Saturday, March 29, 2008

Spitzer May Have Lied, Prosecutor Says

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times

The office of P. David Soares, the Albany prosecutor, issued its second report on the Bruno investigation on Friday.

Published: March 29, 2008

ALBANY — Evidence collected by the Albany district attorney’s office indicates that Gov. Eliot Spitzer lied to the public last year about his role in an effort to discredit a political rival and may have misled the district attorney’s office itself in an interview last year, according to a report released late Friday.

In sworn testimony, Darren Dopp, Mr. Spitzer’s former communications director, portrays Mr. Spitzer as keeping closely abreast of aides’ efforts to compile evidence that the State Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, the state’s top Republican, misused state cars and helicopters, according to the report. Mr. Dopp goes as far as to describe the governor as enthusiastically issuing the final order to release Mr. Bruno’s travel records to the press.

Mr. Spitzer, by contrast, told the public — and the district attorney’s office — that he was barely involved in the release of the records and had been misled by his own staff about the collection and release of the documents about Mr. Bruno.

The report, by the office of the Albany County district attorney, P. David Soares, was the latest twist in the controversy that began last summer after Mr. Spitzer’s office disseminated those travel records to a reporter from The Times Union of Albany. Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo’s office issued a report last July finding that the governor’s staff had misused the State Police as part of a coordinated effort to release records damaging to Mr. Bruno, but his office was not able to interview the governor or his staff.

Mr. Dopp was suspended in July after the Cuomo report was published and eventually left the administration; he was granted immunity by the district attorney in his investigation. He testified that when he warned the governor that Mr. Bruno would be angered by the release of the information, the governor responded with a series of expletives and told him to “shove it” into Mr. Bruno “with a red hot poker.”

“As he was saying it, he was like spitting a little bit,” Mr. Dopp told the investigators. “He was spitting mad.”

The former governor and his staff will not face criminal charges, but Mr. Soares said in his report that Mr. Spitzer’s statements to the district attorney’s office conflicted with that of Mr. Dopp and that the discrepancies would have been presented before a grand jury had the governor not resigned.

The district attorney said in his report that he considered asking a grand jury to review whether Mr. Spitzer engaged in misconduct as a public official. But he dropped that plan after Mr. Spitzer resigned this month amid an investigation into a prostitution ring. Mr. Soares probably would have had difficulty making a perjury case because he did not interview Mr. Spitzer under oath last year.

The latest report by the district attorney was a turnaround from one Mr. Soares issued in September, which largely exonerated Mr. Spitzer. After releasing that report, Mr. Soares said, “I do not believe there was a plot to smear Senator Bruno,” adding, “It’s pretty hard to believe that they actually conspired.”

His latest report, however, said that “political plotting and games are not in the best interest of New York State.”

Republicans assailed the district attorney on Friday for not pressing forward with a criminal case now and for his handling of the case.

“The report confirms what I have been saying all along, that former Gov. Eliot Spitzer lied to the people of this state about his direct knowledge and involvement in the Troopergate scandal,” Mr. Bruno said in a statement. “I feel it was a serious mistake not to present this information to a grand jury and proceed with a prosecution,” he added.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Spitzer declined to comment Friday night.

Mr. Soares, who declined to comment, had sought to release a more detailed report but was deterred by grand jury secrecy rules. The district attorney had asked the administration of Gov. David A. Paterson to allow it to release material collected in response to a grand jury subpoena, but Mr. Cuomo’s office, representing the executive branch, released an opinion on Friday saying such a move was not permissible.

The report, which is built largely around Mr. Dopp’s testimony, portrays the former governor as heavily involved in the entire Bruno effort, e-mailing Mr. Dopp frequently after the report was released, keeping close tabs on the progress of the story and analyzing how it played in the press. The governor had his staff arrange for a former top State Police official to talk to The New York Times to keep the story alive, according to the report, in an attempt to show that concerns about Mr. Bruno’s use of the state plane extended back several years.

The latest report is not the end of the matter. The Commission on Public Integrity and the Republican-led Senate Investigations Committee are also conducting inquiries. Mr. Soares’s second investigation started after the integrity commission referred to his office a potential perjury case against Mr. Dopp late last year.

Unlike the last one, Mr. Soares’s new report appeared to vindicate Mr. Cuomo’s findings, which said the administration had tried to discredit Mr. Bruno.

“A political plot involving State Police by senior state officials is a toxic brew,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement on Friday. “In government, even a legitimate goal does not justify unscrupulous means. This situation also proves the old adage, ‘The cover-up is worse than the crime.’ ”

The report differed from Mr. Cuomo’s findings in one respect. While Mr. Cuomo’s report suggested that a Freedom of Information request for the travel records filed in late June by The Times Union may have come at the urging of the Spitzer administration, Mr. Dopp’s testimony indicated that the reporter who filed the request, James Odato, was making inquiries about the travel records in early May. However, Mr. Soares’s report offered limited detail about the back and forth between The Times Union and the administration.

The inquiries began, according to the report, with questions about the governor’s use of state aircraft for trips that involved fund-raisers. Mr. Spitzer’s aides analyzed those records to see if there were “possible problems for the governor”; they concluded that one of Mr. Spitzer’s trips to Rochester for a political fund-raiser for the local Democratic Party was “the most problematic.”

Eventually, however, Mr. Odato asked about other state officials’ use of the state aircraft. At that point Mr. Spitzer’s aides started talking about Mr. Bruno’s possible use of the aircraft for political purposes.

The report says that the governor, last May, was not eager to press forward with releasing records related to Mr. Bruno, saying he didn’t “want anything to interfere with the possible ... conclusion of the legislative session.”

However, Peter Pope, Mr. Spitzer’s policy director, wanted to bring the information to light, even suggesting that there might be an obligation to turn it over to the state inspector general’s office or the United States attorney’s office, according to Mr. Dopp’s testimony. But other aides dismissed those ideas.

Mr. Spitzer’s attitude changed because of a breakdown in relations with Mr. Bruno at the end of the legislative session in late June — “frustration had been building with the inability to get an accord,” Mr. Dopp said.

The district attorney interviewed a number of aides in his investigation, as well as Mr. Dopp’s wife, Sandy, who was angered by the treatment of her husband. When the governor’s counsel, David Nocenti, came to visit the family during her husband’s suspension, she told him, “You guys screwed this thing up so bad.”

She said she and her friends “could have handled it better,” adding, “We’re housewives.”

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