Wednesday, March 03, 2010

S.S. Paterson Hits New Iceberg

Ethics Panel Charges Paterson

On $1700 World Series Tickets

Paid for by a Backdated Check

By Henry J. Stern
March 3, 2010

Events in Albany are unfolding so rapidly that this column may be outdated before you read it. It still may be helpful to get a snapshot of the situation as of Wednesday noon. We also prowl through history to provide a little background on the subject.

(We were right about that. This just came in from The New York Times: PATERSON BROKE ETHICS LAW ON RECEIVING GIFTS, PANEL CHARGES, by Nicholas Confessore and David M. Halbfinger. The Times' lede:

"The state Commission on Public Integrity charged Gov. David A. Paterson with violating state ethics law when he secured free tickets to the opening game of the World Series for himself and others. The announcement came as the governor, already mired in scandal, met with his cabinet and insisted he would stay in office.

"In addition to violating the state's ban on gifts to public officials, the commission found that Mr. Paterson falsely testified under oath that he had intended to pay for the tickets for his son and his son's friend. The commission determined that Mr. Paterson had never intended to pay for the tickets, and only did so after inquiries from the media, after which he submitted a backdated check as payment.

"The commission had referred the case to the Albany County District Attorney, P. David Soares, as well as Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo. Mr. Cuomo is already investigating Mr. Paterson's role in allegedly trying to suppress a domestic-violence case involving a close aide, David Johnson.

"Mr. Johnson also attended the Yankee game in question, and was involved in soliciting the tickets from Yankees officials. The tickets, with a face value of $425 each, seated them a few rows behind home plate" Link to the full Times story here.)

The immediate question is whether Governor Paterson will yield to newspaper editorials and resign his office. The answer to that question is: No. He will not resign voluntarily, or for the good of the Democratic Party. He would only resign in a plea deal to avoid criminal prosecution, and that is a highly unlikely event.

The twist here is that his potential prosecutor is Andrew Cuomo, the putative next governor, who would have defeated Paterson in a Democratic primary. Now that he is to some extent the arbiter of Paterson's fate, he must be careful not to appear vindictive or overly aggressive. There is room for prosecution in Paterson's conduct, but there are also good reasons to leave him alone. To bring criminal charges against New York's first black (and blind) governor for an inappropriate telephone call would place a heavy burden on the accuser.

That is not to excuse the governor. What he did was dead wrong and worthy of censure. It is not a high crime. Whether he realized it or not, he should not have called the complainant, or arranged for her to call him. He should not have called on the State Police or anyone else to question or harass the victim. His loyalty to his aide, companion, gatekeeper and protector is understandable, but his political interference in the case is indefensible. He should have advised D.J. to get a good lawyer, or asked his father, who is a very good lawyer, to recommend a lawyer to handle the case. What he did demonstrates a lack of understanding of how government works, but it is not an impeachable offense unless enough people make it so.

It is clear that Mr. Paterson's ability to function as governor is limited, but that was true before this incident occurred, and lack of effectiveness is not a high crime or misdemeanor. He tried to solve the Senate conflict last summer, but was frustrated by the intransigence of the warring parties. His appointment of Richard Ravitch as Lieutenant Governor, in part to break the Senate deadlock, was considered by many, including Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, to be unconstitutional, but with the help of Speaker Sheldon Silver, it was determined to be lawful. In this, as in other cases in the Supreme Court of the United States, outcomes are hard to predict.

"The Constitution is what the judges say it is," Governor Charles Evans Hughes declared in 1907 in a speech to the Elmira Chamber of Commerce. (For those of you who may not know, Elmira is the county seat of Chemung County, in the southern tier. It is the home town of Mark Twains wife. The couple lived there for many years). As we told you a week ago, Hughes was appointed Chief Justice of the United States in 1930.

Difficult as the Constitution may be to interpret, an impeachable offense may be even harder to determine. The only governor of New York State to be impeached and removed from office, William J. Sulzer, was removed from office in 1913 by the Democratic machine under Charles F. Murphy, which controlled the legislature. Sulzer had been elected with the support of Tammany Hall in 1912, but incurred their displeasure by failing to appoint their choices to state offices. That was 97 years ago, and we can speculate on whether the legislature's ethical standards have improved in the last century.

Public opinion polls show a large majority to believe that Mr. Paterson is not doing a good job, but they also feel he should not be removed from office. We concur that it would be wrong to remove even an unelected governor for ineffectiveness. On the other hand, it would be fascinating to see what Richard Ravitch would do if he had the opportunity to run New York State for 300 days. He is someone who was highly regarded, except when he ran in the Democratic primary for Mayor in 1989 against Mayor Koch and future Mayor Dinkins. From the viewpoint of those seeking necessary change and state government and finance, Ravitch would be much more interesting and likely to be more productive than 300 more days and nights of a beleaguered long-suffering Paterson. However, that result is unlikely at this time, in part because many politicians prefer a weak governor than one who just might be strong. We do not know, however, what new revelations of misconduct are in store, and therefore cannot predict the denouement of this tragicomedy.

The judgment of the political community is usually to stick with what you have. If the standard for removal from office were inappropriate telephone calls, we could lose a large part of the legislature. So although no one can predict if there is another shoe that can be dropped, the likelihood is that the governor will be around for the rest of the year. How he will close the newly increased budget gap ($8.9 billion) is a question which is above my pay grade. Do any of you recall how that phrase came into the 2008 Presidential campaign? Let us know, and we will reward you.

StarQuest #652 03.03.2010 1144wds

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