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Spitzer aide denies link to Bruno smear

Richard Baum, Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's top aide, says he refused to give sworn testimony to investigators from the state attorney general's office on the advice of the governor's lawyers.

"They frown on sort of free-wheeling interviews when pressed on advice given to the governor," Baum told The Buffalo News, explaining an internal policy designed to prevent a chilling effect on Spitzer's private discussions with his advisers.

"People might not be honest with him if they felt it was going to be in a deposition," said Baum, who has come under criticism for rejecting interview requests from Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo's investigators.

Baum also insisted that neither he nor Spitzer had any knowledge of an attempt by other top aides to smear State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, a Brunswick Republican and leading opponent of the governor, a Democrat.

In other developments Thursday:

*The state Ethics Commission began its own review of the scandal, but the
panel is scheduled to expire at the end of the summer to be replaced by a new agency controlled by Spitzer.

*Spitzer repeatedly refused to say whether he believes Baum and another top aide acted inappropriately by refusing to be interviewed under oath by Cuomo's investigators.

*Senate Republicans pressed ahead with plans for their own full-scale probe, saying they have the legal authority to investigate another branch of government accused of wrongdoing.

*A veteran senator from the Buffalo area with close ties to law enforcement said the scandal has rocked the State Police, whose acting superintendent helped Spitzer aides to monitor Bruno's travels.

In speaking with The News, Baum, now the governor's secretary and previously a top aide while Spitzer had been state attorney general, would not say whether he personally wanted to be interviewed by Cuomo's investigators.

He said David Nocenti, the governor's counsel, "frowns" upon such interviews "for obvious reasons" because they could prevent the free flow of dialogue between a governor and his advisers.

Sunday, the night before Cuomo's report was released, Baum submitted a two-paragraph statement -- notarized by Nocenti -- denying any knowledge or involvement in the matter.

But William F. Howard, a top Spitzer aide on homeland affairs, did speak with Cuomo's investigators. Howard, who tapped the State Police for information on Bruno, is being reassigned to a position outside the governor's office.

Baum, whom State Senate investigators want to interview, said he had nothing to tell Cuomo's investigators because he knew nothing about any of the events.

"People can draw from it what they want to draw from it. I'm just telling the truth," he said of the perception his refusal to speak with investigators has created.

Baum said he did not reply to e-mails from Darren Dopp, Spitzer's now-suspended communications director, and does not even recall receiving them. The Cuomo probe has characterized those e-mails as part of the planning for spying on Bruno. Baum said Dopp had told him that the news media had inquired about the use of state aircraft by Spitzer and Bruno.

Baum said he didn't think much of the entire travel affair but recalls thinking that if Bruno mixed in state business on days that included political events, his use of state aircraft would not be illegal under state law. Records show Bruno did exactly that on three occasions.

"It didn't seem like a big story," Baum said.

Cuomo cleared Bruno of any wrongdoing.

Christine Anderson, a Spitzer spokeswoman, described the Ethics Commission's decision to review the matter as "common practice" after the issuance of a report such as the one Cuomo released Monday. The documents released to Cuomo would be given to the ethics panel, she said.

Privately, Republicans described the move by the state Ethics Commission as a delaying maneuver.

The governor recently appointed John Feerick, a former dean of the Fordham Law School and longtime ethics advocate, as chairman of the panel. While state attorney general, Spitzer had appointed another member still on the panel. Alan G. Hevesi, who later resigned in disgrace as state comptroller, had named a third. George E. Pataki, Spitzer's predecessor as governor, had appointed the two remaining members.

The ethics panel has subpoena powers that, unlike Cuomo, can force officials to testify.

But under a law Spitzer signed earlier this year, the ethics panel will go out of business Sept. 22 to be replaced the following day by the Commission on Public Integrity, a new monitor of ethics and lobbying. Spitzer will appoint seven of its 13 members.

Walter C. Ayres, an Ethics Commission spokesman, declined to comment.

In a combative session with reporters, the governor repeatedly declined to provide any specifics in his answers.

In addition to declining to say whether he considered the refusal by Baum and Dopp to speak with investigators was appropriate, he would not say whether his lawyers had advised them not to talk. He also said he considered the matter closed because Cuomo found no illegal acts. Later, he said he played no role in Dopp and Baum's decisions not to be interviewed.

Asked if he understood how bad his top aides' refusal to cooperate appeared, Spitzer, a career prosecutor, said, "That is why I have been here every day answering questions."

Spitzer noted that Cuomo closed his case and reached a conclusion without the interviews. But should they have testified?

"I'm not going to speculate," Spitzer said.

State Sen. Dean G. Skelos, a Republican from Rockville Centre, dismissed the Spitzer administration claims that the State Legislature has no legal standing to investigate his office.

"There's a thing called checks and balances in government," he said. "And the check should not just be the State Police checking on Sen. Bruno."

He said the Legislature can investigate misuse of state resources -- such as the State Police -- and whether state Freedom of Information laws were broken.

Skelos, the deputy majority leader, said Spitzer voluntarily should testify under oath to clear up the unanswered questions.

"If he's telling the truth, he shouldn't be afraid to go under oath," he said.

Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, said his conversations with State Police officials indicate an agency in turmoil after the administration tapped acting Superintendent Preston L. Felton to gather information about Bruno's travels.

"It's created havoc within the State Police," he said.

Why? "The fact that they were used in a political operation," Volker said.

Noting that Cuomo found no illegal acts had been committed, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of Manhattan, the Legislature's top Democrat, described the reaction in the state capital as political.

"Everything else that is going on is an attempt to discredit a governor in his attempt for re-election 3 1/2 years from now," Silver said.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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