Barrett: Leslie Crocker Snyder's Unsavory Campaign Donors
Judging people by the company they keep may not always be fair game, but it is fitting, on the eve of next week's primary, to take the measure of Leslie Crocker Snyder by examining the dubious donors bankrolling her campaign for Manhattan District Attorney.
News stories about bad-boy contributors have lost some of their sting over time ("they all do it" is the common public shrug). But voters may be less tolerant of dirty dollars when the candidate collecting them could become head of the premier district attorney's office in the country, where Law and Order is not only supposed to reign but was developed for television.
Snyder, a former prosecutor and judge, isn't just taking contributions from the sorts of folks that ordinarily make prosecutors and judges queasy. She's also attracting donations from a curious and unsavory crowd that belies her attempt to soft-pedal her once all-too-tough, "I'll-do-the-injection-myself," pro-death penalty biography, preferring to project herself to Manhattan Democrats this time around as more interested in fairness than frying, a flip of conscience at the age of 67.
The dishonor roll for Snyder starts with a man much in the news, mega-bucks real estate developer David Mack...
A few months after he took the Fifth Amendment to every question asked by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Mack gave Snyder $2,500. Cuomo released a report this week that slammed Mack, whose nomination for re-appointment to the Port Authority board was then withdrawn by the senate. Cuomo's report recounts how Governor Pataki and his right hand at the state police, Dan Wiese, forced the department to make Mack deputy superintendent, the third highest-ranking uniformed officer.
A major donor to Pataki, Mack held the unsalaried and brand new position for 12 years, until Governor Spitzer dumped him right after he took office in 2007. "The appointment of Mack appears to have been politically motivated, " Cuomo concluded, "and negatively impacted morale in the rank and file of the State Police." There's no reason to believe Snyder knew anything about Mack's bizarre rise to Colonel (though his appointment "was like a canon going off across the state," a former police superintendent told Cuomo).
But the issue with each of these questionable donors isn't what Snyder knew about their dark sides, but why so many bad boys are drawn to her. In Mack's case, his bizarre public poaching has been the stuff of legends, well noted, for example, in 2008 when the Daily News reported that he was one of the MTA board members who was taking thousands of dollars in free bridge and tunnel trips (Mack used six free E-Z passes 585 times). The News also found he had a park-almost-anywhere placard from the MTA police.
Mack is a piker for Snyder, though, compared with the generosity of Chuck Blazer ($34,700) who, unlike Mack, rarely gives to the New York political class. Blazer is a powerhouse in the international soccer world and sits on the executive committee of FIFA, which runs the World Cup and became embroiled in a tawdry 2006 lawsuit with MasterCard in New York federal court. FIFA was accused of breaching its 16-year sponsorship deal with MasterCard and wound up paying $90 million to the company, but not before U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska issued a ruling that blasted Blazer as a liar under oath. First she said Blazer's testimony was "generally without credibility." Then she "rejected" it "as fabricated."
Reached by the Voice, Blazer ascribed Preska's findings about him to "very technical issues of reversibility on appeal," contending that "the only way that a hearing court judge" can avoid getting overturned is "to say that it's not believable." Blazer, who says he gave to Snyder because his daughter was her clerk 15 or 16 years ago, insists: "If someone asked me years later if I lied in a federal court, I could say, no, I did not."
Another deep pocket for Snyder is money manager Ron Baron ($25,000), who paid $103 million in 2007 for a Hamptons mansion, "the country's most expensive house ever" at the time. In 2003, Baron, his company and two of his employees agreed to pay the Securities and Exchange Commission $2.7 million to settle an enforcement action brought against them. They were charged with manipulating the stock of the Southern Union Company (a Texas natural gas company traded on the stock exchange as SUG). SUG Energy and Southern Union combined to give Snyder another $30,000. SUG and Baron gave in July, four days apart.
Then there's the curious case of Steven U. Leitner ($34,500). While others on this list didn't take Voice calls, Leitner got right on the phone and told us that he'd never met or spoken to Snyder in his life when he maxed out to her in one fell swoop this July. His motive was payback. He hates incumbent Robert Morgenthau, who is backing Cy Vance, one of Snyder's two opponents. Leitner abounds in conspiracy theories (one includes a reputed cousin of the DA) about why Morgenthau raided the National Arts Club in 2002, a nonprofit dinner club and residence (with 35 units) opposite Gramercy Park that Leitner helps lead and has lived in for years.
"I saw political motivation," he told the Voice, claiming that real estate interests "that wanted to get ahold" of the club's property "had control of Morgenthau's office." Of course, the reason the DA might have investigated was because crimes were occurring (two people associated with it were convicted and the club agreed to pay the city $150,000 in taxes that it "acknowledged it failed to properly account for"). Leitner, who also maxed out to presidential candidate Ron Paul last year, says he got a phone call from Snyder after she got his check. When Leitner did meet her, he found her "charming, sincere, lived up to my expectations," adding that she "commented about machine politics and wanting to bring enlightened treatment" to the office.
Leitner is hardly the only big donor who's had dealing with Morgenthau's office. Fred Hafetz, who is representing Brooke Astor's son Anthony Marshall in the ongoing trial, kicked in $6,000, together with his partner Susan Necheles. It's usually not worth mentioning when lawyers with matters before a prosecutor's office donate to incumbents or challengers, but Snyder's comments make it a legitimate issue this time around. She's gone after Vance, blasting his law firm as "the go-to firm for representing mobsters and other similar people in New York," even though she can't finger a mob client Vance has represented himself. Hafetz and Necheles have represented everybody from Chin Gigante to Benny Eggs Mangano to Angelo Ponte, who was once the kingpin of the mob-tied carting cartel in the city (she devotes a chapter of her bio to her supposed role as a judge in smashing this cartel).
Other lawyers who have earned many a mob case headline like Murray Richman ($4,000), Steven Kartagener ($7,080), Gerry Shargel ($1,000) -- that's just a sample -- are Snyder backers. Hafetz and Richman also represented State Senator Pedro Espada when he was acquitted on state charges in November 2000.
Other questionable donors are more a matter of taste. Gerald and Judith Sheindlin -- both of whom have been TV stars (she's Judge Judy now and he hosted "The People's Court" years ago) -- gave $2,000. When Gerald Sheindlin was a real judge in the Bronx, he acquitted cop Frank Livoti in the nonjury trial of one of the most famous policy brutality cases of the Giuliani era. The Times blasted him in an editorial and the feds eventually convicted Livoti of the same charges, the chokehold murder of 29-year-old Anthony Baez. Livoti was also convicted in a state case a year after Sheindlin's acquittal of choking a teenager who ran a red light in a go-cart (the incident occurred before the Baez trial). Apparently, Snyder is Sheindlin's kind of judge.
Tobacco profiteer Bennett LeBow ($10,000), the CEO of the country's fifth largest cigarette maker, gave Snyder $10,000. When the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute named him to its board of trustees in 2005, a media stir forced his immediate resignation. LeBow testified under oath in 1993 that he was unaware of any linkage between cigarettes and cancer; but a few years later, he became the first tobacco mogul to settle with the states suing tobacco companies. His Vector Group sells about ten billion cigarettes a year.
The Daily News noted this week that billionaire Ron Perelman gave Vance $25,000 through his company Mafco Consolidated, which the News said includes a company that makes "a moistening agent used in the making of tobacco products." Not only did the News not mention LeBow's virtually simultaneous $10,000 donation, it missed the fact that Perelman, through his holding company MacAndrews & Forbes, had already given Snyder $25,000. Perelman has weathered many a messy news story, including when his Revlon jet flew then police commissioner Howard Safir to the Oscars in Hollywood, inducing the Conflict of Interests Board to rebuke the commissioner. The Post then revealed that Perelman used bogus NYPD permits to illegally park his limos outside his two spectacular upper eastside townhouses.
The Walentas family, best known for creating DUMBO in Downtown Brooklyn, donated $20,500 (through Jed Walentas and his Two Trees company). After years of plying Brooklyn politics with contributions, they are now focused on Manhattan, where they are launching a $700 million mixed use project, as well as other developments (including an equestrian facility for the NYPD mounted unit). The family company spent $409,323 lobbying city officials, and contributed tens of thousands more to councilmembers, to grease the skids recently for their planned tower next to the Brooklyn Bridge, which aroused a lot of neighborhood opposition. While Donald Trump hasn't given anything to Snyder, two of his employees, Matthew Calamari and James Petrus, have combined for $10,000. Trump's name is a synonym for compromising influence in New York politics.
A Voice look at Vance's contributors and those of the other candidate in the race, Richard Aborn, found no similar pattern of questionable donors.
Eric Pugatch, a spokesman for the Snyder campaign, listened to the first half of this list of donors and said the campaign would have no comment.
Research assistance: Johanna Barr, Tom Feeney, Aaron Howell, Lucy Jordan, Steve P. Ercolani, Kate Rose, Amanda Sakuma, and Grace Smith.