The man who makes Cuomo’s commission look credible

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William Fitzpatrick. ()
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ALBANY—It's not just Andrew Cuomo whose reputation stands to suffer if the anti-corruption commission he appointed is seen as bogus. 

There is, above all others, the tough-talking Republican who's running it: Onondaga County district attorney William Fitzpatrick.

In the face of reports that Cuomo might have meddled in the Moreland Commission's dealings, possibly to quash legal probes into his own finances, or that Cuomo was using the threat of the commission to force closed-door negotiations for an elusive ethics-reform package, Fitzpatrick has vowed that the commission's reporting will be straight, and its work independent.

Fitzpatrick, known to friends as Bill or just “Fitz,” doesn't want to “blow (his) own horn,” but he's proud of the “very, very good and comprehensive report,” he told Capital in a recent phone interview.

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“There were some rough-and-tumble spots, which didn't surprise me,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to the process of researching and writing the report. “But at the end of the day, we put out an outstanding product, and I'm looking forward to continuing.”

Fitzpatrick is thus allowing the administration to leverage his stellar reputation to lend legitimacy to the corruption investigation, which is being led by a small army of district attorneys and former prosecutors, named for the duration of the exercise as deputy attorneys general.

Despite their power under both the Moreland Act of 1907 and the partnership with Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, lawmakers (who make up the most of the commission's targets) have questioned whether the group may actually compel them to turn over records of outside income or lists of their high-profile legal clients.

But Cuomo's first line of defense is Fitzpatrick, one of the commission's three co-chairs, who, unlike the others, is a Republican. His party affiliation alone allows Cuomo to deny that any political bias exists within the inner-workings of the panel.

Beyond that is his public persona. It's not that Fitzpatrick hasn't made enemies in his 21-year stint as district attorney. But nearly all of the individuals interviewed for this article, including his colleagues and even former political opponents and courtroom adversaries, paint Fitzpatrick as a tough but fair prosecutor, and a straight shooter.

In the context of the commission, that reputation is being put to the test.

A preliminary report of the commission's findings released last week suggests wrongdoing in the Legislature but avoids pointing fingers at the executive branch. Implicitly addressing the idea that the governor's office had been kept off limits to the commission, Fitzpatrick said the commission looked but found no improprieties in Cuomo's and Schneiderman's offices.

The policy recommendations laid out in the 101-page report, including an argument for publicly financed elections, mirror Cuomo's legislative priorities nearly to a tee. With few new ideas, and without concrete examples of corruption to force legislative action, the report elicited praise from good-government groups (who no doubt hope for more substantive grounds for action in the commissions' follow-up reporting) but prompted most political stakeholders in New York to shrug.

Fitzpatrick said during an interview in September that he would remain independent in his leadership of the panel, despite political pressures that were mounting even then.

“The governor has been very, very clear this is an independent commission: Follow the evidence, follow the money, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Fitzpatrick said in the earlier interview. “Obviously, feathers will be ruffled.”

He feels the same way still, arguing then and now that he's immune to political threats because he has no ambitions for higher office.

“Look, I'm 61,” Fitzpatrick said more recently. “I've been D.A. for over 20 years. It's the only job I have ever wanted; it's the only job I ever will want in the future. So there's not much anybody can do to me in terms of political pressure, and I just take that stuff with a grain of salt anyway.”

He said Cuomo and Schneiderman did weigh in on the commissioners' work, as did lawmakers and good-government groups. Their input doesn't undermine the panel's policy research or investigations, he said.

“I didn't expect the governor to sit back and do nothing,” he said. “I mean, he appointed us, and by the enabling legislation, we are required to report to him and the attorney general as to what we're doing.

“[Cuomo] had input, and as I've said before, I find him to have a superior mind, and I enjoy exchanging ideas and thoughts with him,” Fitzpatrick continued. “I considered his input helpful, as well as the attorney general's.”

After a fellow commissioner and neighbor to Fitzpatrick, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, said last week it was “a mockery” of the process to assume the members could investigate the executive branch when they were appointed by Cuomo and Schneiderman, the governor deflected, pointing to the Legislature.

“That's where the indictments are,” Cuomo said Wednesday on a public radio show. “There has not been rampant evidence of corruption among district attorneys or in the AG's office or in the comptroller's office or in the governor's office. This is in response to a situation in reality. This is not an abstract exercise.”

Cuomo’s decision to empanel the 25-member group followed a year of indictments illustrative of Albany's infamous culture of corruption, during which public officials were found to have attempted bribery and fraud in exchange for career advancements or varying sums of money. Despite a vocal push from good-government groups, the Legislature didn’t act on an ethics-reform plan before the session ended in June. Cuomo's was one of several legislative proposals that fell flat.

Cuomo packed the commission with law enforcement officials who are skilled investigators and prosecutors. Fitzpatrick joins other co-chairs Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and Milton Williams, a former federal prosecutor. Other members include the D.A.s of Albany, Bronx, Broome, Erie, Essex, Franklin, Rockland and Warren counties.

Each member was appointed deputy to Schneiderman, a designation that gives the commissioners broad investigative authority to probe any issues involving “public peace, public safety and public justice.” In recent months, the commission has gone after the Legislature, inciting an all-out war between the governor and the state Senate, now led by a bipartisan coalition of mostly Republicans.

The panel held meetings around the state hearing testimony to inform its policy recommendations, and the group's second task will be largely investigatory.

Fitzpatrick’s co-chairs echoed his commitment to remain independent in their probes.

Rice, a Democrat who is also president of the state District Attorneys Association, said during a September interview that the three chairs agree on the mission of the panel—to probe the “corrosive” effects of money on the Democratic process.

She didn't respond to a request for a follow-up interview.

“The commission has shown its level of independence from day one,” Rice said earlier this year. “People bring their party affiliations with them, but there is no exercise of our duties that has anything to do with politics whatsoever.”

Williams, who previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney downstate and who is now in private practice, said in a separate September interview that Fitzpatrick has emerged as a clear leader of the panel. Williams described Fitzpatrick as a thoughtful, fair man who keeps his word.

“The commission loves him,” Williams said. “He is the most senior of the co-chairs, and all of us look to Bill, because he has a wealth of experience and knowledge.”

In a follow-up conversation last week, Williams said: “I probably feel even stronger about what I said before as time passed by.”

Advocates for campaign-finance reform lauded the commission's recommendations for how to reform current law, particularly the push for a publicly funded system like that in New York City, which uses taxpayer dollars to limit the influence of special interest groups. Critics question, though, whether public officials who operate under New York’s porous laws should have influence over how the rules are changed.

An unprecedented six-term incumbent, Fitzpatrick has been successful in raising money for campaigns. According to an analysis by the Syracuse Post-Standard, the rarely challenged D.A. has raised more than $500,000 since 2006.

His most recent disclosure reports shows that he raised about $126,000 and spent about $95,000 from July 2012 to July 2013. He had about $32,000 in his campaign coffers this summer. His next re-election bid will be in 2015.

The Syracuse newspaper has reported extensively on his expenditures, noting in an August article that from 2005 to 2013, Fitzpatrick spent at least $63,000 at restaurants, at least $57,000 at golf courses, golf clubs and golf tournaments and at least $53,000 in donations to other political campaigns and parties. These expenses are all permitted under New York’s laws, which allow officials to spend campaign funds on almost anything.

Good-government groups said Fitzpatrick’s spending might be related to campaigning, but the lack of oversight from the state Board of Elections demonstrates why the laws need to be changed.

“Acceptable uses aren’t always clear,” said Bill Mahoney, research coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Oftentimes, a person has a need to spend money on dinners, going out and fund-raising. Other times, it could just be a political official paying for their personal lunch. So there is no good way to tell through the database whether these expenditures cross the line.”

Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York, said the varied makeup of the commission—a mix of elected officials, academics and policy experts—will encourage a healthy discussion on how to overhaul New York’s campaign-finance system.

“The basic reality is as long as we have a bad campaign finance system, everyone who runs for office has to participate in it, and everybody ends up looking bad,” Scharff said, addressing Fitzpatrick’s spending history. “No one’s individual fundraising is really the issue here. The issue is: is there a willingness or a commitment to change the campaign finance system so that nobody has to run for office in the future relying on campaign contributions from wealthy donors?”

Tina Bennet, an attorney who now lives in neighboring Madison County, ran against Fitzpatrick in 2007, and she pointed to his campaign spending as evidence that he shouldn’t oversee a panel charged with reforming election laws.

She said challenging the powerful D.A. was an intimidating experience and claimed that many attorneys or others in the law enforcement community in Onondaga County are unwilling to speak out against Fitzpatrick.

“People are afraid of him up here,” she said. “The police are afraid of him.”

Fitzpatrick has engaged in a public dispute with Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler and the city’s mayor, Stephanie Miner. The multifaceted clash with Fowler, which involved a battle over interrogation practices in the city, sparked The Post-Standard’s editorial board to admonish both leaders.

“The standoff is becoming a farce that discredits both the District Attorney’s Office and the police department,” the paper wrote in February 2012.

Fitzpatrick said critics will use his disagreements with Fowler and Miner to suggest he is combative and doesn’t work well with other leaders. But he’s gotten along with past police chiefs and mayors, he said, arguing that the two tiffs are rare examples.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Well, the D.A. doesn’t get along with anybody,’” he said during the September interview. “Actually, I get along great with everybody.”

Both Fowler and Miner declined to comment.

Ralph Cognetti, a Syracuse defense attorney who briefly challenged Fitzpatrick in 1999 and often faces him in the courtroom, described the D.A. as one of the best trial attorneys in the state.

“I think he is tough when he has to be tough and sympathetic when that is required and called for,” Cognetti said. “I really have nothing but the utmost respect for him, even though he obviously is on the other side in every case that I have.”

The state’s highest judge, New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, also speaks highly of Fitzpatrick, calling him a “straight shooter” who “calls it the way he sees it.”

“Bill doesn’t worry about politics. He is nobody’s pushover,” Lippman said. “He cares about doing the right thing.”

Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, of which Fitzpatrick is an active member, said the Syracuse D.A. is respected throughout the country.

Fitzpatrick helped develop a set of ethical standards for prosecutors in New York that is now being used in other states.

“(Regardless of) politics, race, religion, where you came from, social status—he will look you in the eye and do the right thing every single time,” Burns said.

Michael Arcuri, a Utica Democrat who has served in Congress and as Oneida County’s D.A., said Fitzpatrick is “perfect” for the Moreland Commission, being an official who has steered clear of politics and focused on justice.

“He has tried death penalty cases; he certainly knows political pressure,” Arcuri said. “He’ll do the right thing.”

When Cuomo announced in July that Fitzpatrick would head the commission, he related an anecdote of his first conversation with the D.A. Before running for governor, when Cuomo was attorney general, he called Fitzpatrick to introduce himself and suggest a meeting.

Cuomo remembers Fitzpatrick on the other end of the phone, saying, “‘Yeah, I know. I know attorney generals. I’ve seem ’em come; I’ve seen ’em go.’

“I said, ‘Whoa,’” Cuomo recalled.

“Bill was generous, and he was kind, and he showed me the ropes, and he introduced me to the district attorneys around the state,” the governor continued. “We went on for four years to have a really great relationship. And it was personally satisfying. It also made me a better attorney general, because our relationship with the D.A.s allowed us both to do a better job, I think. And it wouldn’t have happened without Bill Fitzpatrick.”

As for why Cuomo picked him, Fitzpatrick said he wouldn't want to speculate.

“But certainly he could not have picked 25 Democrats from Queens,” Fitzpatrick said. “That would have looked silly.”