July 15, 2007: Politically speaking, New York State is a dull boy. The same forces and faces have been at play in the fields of power for decades. Yeah yeah an occasional reform candidate stirs up the dust but the dust resettles after election day. And for some reason, New York doesn't get the kind of sweeping federal investigations of state and local governments that provide comic relief to citizens in other northeast states. Yeah yeah an occasional corruptoid or two gets hauled from the Augean Stables but sludge fills their footprints almost immediately. So when a genuine political clown car sputters into the capital city of Albany and spills a flap footed show, it's time to break out the peanuts. Which incidentally, are what a lot of New Yorkers have left after taxes. New York being the biggest overall gouger in the nation.
But hey-- send in the clowns. (For some reason there have to be clowns.) New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno are flapping it up in Circus Albany. Bopping each other on the bean with accusations and insults. The Spitzer camp is painting Republican Bruno as a corrupt Bozo. Whereas Bruno claims Democrat Spitzer is a sinister clown with an evil plan-- like Pennywise in Stephen King's "It". Wags in the audience say both are right.
Pennywise the Reformer
Eliot Spitzer, the scion of a wealthy NYC real estate family, is downstate political elite. Forty eight years old and filled to the brim with mission. Spitzer has been governor since January. Prior to ascension, he served as state attorney general under Republican Governor George Pataki. When Pataki first took office in 1995, the state was reeling from 3 terms of Democrat Mario Cuomo. Pataki promised tax cuts, a better business climate, and limited government.
During Pataki's reign, New York's nanny statism shifted shape but continued to swell. Economic development projects are big game in the Empire State and its imperial governors rely on the state's public authorities to make them happen. The public authorities are actually quasi-public. Some call them the shadow agencies. They operate under less oversight than regular government agencies and can sidestep democratic process, yet their power is government based. The monster quasi-public authority is the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC). The ESDC dispenses billions in public money and government-backed loans. It can saddle citizens with public debt via bonding, grant tax abatements, and over-ride local zoning regulations. It also has the power of eminent domain; the right to take private property to clear the way for projects deemed "public use". Over the decades, the quasi-public ESDC has spawned countless subsidiaries. The ESDC also has numerous siblings, including the New York State Thruway Authority and New York Racing Authority.
Governor Pataki's new morning manifested largely in quasi-public deals for select developers, corporations, and regional old boys. During Pataki time, NYC and its bedroom communities boomed thanks to Wall Street but the rest of the state continued to slide. As gubernatorial candidate, Eliot Spitzer compared much of upstate New York to Appalachia. He promised revitalization, property tax relief and reform. Like other governors, Spitzer's revitalization plans rely on economic development projects empowered by quasi-public authority. He's already appointed a special Upstate Economic Development Czar. (Will Appalachians go for a czar?) Plus, Spitzer promises that the state's public authorities will no longer be "patronage dumping grounds...insulated from accountability".
As attorney general, Eliot Spitzer was no ball of fire when it came to cleaning up the quasi-public dumps. Not that investigations weren't launched and reports released. But take-downs rarely resolved into criminal prosecutions. When they did, low level players were hardest hit.
As governor, Eliot Spitzer is ablaze with reform fervor as embodied in his Renew New York Agenda. While the flames won't destroy the edifice of the ESDC, some inactive spin-offs will burn. All public authorities will receive better oversight via the creation of an "Independent Office of Public Authority Accountability". The director of which will be appointed by the governor.
Of late, Governor Spitzer has been traversing the state delivering power point presentations about the job performance of the Republican controlled Senate in the last session of the State Legislature. The lazy sods went home without passing the reform bills Spitzer was pushing. Including a campaign finance reform bill. Foot dragging on this particular bill has to do with Republican suspicions that Spitzer's real power point is to keep them out of office next election-- in New York, curtailing contributions from folks who do business with the state is a real career killer. And some resent Spitzer for trying to close a barn door he's already passed through. But what might bring Republicans on board with campaign finance reform as envisioned by Spitzer, is that it would ultimately involve full public financing.
Be afraid, taxpayers. Be very afraid.
Bozo the Old Boy
Joseph L. Bruno, the scion of a not-wealthy Glens Falls family, is upstate political elite. Seventy eight years young, a successful bidness man, and full-tilt political boss. Cronies-R-Him. A shining example of the need for term limits. (A reform not on Spitzer's agenda.) Bruno was elected to the state senate in 1976, became majority leader in '95, and is currently under federal investigation. Real estate deals are one issue; another is an ESDC grant for half a million dollars Bruno steered to Evident Technologies Inc., a nanotechnology company based in Troy across the Hudson River from Albany. Troy is Bruno Town. Nano nano is the Capital Region's latest revitalizing rage. Evident Technologies is the baby of a Bruno contributor who allegedly provided the senator with free air travel. Seems Bruno has a thing for flying...
Governor Spitzer apparently suspects Senator Bruno of using state whirly-birds as taxi service twixt his upstate digs and downstate fund-raisers. A serious matter. Misuse of state vehicles being one of the few things that can land a public servant in jail. As State Comptroller Alan Hevesi discovered last year. Hevesi, who during his time in office issued many instructive audits of waste and malfeasance in public authorities, government agencies, and local governments, and who in 2005 stopped the New York State Thruway Authority from awarding a 46 million dollar contract to a construction company with mob ties, was discovered in the course of his 2006 re-election campaign to be an abuser of state vehicles. Hevesi was having state employees drive his sick wife around in state cars! The cost to taxpayers was more than
a hundred thousand bucks! While Hevesi's crimes were originally revealed by his Republican opponent, many prominent Democrats, including Eliot Spitzer, were quick to distance themselves from him. Though voters re-elected Hevesi by a wide margin, he was forced to resign in order to avoid jail time as delivered by Albany County D.A. David Soares. A Spitzer supporter and fellow reformer. The Hevesi affair sent a message to the high and mighty: if you abuse state vehicles, you WILL go down.
Be afraid, Bozo. Be very afraid...
In early July, the Albany Times Union reported that Joe Bruno had recently made a number of trips to NYC, using state aircraft and accompanied by his usual praetorian guard of state police. The trips were combo platters of state business and political glad-handing. A few days later, the New York Post reported that Eliot Spitzer's office had ordered state police officers who travel with Joe Bruno to monitor his movements. When Bruno heard about the bird watch, he flipped. Calling it "a conspiracy" and "a dangerous abuse of power" which "undermines our democratic form of government". Governor Spitzer, in conversation with another pol, reportedly called Bruno "an old, senile, piece of shit". Spitzer, who has a history of potty mouthing opponents, denies the comment. He also denies having Bruno monitored.
As days passed it emerged that Eliot Spitzer had requested the offices of state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (son of Mario) and Albany County D.A. David Soares to open files on Joe Bruno. Now Bruno has called on Cuomo to open an investigation on Spitzer. Senator Bruno's defenders say his trips always involved some bit of state biz so everything is legally jake. The chairman of the state Republican party says that if Spitzer spied on Bruno, he was being "Nixonesque". (Not meant as a compliment.) The Albany Times Union, a Spitzer-endorsing Hearst paper with a wildly eclectic policy re investigative reporting, is part of the act as well. Bruno claims the Times Union collaborated with Spitzer's office in breaking the frequent flier story. He also claims a salesperson from the paper called him after the story appeared and tried to hustle him into taking out ad space to tell his side. But Bruno showed 'em. He canceled his subscription. Whap! Beep beep! Take that!
The war between Pennywise the Reformer and Bozo the Old Boy has been raging for several weeks, with every rubber chicken bounce covered closely by the NYC tabs. With luck, the show will run all summer. With super luck, it will run till the cows come home and drive the clowns out of New York State.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Sources include but are not limited to:
"Spitzer OK's Bruno to use state planes-- sometimes," James T. Madore, Newsday, 07/11/07
"AG Eyes Cop Files in 'Spy'tzer Probe," Frederic U. Dicker, Kenneth Lovett, New York Post, 07/10/07
"In Battles With Spitzer, Bruno Scores Some Points," Nicholas Confessore, New York Times, 07/08/07
"Spitzer's Public Authorities Reform, Elizabeth Benjamin," The Daily Politics, Daily News Blog, 05/24/07
"Spitzer Proposes the Strongest Campaign Finance Laws in the Nation; Public Financing," Liam Arbetman, Common Cause, 01/05/07
"Renew New York Agenda seeks Upstate Turnaround," Governor's Press Release, New York State, 01/02/07
"Alan Hevesi Makes Plea Deal: Agrees to Resign from Office," News10, 12/22/06
"Bruno Under 500G Cloud," Associated Press/New York Post, 12/07/06
"Audit Finds Dozens of Inactive ESDC Subsidiaries," Press Release, Office of the New York State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, 05/15/06
"Worth Construction found not a responsible vendor, cannot receive $46 million Thruway Contract," Press Release, Office of the New York State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, 11/09/05
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