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Roger Cusick

Photo: Alicia Solsman

A Puncher’s Chance

Critics say Roger Cusick needs the sky to fall in on incumbent Albany District Attorney David Soares to have a hope of beating him; Cusick says all he needs is time

By David King

 

“Paul Clyne didn’t even have the guts,” a man dressed in a gray sweatshirt and a baseball cap is telling Roger Cusick, candidate for Albany County district attorney. The man in the sweatshirt is referring to former Albany District Attorney Paul Clyne’s decision not to run against incumbent District Attorney David Soares this year. In fact, up until Aug. 19, the last day for independent candidates to file, it didn’t seem that anyone had the nerve to do so.

But on a stormy day in September, Cusick has stepped out of a pick-up truck pulling a long, wide, white trailer that features a Cusick/Integrity banner on its side (the campaign has dubbed it the “Integrity Express”) to visit to the Bethlehem G.O.P. picnic and begin rallying his base.

A group of elderly women sit at picnic tables, some slurping soup, others munching burgers, as Cusick, dressed in a gray suit and a cap that reads “Texas”—resembling a younger, healthier, and more even-mannered John McCain—cranes his neck to speak to them. The conversation begins awkwardly with Cusick trying to introduce himself over the P.A. system, which blares John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Cusick, a former prosecutor who has taught law and political science at local universities, admits that he has a tendency to talk at length about issues in a wonkish manner. There is no doubt that he has professorial tendencies, but Cusick knows how to get to the heart of his point.

“Remember, I ran to replace Paul Clyne. I wanted to take his job,” Cusick reminds the man who is zealously encouraging him to defeat Soares.

Ask Cusick about that race, and he will tell you he didn’t lose—he just “ran out of time.”

In the article breaking the news of Cusick’s entry into the race, Albany Conservative Party chairman Richard Stack told the Times Union, “At the end of the day, Roger’s a long shot. But he has a shot. He has a puncher’s chance.”

Cusick says the citizens of Albany County took a gamble on Soares. “They are getting to know the man they voted for. And a lot of them don’t like what they see,” says Cusick.

Soares says he does not feel he is running against Cusick. He says he feels he is running against “the political apparatus” he had to defeat four years ago to become district attorney.

“If you told me three and a half years ago we would be here now, having this conversation, I would have been shocked,” says Soares. “I am prepared to stand by my record and talk about the accomplishments of my office.”

Cusick introduces himself to attendees at the Bethlehem G.O.P. picnic, and as soon as they realize he is running for district attorney they light up, ready to gripe about Soares. “This is where it starts,” Cusick says.

A man pulls a NASCAR jacket over his head to protect himself from a steady mist of rain that has begun to fall as he ventures out to the grill.

Only a day earlier, Albany County Judge Stephen Herrick had dismissed Soares’ case against Signature Compounding Pharmacy in Florida—by nearly all interpretations, handing Soares a defeat (at least temporarily) in the nationally reported steroids prosecution that is his highest-profile case to date. That blow to Soares came only a month after an audit by Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners revealed fiscal mismanagement and irresponsibility in Soares’ office.

Despite Soares’ two very public failings, Cusick is still considered a long shot. Why?

One: Cusick is a Republican. Although running on a hastily put together Integrity Party ticket, Cusick has been registered as a Republican for years in a county that is known as a Democratic stronghold.

And for that matter, Cusick acknowledges that he hasn’t been terribly involved with the G.O.P. “I don’t owe them anything. And I don’t owe the Democrats,” he says proudly.

Second: Cusick is a two-time loser. Cusick is seen in some circles as a politician in theory—more accustomed to teaching politics than actually practicing it.

Cusick lost to Soares in 2004, even after incumbent Clyne dropped out of the race and threw his support behind Cusick. Cusick took home 57,202 votes to Soares’ 75,610. Clyne received about 5,000 votes despite having dropped out.

And last year Cusick ran against Albany County Executive Mike Breslin. Cusick campaigned methodically, outlining his criticism of Breslin’s status as an entrenched insider. In the end it was futile. The count was 17,560 for Cusick to Breslin’s 48,599.

Although Breslin’s name recognition and long-term presence in county politics might be taken as an excuse for Cusick’s sound defeat, it’s not likely Cusick will have an easier time running against Soares, who has garnered intense national attention over the last year for his steroid prosecution. Soares’ campaign coffers are stocked, while Cusick has barely gotten started.

That said, thanks to a scandal over finances, the dismissal of the pharmaceutical case, and the barrage from New York City media about Soares’ investigation into Troopergate, Soares appears more vulnerable now than at any other time since his speech in Vancouver, Canada, in 2006, when he said that the war on drugs provides “law enforcement officials with lucrative jobs.”

Although Soares has become more of an established figure in Albany, Cusick thinks he has enough ammo to give Soares a few more wounds.

There are some who insist that Cusick is simply waiting for another scandal to shake up Soares’ office. They are sure Fred Dicker of the New York Post is feeding Cusick with ammunition and innuendo to level against Soares. But Cusick says his criticisms of Soares and the job he has done as district attorney are fundamental.

His most basic criticism is that convictions under Soares have decreased. According to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, the drug felony conviction and incarceration rates under Soares have declined. They show a 90.1 percent rate in 2003 under Clyne, 86.6 percent in 2004 under Clyne and a decrease from an 87.7 percent conviction rate high for Soares in 2005 to an 81.4 percent conviction rate in 2007.

The conviction rate in Albany County for violent felony arrests also declined under Soares, going from a high of 85.4 percent under Clyne in 2002 to 77.8 percent in 2007 under Soares.

David Soares

Photo: Shannon DeCelle

The DCJS warns that these percentages should be taken with a grain of salt because of alternative sentencing programs. Furthermore, decline in crime rates also affect prosecution rates, and New York as a whole has seen a decline in crime rates over the past few years.

“The number of assistant D.A.s went from 34 to 43 under Soares, while his budget went up,” says Cusick. “Meanwhile, his conviction rate is down, so he is effectively doing less with more.”

Cusick says he finds it interesting that the Albany County District Attorney’s Web site lists crime stats only until the year 2004.

Soares says Cusick’s assertions are absurd. “I’ve always laughed at this notion where people say in order to be a great prosecutor and to demonstrate the public safety apparatus is working fine you need more arrests and more indictments. It’s just the opposite,” says Soares. “If things are getting better you are going to see a decrease in violent felonies and crime. I think we have seen a decrease in violent crimes and recidivism over the last few years, thanks to a healthier working relationship with all law enforcement and an increase in shared information. Furthermore, alternatives to incarceration contributed to that. These are cases that instead of sending people to state prison we are sending to drug court. If people are not re-offending we don’t have any new cases to prosecute.”

Perhaps the most striking of Cusick’s contentions is that Soares has taken the prosecutorial office that was run by Clyne and turned it into a political office where prosecutors are separated from the district attorney by the director of administration, director of operations and director of communications.

Cusick carries around the diagrams from Clyne’s and Soares’ administrations. In Clyne’s chart, the office is organized with Clyne at the head of the office with the assistant district attorney under him and the separate prosecutorial units under him.

The diagram of Soares’ office is more complex, adding the director of operations, director of administration, and director of communications positions under Soares, as well as the Public Integrity Unit, on top of the assistant district attorney through whom the prosecutorial units run.

Cusick alleges that the directors positions were all positions created to reward Soares loyalists.

“He’s got his three musketeers,” says Cusick: “The director of operations is his buddy, the police officer Chris D’Allesandro; the director of administration is Richard Arthur, former or present Working Families Party leader: the director of communications is the successor to Rachel McEneny, daughter of the assemblyman. These are all political payoffs. These are his political cronies. He reorganized the office to create these positions.”

Soares does not take Cusick’s accusation lightly.

“I would say it is awfully dangerous for a person vying for the district attorney’s office to make scurrilous allegations without evidence and facts to support it,” says Soares. “Is this what you would expect of his prosecutions?”

Furthermore, Soares says the political affiliation of his staff members is not an issue. “I have never asked members of this office for their political affiliations. I have never asked any member of the staff for their affiliation. It does not count for anything as far as this office is concerned.”

More attention has been focused on the makeup of Soares’ office lately, thanks to the audit by Conners’ office, which found Soares’ petty-cash account to have been grossly mismanaged by Arthur.

The audit stated: “In over 130 petty cash audits during the past 12 1/2 years our office has never encountered the problems with basic bookkeeping, accounting and petty cash account management that the director of administration for the office of the district attorney presents.”

The audit led to the conclusion among local insiders that Arthur would have to be dismissed. However, Soares has taken responsibility for the accounting errors and has not publicly admonished Arthur. Arthur had previously served as communications director for Soares.

Conners told Metroland that relations with Soares’ office have improved since the audit came out; chiefly, he said, because he was no longer dealing with Arthur, who he found to be argumentative.

“I said in the audit that Arthur’s responses are more damning than his original efforts to handle the financial affairs of the office,” said Conners. “Richard never even opened bank statements. The basic principle of managing your finances is when you get a statement you open it. It is ineptitude, and an unwillingness to conform with accepted accounting practices. Everybody has to make a living, but you shouldn’t have this guy handle the money.”

Conners’ office is currently working with Soares’ office on further financial matters and audits, but Conners says he is in a hurry to move on to “more important matters.”

“I’m sure Mr. Cusick would like me to say something that I can’t say,” concludes Conners.

Soares says his office has increased its efforts to properly manage the office’s finances. Soares has also created a fiscal work group to scrutinize his office’s finances.

“Fiscal integrity is always important to me,” says Soares. “If there are fiscal issues that need to be addressed they will be. At the end of the day, we are crime fighters. This operation has grown financially, and the office has expanded. With that expansion comes additional responsibility. If we need to shore up procurements and look at how we are spending money, this is the kind of information the fiscal work group will help us answer.”

Cusick, however, says he expects the scrutiny of Soares’ finances to turn up more discrepancies. He also notes that Albany County legislator and Republican minority leader Christine Benedict has made public her frustration in dealing with Soares’ office while trying to get information about the office’s travel expenditures and purchases and its communications with the comptroller’s office.

At the G.O.P. picnic, an elderly woman interrupts Cusick to tell him, “The police chief supports you!” “The cops don’t like him!” He responds, “Everybody knows somebody who knows someone in law enforcement, and they have had enough of him.”

Cusick pauses for a moment, smiling, and says, “I’m preaching to the choir here.”

Earlier in the day, before the picnic at the headquarters of Council 82, Cusick stands in front of a podium, framed by the wall behind him, which is plastered with yellow-and-blue Cusick/Integrity signs.

A representative of the police union announces its endorsement of Cusick, and the two men move to take questions. A reporter from the Times Union asks what the union’s relationship with Soares is like. The representative declines to comment, citing the fact that members of the union have to work with Soares on a daily basis. The representative says the endorsement “speaks for itself,” backing away from the question. Cusick, however, jumps at the chance to infer that Soares’ relations with police are sour.

“I have a wonderful working relationship with the Albany police department and members of the Council 82 union,” says Soares. “What the union is espousing is not necessarily indicative of all of their membership. We work together every day. The notion we don’t get along is not true.”

However, Soares says he would have declined Council 82’s endorsement had they offered it to him. “I don’t agree with the policies and philosophies of Council 82. I wholeheartedly disagree with them about their contention that officers should be allowed the consumption of alcohol before their shifts. I would have declined their endorsement if they had offered it.”

Soares’ relationship with the Albany City Police Department has indeed been contentious at times. Chief James Tuffey and Mayor Jerry Jennings slammed Soares after his speech in Vancouver for calling the fight against drugs “lucrative” for some officers of the law. However, Soares says he feels the incident was overblown.

Albany County Sheriff James Campbell, who came out against Soares after his Vancouver speech, appeared at Soares’ campaign kickoff this year. Campbell told Metroland, “I was initially part of the group who were annoyed by what he said in Vancouver . . . but since that time he did apologize. We get along. We’ve had a few rough roads, to be honest with you. We’ve had some communication gaps, but it’s nothing we can’t overcome.”

Soares also has the endorsement of the New York State Troopers PBA.

And Soares said he thinks he and the APD have worked well together, taking down and prosecuting “networks, instead of a straight focus on lower-level dealers,” because of their healthy working relationship.

“This whole steroids thing is nonsense,” a man at the picnic tells Cusick. “He has other things to worry about.”

“I’ve never heard of a steroids house in Albany,” Cusick responds. “He needs to be fighting real crime. People are killing each other in Albany, and he’s off on vacation in Florida. I don’t want to catch a stray bullet driving down Henry Johnson Boulevard.”

Cusick points to the steroid prosecution that saw Soares travel to Florida to announce Operation Which Doctor. Soares’ prosecution of those involved in pharmacies that illegally sell steroids over the Internet has been a rallying cry for those who oppose him.

Cusick says that the case was “simply headline chasing,” adding, “The problem with this particular act is how much of a drain it was on Albany County assets. There are only so many prosecutorial hours, and you’ve got to decide if this is where it is best spent.”

Soares says that Operation Which Doctor netted the county nearly a million dollars in forfeiture funds while combatting illegal drug sales that were made to citizens of Albany County.

The dismissal of the crowning prosecution of Operation Which Doctor has only increased the criticism, and Cusick says it has validated his accusations that Soares is an inexperienced prosecutor.

Herrick’s decision indicated that the grand jurors who were hearing the counts against Signature Pharmacy were not given the proper information. The decision explained that the grand jury was not informed that certain counts had been dismissed and that the jury members were not given competent instruction.

“At its best, it is sloppy prosecutorial behavior to allow your indictment to be thrown out,” says Cusick. “At its worst, it could be deemed to be prosecutorial misconduct.”

Soares says he finds Herrick’s dismissal of the Signature Compounding Pharmacy case “hard to swallow” in light of the success his office had in obtaining guilty pleas from a majority of the 24 defendants. “I don’t agree with Judge Herrick’s decision. And that’s why we moved steadfastly in appealing the decision. A case that had such scope and took out a number of clinics that had an impact on Albany County—for 17 of 24 people to plead guilty who also pointed the finger at the principals involved—it’s hard to swallow that the same judge can turn around and say the case was complex and there were errors committed in the grand jury.”

Cusick says very simply that he disagrees with the direction Soares has taken the district attorney’s office. “He is a wanna-be legislator and policy maker,” says Cusick. “D.A.s can be policy makers, but they cannot be legislators, and that is part of his problem.”

Cusick says Soares’ “headline chasing” and commitment to abolish the Rockefeller drug laws have distracted the office from straight-ahead prosecution.

Cusick also considers Soares’ “Enough” initiative, which offers owners of illegal guns gift certificates for turning them in, a hollow gesture that creates headlines without truly addressing the problem.

“That office has got to get to its basic task of prosecuting crime,” says Cusick. “The other D.A.s of the other 61 counties in this state are not out chasing headlines.”

Soares says he is not chasing headlines. “I don’t control the media,” says Soares. “I didn’t send out a press release for the Sandra Beth Geisel case. I didn’t send a press release when Chris Porco committed the acts we prosecuted. I didn’t create the acts that brought Mr. Hevesi before the Albany County district attorneys office. I believe that over the course of the last four years we have seen things in this county we haven’t seen before, and I did not create those circumstances, but my office had to deal with them under a tremendous amount of scrutiny.”

Despite his criticisms, however, Cusick understands that Soares has filled a void critics say has been left by other prominent Albany politicians. Soares is in a position of considerable power, and he speaks about the troubles that affect the communities that other politicians ignore. Soares has come to represent more in Albany than a typical district attorney might. Cusick says he feels that Soares has simply chosen the wrong position to enact the change he wants.

And while Cusick calls for a return to straightforward prosecution of crime, Soares says he will not ignore the fact that, as Albany County’s district attorney, he has oversight over the most powerful politicians in the state and influence over policy made there.

“This county is so important geographically,” says Soares. “It is so important politically. And honestly, I have watched people in leadership refer to this as little Smallbany. I don’t think they have created a vision for this community. We are two-and-a-half and three hours away from three of the world’s most important markets: New York, Montreal, and Boston. We have a vital role to play in everything from economics to government policy. We should be shaping policy for the entire state, yet we still have leaders that bicker over little tribal issues. As long as we have that kind of attitude that exists here we are never going to really fulfill what I believe Albany is destined to fulfill.”

Cusick and pundits in New York City may not like Soares’ insistence on using that power in the Hevesi case or Spitzer investigation (cases that Cusick insists Soares whitewashed for his party), it is likely that many residents of Albany don’t mind that their hometown district attorney has that influence.

One of the largest issues of the campaign is that Cusick is working on short time. Having only joined the race in September, Cusick has yet to do very much door-to-door campaigning. So far, he has spent most of time preaching to the choir.

Meanwhile, Soares has been actively campaigning in suburban communities like Delmar, as well as more urban areas in Albany.

A debate between the pair is scheduled for Oct. 7 at Albany Law School.

While Soares has been seen as a candidate focused on urban issues, he has strong support from the progressive communities that live in Albany’s suburbs and surrounding rural areas.

As Democratic Assemblyman and Soares supporter Jack McEneny wrote about the first contest between Soares and Cusick in his book, Albany Capital City on the Hudson, “David Soares was a black man sent to a top law-enforcement job by overwhelmingly white votes. The truth is that if every person of color had stayed home on election day, or even that, of those who voted, 100 percent had voted for his opponent, David Soares still would have become DA.”

It is up to Cusick to catch up to Soares’ wide base of support, and so far Cusick seems to be pacing himself. Cusick says he would like to start meeting with neighborhood associations in Albany.

“We are going to ramp up voter contact, and we expect serious endorsements shortly,” says Cusick. “It’s retail politics—one step at a time. This is really a referendum on David Soares. A lot of people are interested in my ideas, but the vast majority are interested in what is the problem with him?”

“I am running against the same political apparatus that has maintained control in various offices within the county for quite some time,” says Soares. “I pose a significant problem for these apparatuses because I am truly independent, and they haven’t figured out my motivations. They can’t control me or make a phone call to clear the way for things they want.”

“I think I am going to get a lot of Democratic votes,” says Cusick. “I am going to get the base Republican votes. And I know I am going to get a lot of independents. People are going to tune in, and what’s happening now is that those in politics are reenergized to a reality of a race that wasn’t there two months ago.”

Soares says, in the end, despite talk of his being a headline grabber and a statewide political player, his future plans are straightforward.

“I am going to be district attorney of Albany County as long as my constituency agrees with the direction we have created for this county. I think Albany County has so much more to offer to the rest of the state. So, as long as I am here, I am going to be a proud supporter of our upstate counties and communities and continue to do my job faithfully and honestly.”

A woman laughs with Cusick as she brings up Soares’ Troopergate investigation. She mentions something she heard about Soares on a talk-radio show. Another woman tells Cusick she was excited to see the news about the pharmaceutical case being case dismissed.

Cusick smiles, reassured that people are paying attention.

He later tells Metroland, “Those are the perils of chasing headlines. You take on a case like the steroids case and you get headlines. But if it fails, you get headlines all over the country that call you a failure.”

dking@metroland.net


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