Troopergate: Spitzer's Plot

It began with detailed security information passed on to a reporter, as administration operatives conspired to plant a news story damaging, if not destroying, the career of a political rival. When the plot unraveled, those same top aides refused to cooperate with the investigation, citing executive privilege.

Even though senior administration officials ultimately complied, some providing testimony and others affidavits, the chief of staff refused, citing the need to “protect the privacy of the conversations” between him and his boss. Another of those implicated in the scheme retained the services a top criminal lawyer.

As more details emerged, it was learned the chief of staff used a private e-mail account to conduct official state business, e-mails that have thus far eluded officials tasked with the probe.

The Senate began its own investigation. But after initially promising to cooperate with a Senate committee, a top administration lawyer demurred, dispatching an aide to take her place.

If the story line sounds familiar, it should be. But the players may not be as well known, because they aren’t bold faced names like Valerie Plame, Scooter Libby, Alberto Gonzales or Karl Rove. It’s not even taking place inside Washington’s Beltway, but rather the Northway, a scenic stretch of highway leading to New York’s state capital of Albany.

Their names are Richard Baum, Darren Dopp, William Howard, and Kristine Hamann. And the Joe in this still-unraveling scandal isn’t the ever-indignant former ambassador Joe Wilson. It’s the New York Senate Republican Leader, Joe Bruno, target of a plot orchestrated by the administration of Governor Eliot Spitzer.

It’s called Troopergate.

Troopergate began when at least two of Spitzer’s top aides, Communications Director Darren Dopp and state Assistant Deputy Security for Homeland Security, William Howard, alleged to a reporter that Bruno was misusing state aircraft.

Based on information given to the Albany Times Union’s James Odato by these senior officials, the paper reported on July 1, 2007, that “three times this year, Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno used taxpayer-funded state aircraft to fly to political fundraisers in Manhattan while certifying he was on official state business.”

That, according to New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, was part of a ploy by the Governor’s office “to generate press coverage of Senator Bruno’s use of state aircraft to attend fundraisers and other political events, rather than for official state business as he had certified.” Cuomo’s investigation exonerated Bruno, determining the trips were “permissible under the existing policy for the use of state aircraft.”

While Dopp and Howard subsequently claimed they gave the information to the paper in response to a freedom of information (FOIL) request, Cuomo concluded that wasn’t the case. The FOIL request didn’t include a request for the information provided, and the Acting Superintendent of the New York State Police, Preston Felton, was “pressured” to create documents not in his possession.

“The Governor’s Office did not merely produce records under a FOIL request,” Cuomo found, “but were instead engaged in planning and producing media coverage concerning Senator Bruno’s travel on state aircraft before any FOIL request was made.” Felton’s involvement, he said, “appears to have been unprecedented in State Police history.”

Howard has since been demoted; and Dopp, who retained a criminal defense lawyer, was suspended without pay. According to Cuomo’s report, Dopp regularly apprised Spitzer’s chief of staff, Richard Baum, as the plot unfolded.

While details of Troopergate are distinctive from controversies surrounding President George W. Bush, responses from his and Spitzer’s administrations are eerily familiar.

In the Valerie Plame affair, senior White House officials were accused of leaking information to a reporter to harm a political rival. Ditto on Troopergate.

In the ongoing controversy over the firings of several politically-appointed U.S. Attorney’s, House and Senate Democrats bristled after learning that several administration officials communicated via non-government e-mails, and that those e-mails may not be available to investigators. In Troopergate, the New York Post reported “the governor’s office had failed to turn over to Cuomo’s office e-mails from the personal addresses used by Spitzer’s aides.”

White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers failed to appear before a House Judiciary Committee hearing investigating the U.S. Attorney firings, leading to a party-line contempt citation. “Gov. Spitzer’s inspector general,” the Post said, “abruptly refused to participate…in the Senate Investigations Committee probe of the Troopergate scandal, leading furious Republicans to charge the governor’s aides with ‘a pattern’ of stonewalling.”

But while there are stark similarities, there is one striking difference. Some of President Bush’s harshest critics in the Valerie Plame and U.S. Attorney scandals — New Yorkers all — have had nothing to say about the scandal surrounding the titular head of their state party.

A host of New York Democrats, many of whom served in the State Legislature, have signed onto various House resolutions calling for the censure of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and the impeachment of Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. None has issued statements on the scandal in their own state.

In fact, the New York Sun reported “the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party, Joseph Crowley, the dean of the delegation, Rep. Charles Rangel, and a mayoral hopeful, Rep. Anthony Weiner each declined to comment” following the release of Cuomo’s report.

Even the state’s publicity-seeking senior Senator, Charles Schumer, point man for Senate Democrats’ never-ending investigations of the Bush Administration, has had nothing to say. According to that Sun article, “press officials with senators Schumer and Clinton did not return calls seeking comment on Mr. Spitzer, and the politicians have not released any statements about the attorney general’s report.”

Schumer’s silence is especially surprising, given that his legendary, weekly news conferences back home often focus on state issues, and that he frequently used the forum to criticize Spitzer’s predecessor, Republican Gov. George Pataki.

Former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole used to remark that the most dangerous place in Washington was getting between Chuck Schumer and a television camera. Maybe in Washington. But in New York, it’s become an awfully quiet place for Congressional Democrats.