By Dan Rivoli
Eliot Spitzer, before his stunning downfall as governor, was the white knight of Wall Street as attorney general. Before him, Robert Abrams put the attorney general office’s focus on consumer rights.
Each attorney general puts their stamp on an office that commands more than 650 lawyers. This September, five candidates are running for the state’s top law job, a position held by Andrew Cuomo, the front-runner to be the state’s next governor.
In interviews with Our Town, each candidate stated that they wanted the next attorney general to be the “People’s Lawyer” and they all want to clean up the ethical morass in Albany. But the candidates have very different visions for the office, strategies to fight corruption and backgrounds that demonstrate their ability to do the job.
Richard Brodsky is a member of the State Assembly, representing parts of Westchester County. But his prominence in the chamber—and his argument for being the next attorney general—comes more from investigation than legislation.
He was at the helm of two powerful committees: Oversight, Analysis and Investigation, and most recently Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions.
Where Albany reform, in this race, means pushing independent redistricting of legislative seats, public financing of campaigns and strong ethics laws, Brodsky believes “Albany’s governing institutions” need attention.
“I come to that as [the] only successful reformer up there,” he said.
Brodsky led the reform of authorities—public bodies created by the state to handle public projects. These authorities build dormitories and schools, provide transportation or produce power. But Brodsky called them “Soviet-style bureaucracies” that make up New York’s shadow government.
“I did it,” he said of his reform measures, “and I did it when people said I couldn’t.”
Brodsky fought the proposed Jets Stadium on the West Side, tussled with Yankees-owner George Steinbrenner over the new publicly-subsidized stadium, and sued when Indian Point, a nuclear power plant in upstate New York, got an exemption from fire safety standards.
But there is a political element to the attorney general’s office that Brodsky believes will bring reform to Albany.
“On the budget, on gridlock, on campaign finance, on reapportionment, you’ve got to have someone with political skills to change Albany.”
Sean Coffey, a former assistant U.S. Attorney and lead lawyer on the WorldCom class-action suit, wants to use the attorney general’s office as a bully pulpit to enact reform in a Legislature loath to do so.
With Cuomo making ethics the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign, Coffey believes that the attorney general can be “noisy” and the governor’s “wingman.”
“I can pick up the slack,” Coffey said.
When Coffey is not crusading against Albany, he is hammering Wall Street. He boasts of getting burned investors more than $6 billion from WorldCom, a telephone company.
An oft-repeated line on the campaign trail is that he doesn’t have to beat up on Wall Street to prove he can. As attorney general, Coffey’s goal for the financial industry is keeping it “honest” by focusing on audit firms, credit rating agencies—the “gatekeepers,” he says.
“You need somebody who understands this stuff,” Coffey said.
He believes his opponents’ political ambitions could influence temperament. While a joke in political circles dictates that “AG” stands for “Aspiring Governor,” Coffey says he doesn’t want that position. As a former federal prosecutor and litigator, there should be a nonpartisan agenda for the office, he said.
“I know a good case from a bad case,” Coffey said.
But where Coffey was fighting Wall Street from his law office, Eric Dinallo was an assistant attorney general under Spitzer.
He is credited with resurrecting the Martin Act, which allowed the attorney general to investigate financial fraud and made the New York State Attorney General’s office nationally known.
Dinallo wants to use the prominence of the office to deal with problems in everyday New Yorkers’ lives.
“I want to take it and worry less about the markets, which I clearly have comfort and a history of success in,” Dinallo said, “but worry more about consumer financial products: the fees people pay in their everyday lives. The checks they write at the kitchen table every month.”
Another kitchen-table topic that Dinallo wants to combat is public corruption in Albany. Dinallo criticizes his opponents for saying they would try to compel the State Legislature in to giving the attorney general more power to investigate public corruption—a tall order in Albany. Dinallo believes he can tackle public corruption using existing law, similar to the way he rediscovered the Martin Act, which was signed into law in 1921.
“I see big, big opportunities through creative, aggressive use of the law in public integrity,” Dinallo said.
Kathleen Rice, the district attorney for Long Island’s Nassau County, has made ethics in Albany the centerpiece of her campaign as well. She says that reform must be brought to the capital before New York can recover economically.
“Confidence in state government is at an all-time low,” she said. “When you have a situation like that, it’s very difficult to have this kind of recovery you need in the state.”
Rice points to how she changed the district attorney’s office after she was elected in 2005. She changed the plea policy on drunk driving and helped write tougher DWI laws.
“I attacked the epidemic of drunk driving in a way no one ever has before,” Rice said. “I know how to address an issue that, for one reason or another, people have failed to address.”
As attorney general, Rice wants to facilitate whistleblowers coming forward by increasing protections.
“Through that, you can get the reform, from an administrative standpoint certainly, of certain agencies if there are practices there that don’t lend themselves to good government,” Rice said. “I believe it’s setting the tone that the public trust something to be held sacrosanct.”
Eric Schneiderman, a state senator from the Upper West Side, is also focusing on restoring public trust. He points to his legislative achievements in correcting some of the bad business practices in the state. He sponsored a law that prevents insurance providers from canceling an entire class of coverage to avoid paying for expensive medical treatment. He also headed the panel to oust a sitting senator for assaulting his girlfriend—the first time since 1920.
A problem in Albany, he said, is that most of the unethical behavior is legal.
“I’m more interested in making cases against individuals as a part of an effort to achieve structural reforms, change the laws and change people’s attitudes,” Schneiderman said.
As attorney general, Schneiderman proposes to create a working group to examine New York’s securities laws. In government, he wants public integrity officers in each regional office of the attorney general.
“Folks who want to report local corruption can have a place to go other than the local prosecutor who probably has relationships with people you’re trying to report,” Schneiderman said.
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