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Panel considers special investigator to probe smear effort Questions persist on what Spitzer knew of campaign by aides

A state commission with broad powers is weighing whether to appoint a special investigator and launch a full-scale probe into the Spitzer administration's campaign to discredit a political rival.

The State Commission of Investigation, which has extensive authority to investigate "any matter concerning the public peace, public safety and public justice," will contact Paul J. Curran, a former U.S. attorney who once investigated President Jimmy Carter, to determine whether he would be interested in leading a probe, a state official told The Buffalo News on Friday.

Curran is one of several lawyers under consideration if the commission commences a case. A decision is expected next week.

A state official said the Albany County district attorney's office also is reviewing material to determine whether it should investigate the governor's aides who used the State Police to monitor State Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno's travels as part of a plan to leak embarrassing information about the Brunswick Republican to an Albany newspaper.

New Yorkers, meanwhile, have expressed skepticism of Spitzer over the matter.

Sixty-two percent of registered voters say they believe additional inquiries are justified, while 50 percent say the governor was aware that his close advisers were trying to smear Bruno, a WNBC-Marist College poll found Friday.

Even within the governor's party, 45 percent of Democrats say they don't believe Spitzer's denials that he was unaware of his aides' activities. And 80 percent of all voters say Spitzer should be required to testify about wrongdoing by his administration.

The poll did reflect a glimmer of hope for the governor: 47 percent of the voters said he is doing an excellent or good job, compared with 44 percent who rate his performance fair or poor.

The State Commission of Investigation, formed in 1951 by Gov. Thomas E. Dewey to ferret out corruption, has been holding internal discussions for several days. Some board members and staff are eager to begin a probe, a state official with knowledge of the commission's thinking told The News.

But the commission "doesn't want to look like it's piling on" with yet another investigation, so it is holding talks with the state Ethics Commission to determine that panel's intentions and waiting to see whether Albany County District Attorney David Soares will investigate possible criminal wrongdoing. The state Ethics Commission, headed by a Spitzer appointee, is scheduled to shut down by the end of September.

Earlier this week, Soares' office sided with State Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo in declaring that Bruno broke no laws in using state aircraft on 10 occasions this year and said the case was closed.

Soares said his office did not look into the actions of Spitzer's aides, which was left to Cuomo.

Heather Orth, a Soares spokeswoman, said the office "at this point" was standing by its earlier statement. But she said the district attorney is expected to make an announcement next week about the Spitzer matter.

A state official, who requested anonymity because of sensitive legal issues, said Soares' office indicated Thursday to the State Commission on Investigation that it was reviewing, though not yet formally investigating, the case.

At the State Commission on Investigation, board members have discussed turning to an outside lawyer to lead an investigation. The official described Curran, a Manhattan lawyer and who served as commission chairman from 1969 to 1973, as a "heavyweight."

Contacted by The News, Curran said that no one from the commission had spoken with him and that he would not discuss the matter.

A commission spokesman this week said the office never confirms or denies any of its work until a case's findings are released.

From 1973 to 1975, Curran was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. He also has done work for then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, and then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a Democrat, heading a special investigative panel that looked into use of police force. He served on a panel established by then-New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, a Democrat, to look into corruption in the city's schools.

For eight months in 1979, he was in the headlines when, during the Carter administration, the U.S. attorney general appointed him special counsel to investigate allegations that Carter was involved in laundering campaign donations through the family peanut business. Curran, a Republican, cleared the president, a Democrat, of any wrongdoing.

Curran's biography on the Web site of Kaye Scholer, his Manhattan firm, notes that he interviewed Carter under oath in 1979, the first such grilling of a sitting president.

Curran has represented a broad range of clients, from Wall Street executives accused of insider trading to an investor who won a $115 million jury award against a big firm accused of investment negligence. Curran has represented New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and was hired by singer Michael Bolton's foundation in 1998 to review its finances.

Unlike the state attorney general, who did not have subpoena power to force top Spitzer aides to testify, the State Commission on Investigation can compel testimony. The panel's board consists of six members, two each appointed by Bruno; Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat; and George E. Pataki, a Republican and Spitzer's predecessor as governor.

In the WNBC-Marist poll released Friday, 66 percent of voters said they view Spitzer as a good leader, but 41 percent said he is too confrontational. Half the voters rate Bruno and Silver's job performances as fair or poor.

The survey of 554 registered voters, taken Wednesday and Thursday, also gave Andrew Cuomo a 52 percent job approval rating as state attorney general, up from 40 percent in March.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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