Roger Stone Backs Away from Paladino, but Can't Get Rid of the Stink of Scott Rothstein
In an odd week in the gubernatorial campaign, the oddest moment was Roger Stone's NY1 appearance on Tuesday, when he appeared to be trying to put miles of distance between himself and Carl Paladino, whose September primary victory Stone engineered.
This grew even odder when Paladino did a three-minute TV commercial upstate on Thursday, with the candidate mouthing detailed passages identical to Stone's interview. When has a ventriloquist had a public brawl with his own dummy?
Should Paladino implode at the polls, and bring down other Republicans, Stone will point back at his warnings in this interview that Paladino's campaign "has gotten far afield of what voters want to talk about." Prophet is part of the Stone M.O.
When Eliot Spitzer fell in March 2008, Stone, who has acknowledged that he was on the payroll of big-buck Spitzer "haters" after the Senate GOP dropped him, convinced Robert Novak to write that Stone had predicted Spitzer's fall on a December 6 national radio show. "Rough Justice" author and Fortune magazine editor Peter Elkind later proved he said no such thing on the show.
Though Stone's dirty trick prowess is legendary, he assailed Daily News columnist Bill Hammond for writing that Paladino's "attack-attack-attack" tactics come from the Stone "playbook."
"I believe in an aggressive brand of politics based on issues, not based on personalities," Stone said, piously calling for "a higher-toned debate."
That's no doubt why he got Paladino to hire his old friend Stephen Marks, the GOP operative who authored Confessions of A Political Hitman. Or why he lectured a Reason Magazine forum in 2007 about the history of negative campaigning in America, starting with the branding of Lincoln as a mulatto and calling the complaint that American politics is too negative "bullshit." Declaring that "there are no rules," Stone said, as he has in several mythmaking appearances, that his first campaign gambit occurred in the first grade, when he was backing John Kennedy in a class vote on the presidential race and convinced his fellow students that Richard Nixon favored school on Saturday. Stone was actually eight in 1960, a couple of years older than most first graders.
More recently, right around this time last year, Stone was in Ohio opposing a pro-casino gambling initiative championed by Cleveland Cavalier owner Dan Gilbert (Stone was working for Ohio horsetrack and West Virginia casino interests that might be hurt by new casinos in Cleveland and three other cities). Gilbert blamed Stone for reviving a 1981 bookmaking arrest expunged from his record. When he was 19, Gilbert and three other Michigan State students were busted for running a betting operation, an offense that never got in the way of him winning an NBA franchise. Stone's misnamed TruthPAC lost the ballot initiative fight.
Stone told NY1 that Paladino's campaign shouldn't be about "affairs or girlfriends or love children or divorces," but in 2008, he started a 527 group to "educate the people as to what Hillary Clinton is." He called it Citizens United Not Timid (aka CUNT) and says he personally designed the organization's $25 T-Shirt, brandishing the organization's name and a red, white and blue female crotch. He explained that he couldn't come up with words for his first choice of an acronym--B.I.T.C.H.
That same year, he masterminded a victory in the Broward County sheriff's race for Republican Al Lamberti. Stone's early strategy was to try to defeat the strongest Democrat, Scott Israel, in the primary. Shortly before the primary, purged court records emerged connecting Israel, a Dade County police chief, with a 23-year-old man he had fathered out of wedlock in the 1980's. At the same time, a series of hilarious videos appeared, with Republicans like Rudy Giuliani, George W. Bush and Richard Nixon endorsing former Republican Israel and claiming him as "one of us." A lisping Giuliani likened Israel to Bernie Kerik ("Shoot first, ask questions later").
Bob Norman, my colleague at New Times Broward-Palm Beach, described Tricky Dick's "important message for Broward County Democrats," dubbed by "a topnotch Nixon impersonator," as "just like me, Scott is not a crook." Norman cited several sources confirming the ads were "classic Stone," who wears a Nixon tattoo on his back and worked for the former president. The ads were financed by a local political committee, with what Norman called the "deliciously ironic" name, the Broward Coalition for Justice and Equality. It described itself as a committee that "supported Democratic ideals" and opposed racial profiling
Stone's partner in a two-member consulting firm, Scott Rothstein, boasted to Norman. "I can tell you without a doubt that Roger Stone was involved in that campaign," said Rothstein, managing partner of a major Fort Lauderdale law firm, giant GOP donor, and an investor in the restaurant business of the man who donated $150,000 of the Broward Coalition's $180,000 total. Eventually, Stone himself said he "agreed to help appointed sheriff Al Lamberti at a private meeting in the projection room of Rothstein's home in which Lamberti aides Tom Wheeler and David Benjamin asked for my help." Stone was never officially described as running the campaign (a frequent tactic in view of how easy it is for an opponent to make Roger the issue), just as he insists he isn't running Paladino's, despite the million in fees that Paladino has already paid to his associates.
Rothstein's law firm and its related consulting business with Stone had such a strong interest in the sheriff's office that, in the middle of the 2008 campaign, it hired, fresh from federal prison, the sheriff who preceded Lamberti, Ken Jenne, who had pled guilty to mail fraud and tax evasion charges just a year earlier. Named in 2007 by Governor Charlie Crist to fill Jenne's vacancy, Lamberti allowed his office to steer contracts to Rothstein-tied companies and to help protect what proved to be, as I reported on Friday, Rothstein's vast criminal empire.
Indeed, it was David Benjamin, a top deputy to Lamberti, who drove Rothstein to the airport in October 2009, when Rothstein fled the country for Morocco, only to return a few days later to become a federal informant. Rothstein has since pled guilty in a $1.2 billion scam and been sentenced to 50 years in prison. He is cooperating with the feds, as is his executive assistant, who has been sentenced to 10 years. The law firm collapsed immediately and Rothstein's partnership with Stone was involuntarily dissolved by Florida officials this September, shortly after Paladino won the GOP primary. Stone has placed two associates of the firm -- Michael Caputo and Cheryl Seinfeld -- on the Paladino payroll.
Stone has been madly engaged in a revisionist spin operation in Florida ever since the news of Rothstein's implosion hit the news. His attempt to put artificial distance between himself and Paladino is an echo of his far more elaborate pose on Rothstein. Stone contended last November that he was on to Rothstein as far back as 2008, claiming that he'd hired a private investigator "to try to determine the source of Rothstein's wild spending." The investigator, said Stone, "advised me that Rothstein's money had to be coming from private ventures and not from the law firm and he doubted that any of it was Rothstein's."
Stone does not claim he told anyone, much less federal authorities, what his PI found. He told Bob Norman this March that all the looted money came from Jews. "This is Jew-on-Jew crime," Stone explained. "I'm a Catholic, so what business was it of mine? I don't think Rothstein took any gentile money."
As soon as the scandal hit last November, Stone rushed to tell the Miami Herald's Naked Truth blog that he had "shuttered" his Rothstein consulting firm six months earlier. But the timeline was as malleable as his first grade invention, since he claimed elsewhere that he'd asked Rothstein "to dissolve" it a year before the bust. In fact, the company was listed as an active corporation by Florida authorities for almost a year after Rothstein's arrest, and Stone never took any action to amend the papers or withdraw his name.
That was hardly the only indication of the continuing Rothstein/Stone relationship. When Stone was deposed in the law firm's bankruptcy proceedings this spring, he was asked about $80,000 in loans he obtained from Rothstein, $20,000 of which occurred in 2009, after he claims he told Rothstein he wanted out. And Stone still had his corner office on the same floor as Rothstein's in the Bank of America tower in Fort Lauderdale when the FBI raided it.
Roger actually wrote a blog post on Stonezone on August 27, 2009 pushing Governor Crist, an ally of Rothstein's and Stone's, to appoint Rothstein to the senate seat vacated by Mel Martinez. Under the headline, "Florida's Next Senator," Stone wrote: "Rothstein has a distinguished legal record, has been a key supporter of Governor Crist and John McCain, has an unmatched record of philanthropic activities and would bring an unconventional style of getting things done in Washington." Stone had already leveled blog attacks on George Lemieux, Crist's ex- chief of staff and another candidate for the seat, alleging Lemieux had made millions off his ties to Crist.
Stone was the perfect vehicle to push Rothstein's nomination since, by his own account, he'd tried in 2008, at Rothstein's behest, to promote Crist as a possible vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket. Stone went so far as to peddle a Crist sex tape supposedly shot by an elevator surveillance camera that showed the single governor kissing his married girlfriend, designed to counter rumors that Crist was gay. Stone says his partnership with Rothstein was born at a 2005 dinner with Crist, who eventually named Rothstein to a panel that picked state judges, exactly the sort of influence-peddling image Rothstein was chasing.
On September 10 -- a little more than a month before Rothstein fled the country -- he and Stone and Grant Smith, the partner in the law firm that oversaw its lobbying operation, dined at Charlie Palmer's Steak House in Washington, attending the swearing-in of Lemieux. In fact, on November 10, after the initial news explosion about Rothstein but before his actual indictment, Stone painted a half-admiring portrait of Rothstein on his blog even as the swindler was holed up with the feds singing without his guitar. Under the headline, "Rothstein As Robin Hood," Stone said Rothstein was "big hearted," stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, as well as "charismatic, funny, caring, entertaining, generous, sentimental and, in his way, brilliant."
With Rothstein spilling his guts to the feds, Stone even praised his lawyer, Marc Nurik, as "a highly capable and experienced criminal defense lawyer." A few months later, Roger would say that he'd heard that Rothstein was facing 100 years. "With Marc Nurik as his attorney," said Stone, "he'll likely get the death penalty."
When Stone wasn't drawing Rothstein parallels with Robin Hood, he was likening him to "Rodney Dangerfield at the country club in Caddyshack, throwing money around and tipping parking valets $100." At a certain point, Roger told USA Today, "the level of spending got obscene. I can see where a person might want one Roll's-Royce. But why would you want two?" Actually, Jeffrey Toobin's jaded New Yorker profile of Stone pointed out that he owned four Jaguars.
"He had the amazing ability," Stone said of Rothstein, apparently oblivious to more than his own auto-extravagance, "to become the center of attention no matter where he was. If it involved yelling, waving his arms and making animal noises, that's what he would do."
When Stone was exposed in his first scandal as part of the Nixon Watergate team, the catch phrase in the White House was plausible deniability -- everyone sought it and no one could quite latch onto it. That may be when Stone discovered the charm of implausible deniability -- swearing, for example, that you were at a Broadway theatre that was dark when your phoneline is used to make a threatening call to Bernard Spitzer. So long as you bark at reality, it can't bite you. That's Stone's diseased genius.
Asked at the Reason Magazine forum if he was "ashamed" of anything he'd ever done in politics, Stone said that if he was, "I would never admit it." His biography has caught up with him so many times that he's long exceeded the limits of re-invention. Yet he cajoles, connives, prevaricates, and dares us all to say he is done.