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Andrew Cuomo

PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

Filling the Void

Candidates struggle to define themselves—and debate each other on serious issues— in the race to replace Eliot Spitzer By Chet Hardin

Jeanine Pirro, Republican candidate for attorney general, has presence. Sitting at a table outside Starbucks in Stuyvesant Plaza, the fiery former district attorney for Westchester County tears into her Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo.

“He’s got to defend his record while he was at HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development],” Pirro says of Cuomo. “He has got to defend why it was that illegal pesticides were used in violation of federal law while he was the head of HUD.”

“Why does he think amnesty for Medicaid cheats is the answer to the Medicaid fraud that is causing our property taxes to go through the roof?” she asks. “Why won’t he take a stand on the civil-confinement bill?”

“Why doesn’t he talk about the issues as they relate to his experience? Because he doesn’t have it.”

Cuomo, Pirro constantly alleges, lacks the substantial legal or prosecutorial experience needed to be the AG: “I’ve been a prosecutor, a judge and a DA for 30 years. His experience—14 months as an assistant DA 21 years ago—to be the top law- enforcement officer in the state is just minimal at best.”

Every proclamation made by Pirro reaches a pitched climax, with her open hand striking the table; then she relents to sit back in her chair, very pleased with herself. It is a fair assessment to say that she thrives on confrontation. Debating ideas comes easily to her, and she has been vocal about her disappointment with Cuomo’s insistence on meeting her only twice for debates.

“I have been calling on him since the day after his primary to start debating around the state,” she says. “Tell us what part of the state he doesn’t think deserves to hear this debate. I think New Yorkers deserve a real discussion of the issues, ’cause starting Jan. 1, 2007, there is going to be a new attorney general in this state and New Yorkers are entitled to know where they stand on issues.”

The opponents have debated twice now, and these one-on-one confrontations have given the aggressive Pirro a familiar forum in which to attack. And they also seem the ideal way for her to get voters’ minds off the personal scandals involving her husband, attorney Albert Pirro, and on what she considers her opponent’s weaknesses.

According to a Siena College poll released Monday (Oct. 16), prior to the debates, Pirro was trailing Cuomo 13 points, which is 4 points closer than in a previous poll. The theory seems to be that the more voters see of her, the more they will be swayed by her aggressive, no-nonsense, prosecutorial approach.

“You are going to see the numbers change very quickly,” she says.

Pirro is running, as she says, to be the top prosecutor in the state. In this respect, she points out that while she was district attorney of Westchester County, her office had a 98-percent conviction rate in felony prosecutions, a 100-percent conviction rate in her Internet pedophile sting operations, and “a 98-to-99-percent conviction in the over 800 environmental crimes that my office has prosecuted.”

“This guy is a self-described nonpracticing lawyer,” Pirro says of Cuomo. “He said it himself. In 1987, he said if he had to do it over again he wouldn’t even practice law. We are looking to hire the top lawyer in this state. I have lived the law, I love the law, I run a large legal office in a nonpartisan way. And make no mistake, there is no Republican or Democratic [way] to be attorney general. Only the right way.”

“The role of the attorney general is more civil than criminal,” says Joan Leary Matthews, a professor at Albany Law School, who served in the Environmental Protection Bureau of the attorney general’s office from 1987-95. “Dennis Vacco [the one-term attorney general defeated by Eliot Spitzer] came in and said he was going to be the top prosecutor too, but his office was roundly criticized for not enforcing where they should’ve enforced.”

“Different people bring different experience to bear on the position,” she continues. “I am not saying one is better than the other. Because you haven’t been prosecuting until yesterday doesn’t mean that you can’t be an attorney general. Bob Abrams [a four-term attorney general] was a fantastic manager, and he ran a very aggressive office. Whoever is in office will hire the right people to move the office forward. If you hire the right people you can have a great office,” regardless, she says, of prosecutorial experience.

“I think whoever is in office looks to see where there are gaps in regulation or enforcement and tries to fill in those gaps. Climate change,” she offers an an example, “and what is happening at the federal level? Not much. Attorney General Spitzer and other attorneys general have banded together and brought a number of cases dealing with climate-change litigation. That is one way you can move forward a particular agenda.”

The office of attorney general is very flexible, she concludes, and attorneys general usually want to come in and put their stamps on the office.

Rachel Treichler

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

As for Pirro’s “stamp,” it appears that it will have something to do with her chief concerns: Medicaid fraud and prosecuting sexual offenders. She was an ardent supporter of civil confinement long before it became “a front-burner issue,” she says, and recoils at the mention that civil confinement might not be the best approach to keeping offenders off the streets.

Why not just extend sentencing guidelines, you might ask, for the most violent sex offenders?

“I believe in increased sentences,” she says. “But your question, with all due respect, doesn’t understand or comprehend the real issue. The issue is: What do we with them when they get out? Make no mistake, they are coming out. And soon as they get out of those prison gates, the first thing on their mind is, ‘Where’s a child?’ and ‘How can I find one?’ ”

“Civil confinement means that when they come out of prison, we’ve got to establish a mechanism that determines the worst of the worst,” she says, and then place them in a secure mental-health facility. “They have served their time. Do they roam freely among us? Do we risk having women and children murdered?”

“I agree,” she says. “I think we need longer sentences in all these cases. But that doesn’t cover the people who are coming out. That doesn’t cover the people who are already out.”

Pirro has been criticized by some who say this zealotry led her to ignore the pleas of an innocent man trapped in prison after a rape and murder conviction. Jeffrey Deskovic, who was prosecuted and convicted by Pirro’s predecessor, was released from prison in September after serving 16 years. The Innocence Project, a group based in New York City, took up Deskovic’s appeals, and after only a few months, with the use of DNA, was able to get him exonerated. Deskovic claims that he pleaded his case in a letter to Pirro, but that she dismissed him.

“No one deserves to spend a day in prison if they are not guilty,” Pirro says. “This case was prosecuted not by me, but my predecessor. The Innocence Project approached my successor. When I was the DA, whenever the Innocence Project approached me, we worked with them. I exonerated—working with the Innocence Project—a defendant, again convicted by my predecessor.”

As for correspondence between herself and Deskovic, she says she needs proof.

“I have never seen the letter,” she says. “Nobody has produced it. I have no idea if there is a letter.”

Eric Ferraro, communications director with the Innocence Project, agrees that she did work with them to free an innocent person, but claims that she still could have done more to help Deskovic.

“After he was convicted in 1990, he spent years appealing in several different ways,” Ferraro says. “In January of 2000, in legal papers that were served on Pirro’s office, Eleanor Jackson Piel, the lawyer at the time [representing Deskovic], said, ‘Look, more sophisticated DNA testing could be done on existing evidence that could help identify the true perpetrator,’ which is exactly what Pirro’s successor did with us this year. So she was being asked in 2000, through legal documents, not just through personal correspondence.”

“It was when she was in office that he was appealing that conviction, though,” Ferraro continues. “So it is her office and her name on all the paperwork. As the DA on a murder case in Westchester County, where you don’t have many murders, she is the one who is defending that conviction and not doing the additional testing.”

“She [Pirro] is an authoritarian,” says Chris Garvey, Libertarian candidate for attorney general. “She seems to view the attorney general’s office as the office of the local prosecutor, and I don’t know if that is the right emphasis.” When the only tool you have is a hammer, Garvey muses, every problem looks like a nail.

He recently participated with Rachel Treichler, the Green Party candidate, in a debate in Hempstead, Long Island, and says he is running for attorney general “to maximize democracy in New York.”

“I will guide by the libertarian principle: People ought to be free to do whatever they want except initiate force or the threat of force or fraud against other people or their property.” Plus, he says he is running because he doesn’t want to see Cuomo become the AG.

“He was apparently involved in a great deal of facilitation and fraud when he was at Housing and Urban Development,” Garvey alleges, referring to the claim that under Cuomo’s guidance, HUD misappropriated $59 billion.

In a recent article published online by the independent-media Web site Scoop, “Unanswered Questions About Andrew Cuomo,” Catherine Austin Fitts, onetime assistant secretary of Housing, Federal Housing Commissioner and president of the Hamilton Securities Group, Inc. wrote: “HUD failed to produce audited financial statements that year. Its opening balance from fiscal 1998 required undocumentable adjustments of $17 billion. To force the books to balance in 1999 required $59 billion in undocumentable adjustments. For its audit in 2000, Cuomo’s last year in office, HUD declined to make public the amount of undocumentable adjustments required to balance the books.”

The allegation is based on her personal experience as well as the statement made before the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform by former HUD inspector general Susan Gaffney on March 22, 2000.

“In 2000,” Fitts wrote, “three and a half years after Andrew Cuomo became Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), I met with a senior staff assistant to the Chairman of one of the appropriations committees for HUD. When I asked what was going on at HUD, the staff assistant said, ‘HUD is being run as a criminal enterprise.’ I replied, ‘I don’t disagree.’ ”

“I would ask him [Cuomo] about the monies he has received from Andrew Farkas,” says Treichler, if given the opportunity to debate, “both as an employee taking a very large salary from Andrew Farkas’ company and all the campaign contributions he has received from Farkas.” As The Village Voice reported on Sept. 5, Farkas’ company, Insignia Financial Services, was sued by HUD in 1997, under Cuomo’s watch, for $7.6 million in alleged kickbacks, yet that didn’t stop Cuomo from accepting more than $2 million from Farkas in contributions and salary.

“How he can take such large campaign contributions from certain interests and not favor them?” Treichler asks. “Both Cuomo and Pirro have received millions and millions of dollars of campaign contributions, and it really looks like they are selling influence.”

(Evan Thies, with the Cuomo campaign, eventually responded to multiple requests made by Metroland for comment. However, after refusing to answer the first question “on the record,” he remembered he had to catch a plane and cut the interview short.)

Treichler had petitioned weeks earlier to be included in the League of Women Voters’ proposed three attorney-general debates. In a letter, she argued her qualifications: ballot access, financial compliance with New York State Board of Elections, voter interest and serious media coverage. The league, in turn, commissioned a Zogby poll in which Treichler polled 17 percent of the vote among independent voters. It was decided that she was a viable candidate.

The whirlwind began for the 55-year-old environmental activist and lawyer when she found out that she would likely face off with Cuomo and Pirro at WXXI in Rochester and at WABC in Manhattan, and Pirro at WCNY in Syracuse. “Oh my goodness, I have to prepare for this great opportunity,” declared Treichler, after learning that she was going to be included in the debates cosponsored by the League of Women Voters. “I was going to be in New York City for several events, but I asked some friends to practice with me. I spent all weekend practicing.”

She was hoping to bring some rational discourse to a race that so far has been mired in personal scandal.

Jeanine Pirro

PHOTO: Joe Putrock

At the last minute, however, Treichler learned that she wasn’t going to be included in any of the debates. Cuomo wasn’t interested, she says, in debating a third-party candidate, and his camp put the pressure on to not include her.

“Apparently, the three candidates couldn’t come to a consensus on who would be at the debate,” says a source within WCNY (who wished to remain anonymous). Unwilling to name Cuomo, the source points out that both Treichler and Pirro were willing to debate each other, adding, “You do the math.” It is the station’s policy to call off a debate if all of the viable candidates are not able to agree on the specifics of the debate. So once Cuomo’s camp made it clear they wouldn’t debate if Treichler was invited, WCNY decided not to host the debate at all.

WXXI and WABC went ahead with their respective debates, however, without Treichler. An employee at WXXI confirms that Cuomo’s camp made it very clear: He would not appear with a Green Party candidate.

On Friday, Oct. 13, the League of Women Voters issued a press release in which the league’s president, Marcia Merrins, proclaimed, “The voters of New York State deserve better.” The league had decided to withdraw its sponsorship of the debates.

“The league pulled out of the sponsorship once it became apparent that the three viable candidates were not invited,” says Betsey Swan, legislative analyst with the league. “We haven’t had statewide debates in years. We routinely have debates for local offices, but this is the first time in, I think, over 20 years that we have been able to arrange statewide debates. And because this is a statewide race, the state board has a procedure for deciding whether candidates are viable candidates. The state board makes a decision. Once that decision is made, it is policy that if the league is going to sponsor a debate, the candidate has to be invited to participate.”

“This is a common practice in New York,” Swan says. “The front-runner tends to call the shots on who is invited to a debate. It is an issue that is of a concern to league members around the state and to portions of the public at large. It is a perennial issue: How do you get candidates to come to the table?”

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