Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Albany Parses the Purposes of State Trips

About New York
The New York Times
July 25, 2007

At 11 a.m. on April 5, state troopers drove Joseph F. Bruno, a politician who lives near Albany, to a helicopter and flew him to Manhattan. He arrived in time for lunch. The first hint of a public purpose for his trip came in a meeting that began at 3:30 and lasted 30 to 40 minutes. Participants said the subjects involved both legislative business and Republican Party affairs.

After that, Mr. Bruno had a 4:30 meeting that is said to have involved state matters in some manner, shape or form. This lasted all of 10 minutes.

Then it was time for Mr. Bruno, leader of the Republicans in the State Senate, to fly back to Albany, where state troopers were waiting to drive him to his next stop.

So for the better part of a day, Mr. Bruno commanded the use of state vehicles, state helicopters and state troopers as chauffeurs and pilots in order to conduct a grand total of about 30 minutes of legislative business in Manhattan. That’s all, folks.

These details can be found on the 48th page of a 53-page report issued by the state attorney general in one of the fastest investigations in the history of political warfare.

A few weeks ago, Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s staff leaked information about Mr. Bruno’s use of state aircraft. Mr. Bruno said the governor was using troopers to spy on him. Everyone involved was outraged — outraged! — and demanded investigations. The attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, complied.

It turns out that trips like the one taken by Mr. Bruno on April 5 — and others in which he was flown to Manhattan on the dates of major fund-raising parties — are entirely O.K. under the current state rules, according to the attorney general’s report. As long as a few minutes of public business are blended into the trip, the use of state aircraft is allowed.

Apparently, the main scandal is how the public came to learn about this.

By page count, 80 percent of the Cuomo report has to do with various sneaky things done by Governor Spitzer’s aides to collect and leak information about the Bruno flights. They got State Police officials to recreate itineraries for trips taken by Mr. Bruno, but not for travels of the governor or the lieutenant governor.

Then, a reporter from The Times Union in Albany sought details of the trips under the Freedom of Information Law, quite possibly by invitation; any journalist would welcome such an invitation.

Given the energy devoted to this project by senior members of the governor’s staff, as documented in the Cuomo report, the only surprising thing is that Mr. Spitzer himself did not personally deliver the records to The Times Union.

Many branches of government stall for months or years before releasing ordinary public records, much less go to the trouble of creating new ones. Alas, fans of open government can hold their applause. Despite the exemplary speed in rushing out the information on Mr. Bruno, the governor’s aides were not nearly as thorough in assembling details of trips taken by Mr. Spitzer and other leading figures in the state capital.

The folly of this venture is plain, though it appears nowhere in the Cuomo report. The purpose of the leak was to embarrass Mr. Bruno. But if officials can be flown to Manhattan by the State Police, then driven to Aqueduct Racetrack by state troopers, and meet ethical standards for publicly paid travel because they have a “legislative business” meeting at the track, then it is pretty clear that embarrassing anyone in Albany is a cause long and hopelessly lost. (The horses, by the way, were not running the day of that meeting, listed as May 4 in The Times Union’s account.)

THAT the governor’s office did not know better is a strong hint of powerful hubris. As of the spring, the Republican Party in New York State had all but gone toes-up. It had lost the governor’s office, and its one remaining bunker of power, a majority in the State Senate, was eroding. Now, rallied by its leader’s persecution over his helicopter flights, the Republicans have all but called in Amnesty International. And they are vowing to investigate Mr. Spitzer’s own fund-raising, back to 1998.

No one — including the attorney general — is volunteering to document how many thousands of dollars, and hundreds of hours of state police time, are used to carry politicians to events that are strictly party politics. “Whatever facts we had are in the report, which speaks for itself,” a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo said.

Apparently there is such a thing as too much information.

E-mail: dwyer@nytimes.com


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