PHOTO: Alicia Solsman
struggle to define themselves—and debate each other on serious
issues— in the race to replace Eliot Spitzer By Chet Hardin
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.
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
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?”
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
PHOTO: Joe Putrock
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?
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?’ ”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
[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.”
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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
(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
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.
PHOTO: Joe Putrock
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.
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
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.
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.”
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