powers, a lobbyist and Sweeney's longtime political mentor, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Gillibrand was unavailable for comment late Tuesday. ``It's Halloween and the candidate is out trick-or-treating with her family,'' a spokeswoman said.

The police report obtained by the Times Union indicates that Scott W. Gunsel, a trooper assigned to Clifton Park, responded to the couple's home along a cul-de-sac in a tidily kept neighborhood near the center of town. It is routine for police agencies to check residences from where 911 or other emergency calls have been made, even if callers say everything is fine or that the call was made in error.

Gunsel wrote in a blotter entry that he found the couple separated and calm when he arrived at the home that night. Under common police practice, the document lists Gaia Sweeney as a ``victim'' and Sweeney as a ``suspect.''

``Complainant stated that she and husband got into verbal argument that turned a little physical by her being grabbed by the neck and pushed around the house,'' Gunsel wrote in the narrative portion of the blotter entry, according to the document. ``Suspect had scratches on face. Both parties refused medical attention. Complainant removed to friend's house for the evening ... refused any type of prosicution (sic) arrest.''

The trooper filed a domestic incident report (DIR), a document in which a person considered a victim of domestic violence usually makes a handwritten, formal statement about what occurred. The reports are kept on file with police.

Efforts to reach Gunsel were not successful. He is temporarily assigned to a special anti-crime detail in the city of Albany, according to a trooper at the Clifton Park station.

Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, said domestic incident reports are typically exempt from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Law, unless there is an arrest, a conviction, or the parties involved authorize its disclosure.

Basic blotter information that lists the time and date of a police response to a residence is a matter of public record, Freeman said. However, he added that certain information, including details of domestic disputes where no one has been arrested, may be withheld on the grounds that their release could be an invasion of privacy.

``But when a law enforcement vehicle comes to an address it's just not a secret,'' Freeman said. ``The fact that an event occurred, it seems to me, typically appears on a police blotter and that aspect of a police blotter historically has been public.''

Freeman said that a person's status in the community should not be a factor in whether information about a police call is made public.

State Police records documenting their police calls used to be kept in leather-bound, handwritten blotters, which reporters were routinely allowed to review upon request at station houses, without exception. The handwritten blotters routinely contained information about domestic incidents and other police calls where no arrests had been made.

In recent years, State Police have switched their blotters to an electronic system. Now, at most stations, folders containing only those incident reports that State Police decide to release are made publicly available to reporters.

There have been other instances where State Police have disclosed information about domestic calls that did not involve an arrest.

In January 1999, a State Police spokeswoman confirmed they responded to a 911 call at the Rensselaer County home of Lt. Gov. Mary Donohue in response to a domestic disturbance. No one was arrested and the matter between Donohue and her former husband, Brian, who were in the midst of divorce proceedings, was resolved before troopers arrived, authorities said.

Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at blyons@timesunion.com.Capitol bureau reporter Elizabeth Benjamin contributed to this report.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2006, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.