Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's top aides and the acting head of the State Police used state resources to monitor the travels of State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, the governor's chief political enemy, in a bid to embarrass him, a scathing state investigation has found.
The Spitzer advisers sought information about travels by Bruno, a Brunswick Republican, to Manhattan earlier this year and then provided "selective" details in remarkable speed to the Albany Times Union, which published several articles critical of Bruno in early July, said State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, like the governor.
The damaging investigation showed two top aides, through a series of e-mails and telephone conversations this spring, attempting to discredit -- using information provided by the acting State Police superintendent -- Bruno's use of state aircraft.
"Here, the [acting State Police] superintendent permitted the governor's liaison to lead him and the State Police squarely into the middle of politics, precisely where they do not belong," the Cuomo report said.
The investigation cleared Bruno of any wrongdoing but said First Deputy State Police Superintendent Preston L. Felton, acting head of the agency, had discussed Bruno's travel schedule with William Howard, a top Spitzer aide, then, instead of just releasing available documents, ordered others created and turned over to Spitzer's office.
These lengthly documents, in turn, were released to the Times Union just one day after the newspaper asked for the records in late June.
The Cuomo report portrayed Darren Dopp, the longtime communications director for Spitzer, as directing the overall media effort against Bruno.
"The governor's office planned to obtain information concerning Sen. Bruno's use of state aircraft for the purpose of giving this information to the media," the Cuomo report said.
The Cuomo report added that the State Police released documents knowing they would be made public "without considering any potential security concerns" involving Bruno, who has received death threats over the years.
Cuomo and Albany County District Attorney David Soares both said that Bruno's flights were legal.
The state inspector general, a political appointee of Spitzer, also cleared Bruno.
>Spitzer issues denial
Instead of criticizing Bruno, as Spitzer aides for weeks had predicted, Cuomo issued an explosive series of criticisms Monday about how the governor's office used the State Police to go out of its way to help gather what the administration thought could be embarrassing publicity at a time when the governor and majority leader were engaged in bruising policy battles.
Cuomo's report portrayed Spitzer's office as making public selective details about Bruno's travels when the same kind of details about the governor's travels were not released.
The governor, who works within a tight circle of aides and is heavily involved in the intricacies of his office, denied any knowledge of the scheme.
"I apologize to the people of the State of New York," Spitzer said Monday, adding that he accepted the report's conclusions.
Spitzer was expected in Buffalo today to discuss waterfront issues with the Common Council.
He was not interviewed for the Cuomo investigation, aides said.
The governor suspended Dopp indefinitely without pay from his $175,000-a-year post and transferred Howard, whose responsibilities as assistant secretary for homeland security put him over the State Police, to an unspecified state agency.
The governor took no action against Felton or Richard Baum, another of his chief advisers, who was on the receiving end of some of Dopp's e-mails on the matter.
On May 23, Dopp sent Baum an e-mail noting that travel records "exist going way back."
"And I think there is a new and different way to proceed [regarding the] media. Will explain tomorrow," he added."
On June 3, after an unrelated critical article on Bruno in the Times Union, Dopp wrote to Baum, "Think a travel story would fit nicely in the mix."
Hours later, Howard wrote to Baum.
"The impending travel stuff implies more problems -- particularly in the tax area I think. I think timing right for that move," Howard wrote.
Former State Police superintendents interviewed in the investigation said Felton engaged in an unprecedented move by becoming personally involved in monitoring the travel plans of Bruno -- both before and after trips -- and then reporting that information to his supervisor in the governor's office.
In one e-mail, dated May 21, Felton wrote to Howard: "Just received another request for transportation from that same individual we had last week in New York City, do you want us to provide it and do you want me to do the same on documentation we previously talked about for the trip?
Spitzer rode into office with a vow to clean up Albany, and Republicans were taking delight Monday that the attempt of the governor's office to tag Bruno with an embarrassing story ended up backfiring.
>Bruno thanks Cuomo
They also were asking a familiar scandal question: What did the governor know and when did he know it?
"Of greater concern, the public needs to know when Gov. Spitzer was aware of this blatant setup attempt and what the governor's role was in its execution. This must be investigated immediately," said Joseph Mondello, chairman of the State Republican Party and one of Bruno's close political advisers.
Bruno stayed uncharacteristically out of the limelight Monday, issuing a brief written statement thanking Cuomo and saying his office will review the "disturbing conclusions."
As far as the public knew, the travel affair began July 1, when the Times Union published an article accusing Bruno of using state aircraft for political purposes.
Behind the scenes, though, Dopp and Howard had already been gathering information on Bruno -- using State Police resources -- well in advance with plans to get the information published.
At least a month before the Times Union filed its Freedom of Information request, Felton, acting on what he thought was an order from Howard, gathered information on the Bruno flights.
Though Bruno took 10 flights, Howard asked Felton about only three -- on days when Bruno also attended fundraisers in Manhattan. State ethics rules permit a state official to use state aircraft for a political event, for example, if the day also includes government business. The Cuomo report called for tightening that "lax" policy.
The Spitzer administration and State Police provided far more details about Bruno than about other officials. Felton contacted a major, who then interviewed State Police investigators about where the senator had gone when they drove him to events.
Records then were created to reply to a request under the state's Freedom of Information laws, though no such request had even been made. The state's laws require agencies only to release available records; they do not have to create records.
The Cuomo report, led by Ellen Nachtigall Biben, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney's office, said the state acted outside the laws in what it released, such as documents that resembled official state travel records, "which they were not."
The Times Union request, made June 27, sought documents on use of state aircraft by seven officials, including Spitzer and Bruno. It sought the itineraries only of Spitzer and Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson, yet Spitzer's office released only Bruno's itinerary.
Then, nine days after its story was published, the Times Union sent a second e-mail that repeated the first request but added a new clause seeking the itineraries of not just Spitzer and Paterson but "anyone else on the list for which you have such materials."
"The timing of this request was odd," the Cuomo report said, noting the request came after the story about Bruno's travels was published. The Cuomo report characterized as "not consistent" the administration claims that all it did was respond to a freedom-of-information request.
Rex Smith, Times Union editor, said he was unaware of a second e-mail sent after the article appeared. He said the original story came from a tip.
"Nothing in this indicates that our reporting was not accurate," Smith said of the Cuomo report.
Dopp did not return an e-mail, and Howard could not be reached to comment. Felton said he has never "in my 26-year career with the State Police knowingly undertaken any such action and never would" that might give the "slightest appearance of impropriety."
"To the extent that circumstances previously not known to me now have given rise to that appearances, I am particularly saddened," Felton said.
The Cuomo report said Felton kept Howard informed "in a continuous flow of information" when Bruno's ground transportation schedule changed for his travels to Manhattan.
Thomas A. Constantine, a former superintendent who served with the agency 32 years before becoming head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told investigators that even giving out information about the size of a security detail could compromise security.
He said that it is "critically important that the State Police be seen as apolitical due to their enormous power to arrest and investigate."
The report portrayed Felton as getting personally involved in providing material for a freedom-of-information request, something former superintendents said they never did. He even called a captain in the agency's aviation unit to order him to collect details about Bruno's travels.
Dopp apparently drove much of the effort. Howard said Dopp informed him of the freedom-of-information request and told him to reach out to the State Police "as a courtesy."
Howard, who also makes $175,000 a year, then asked Felton, at Dopp's request, to produce documents about Bruno's travels.
The report said evidence indicated Felton "felt pressured" by Howard, his supervisor.