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Exhaustive effort to 'get Joe' boomerangs on Spitzer's aides
First published: Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Well, doesn't Attorney General Andrew Cuomo know how to throw a 50-pound skunk into the parlor?

About the last thing any of us expected was that the attorney general would take seriously accusations that came out of the recent undignified and very public catfighting that went on for the longest time between Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

The governor strongly suggested Bruno was misusing state aircraft, for partisan political purposes. Bruno heatedly countered that Spitzer's people were spying on him during his several trips using state aircraft.

There were shouts from both camps for investigations, by the state's inspector general, by Albany County District Attorney David Soares, and notably by the attorney general.

I suppose what I expected from the AG was a short, perfunctory opinion that, no, there's no evidence Gov. Spitzer had Bruno under any illegal surveillance, and, likewise, that Bruno was using the aircraft within an established if questionable tradition.

After all, what AG really wants to be drawn into the middle of a high-level political catfight when he's not one of the cats?

Apparently Andrew Cuomo does, because the 53-page report issued Monday is a hydrogen-level stink bomb.

In excruciating detail, using information gotten under oath, it arguably outlines the first scandal of the Spitzer administration: the attempted political assassination of Joe Bruno.

Actually, the AG's report is two reports in one. The first half is very detailed and exhaustive and damning of the Spitzer administration, principally communications director Darren Dopp; William Howard, the liaison to the State Police; and Acting State Police Superintendent Preston Felton. All of whom conspired, the report found, to create records and information to put Bruno in the worst light, purportedly to answer a Freedom of Information Request that didn't even exist at the time. It was shabby "gotcha" politics at its worst.

The second half is critical of the established rules governing the use of state aircraft. But it largely glosses over Joe Bruno's abusive use of the aircraft. This part of the report is light and airy.

But surely not the first part. Investigators do not spare the governor's people in the slightest. The report flatly states there was a plan to get Bruno, which many of us suspected, and that high-level Spitzer administration officials drew the State Police into it. Felton comes out of this looking like an over-eager lap dog for the Spitzer crowd, willing to go far beyond what he was asked to do. The report strongly admonishes the State Police for getting involved in partisan politics.

The report is on the AG's Web site and makes great reading. My newspaper got drawn into it as the media vehicle the Spitzer crowd chose to use to batter Joe Bruno. Bruno has already stated more than once that we're out to get him, and this revelation won't change his mind. Although it's pretty clear in the report that our reporter was just doing his job and had no idea of the contrivances and deceptions going on behind the scene.

How much Eliot Spitzer knew about this Let's Get Joe plan while it was being created will be open to wild conjecture.

In a Monday afternoon news conference, the governor insisted that he knew absolutely nothing of it. He reacted quickly to the AG's report. Dopp, one of his closest advisors and who has been with him for years, was put on indefinite unpaid leave. Howard was transferred into the ozone.

Felton is another matter. Since the acting State Police superintendent must be confirmed by the Senate for a permanent position, it seems entirely plausible that retirement is suddenly in his plans.

The juiciest, stinkiest parts of the report concern the excesses Felton, Dopp and Howard went to for documentation to make Bruno look bad. But not to be forgotten is that Bruno did skirt the line awfully closely in terms of abusing the use of state aircraft. On one occasion, he did less than an hour's worth of state business before spending the rest of the time on partisan politics and fundraising. On another occasion, a little more than an hour of "official business" to justify use of the aircraft. Yet taxpayers still foot the bill for these trips.

Not illegal, clearly, but unwise and abusive anyway. That has to change. We need tighter control, even zero use of state aircraft for anything other than well-defined official state business.

Albany County DA Soares made both points in a late afternoon release, namely that Bruno broke no laws, but the rules governing the use of state aircraft are a joke. That closes two out of three reports. We look forward to seeing what state government's own Inspector General Kristine Hamman comes up with to finish the trilogy.

And finally, we see once again why we should lament that on Sept. 22, the oversight of all ethics for the executive side of state government will fall to the new governor-controlled Integrity Commission.

More and more, this looks like a really bad idea. Given events, we desperately need independent oversight, perhaps right out of Andrew Cuomo's office.

Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at flebrun@timesunion.com.

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