AG stings Gov in frame game
Spitz apologizes after report says aides used police to target Bruno
By JOE MAHONEY
DAILY NEWS ALBANY BUREAU CHIEF
Tuesday, July 24th 2007
ALBANY - A blistering report by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo charged yesterday that top aides to Gov. Spitzer improperly used the state police to plant an embarrassing story on Senate GOP Leader Joe Bruno.
Spitzer suspended without pay his communications director, Darren Dopp - a close, longtime aide - and reassigned homeland security official Bill Howard for their roles in the dirty tricks.
Cuomo's findings were a shocking turn in the raging feud between the governor, who rode into Albany promising to clean up the town, and the lawmaker he has derided as a relic of old-style politics.
A grim-faced Spitzer said he accepted the findings without question and had telephoned Bruno to tell him, "I apologize. ... This is unacceptable."
He also apologized to New Yorkers for his staff's "clear lapses in judgment" in misusing state police, calling the inquiry into Bruno's travels on state aircraft "grossly mismanaged" and unethical.
"They should never have been put in this situation," he said of the troopers, who were asked to gather details about Bruno's travels so they could be fed to the Albany Times Union for a story about the senator using state aircraft for political trips.
Spitzer said he knew nothing of the operation. Investigators did not question him.
"I thought we were responding to appropriate media inquiries, and I stand by that, because that is the absolute truth," he told reporters at the Capitol.
The report does not say if any of Spitzer's aides were quizzed about whether the governor knew about the plot, nor whether Cuomo reached a conclusion - one way or another - about whether Spitzer was in the loop.
Cuomo's office batted away the question.
"We believe the findings of fact in the report speak for themselves," spokesman Jeffrey Lerner said.
Bruno's response to the report amounted to an "I told you so," saying the Cuomo investigation concluded his travels were "completely appropriate."
In fact, the report said his travels to New York City aboard state choppers didn't break any rules because he always mixed at least some legislative business on his trips. The guidelines should be tightened, the report said.
The report did not allege the plotters broke any laws but was harshly critical of their ethical and security lapses.
Republicans were gleeful to see Spitzer on defense and demanded further investigation.
"This disturbing abuse of power by a governor is unprecedented," said state Republican Party boss Joseph Mondello. "The public needs to know when Gov. Spitzer was aware of this blatant setup attempt and what the governor's role was in its execution."
The plot to smear Bruno began in May, when Dopp e-mailed Richard Baum, who as secretary to the governor is Spitzer's highest ranking cabinet member, saying he had come up with "a new and different way to proceed re media," the report said.
On June 3, Dopp e-mailed Baum about a news story detailing a federal probe into Bruno's involvement in horse racing. "Think a travel story would fit nicely in the mix."
The "pretext" for gathering the information was a request under the Freedom of Information Law by the Albany Times Union - but that request wasn't made until June 27.
Acting State Police Superintendent Preston Felton was pressured to produce and recreate documents by Howard, a top homeland security adviser and Spitzer's liaison to the state police.
Felton said he was told there was a FOIL request and is quoted in the report saying he'd be "shocked" and "very, very p----d off" if it turned out there was not.
The report notes that Felton was vulnerable to pressure because he had not yet been named permanent superintendent, but questioned why he gathered the information himself.
"The Superintendent's personal handling of the matter appears to have been unprecedented in State Police history," the report said, noting that past state police heads said they wouldn't have done so.
Besides suspending Dopp, Spitzer reassigned Howard to an unspecified agency.
The governor defended Felton as a "fine individual" who was "put in an untenable position" though he stressed his administration will continue its search for a permanent superintendent.