Her Husband Convicted, Pirro Weighs Quitting as Westchester D.A.

Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro is seriously considering leaving her post and entering private practice, sources close to the embattled D.A. have told The Observer . The sources say that Mrs. Pirro may wait until the new year to announce a final decision. Though the District Attorney loves her $136,700-a-year job, the sources say, the recent conviction of her husband, attorney and lobbyist Albert Pirro, on federal tax fraud charges, has drained the family financially. Switching to private practice presumably would boost Mrs. Pirro’s finances as she prepares for the possibility that her husband may be sent to prison. The Pirros have two children, ages 11 and 15.

“This is a very difficult decision for her,” one family adviser said. “She loves her job, and would like to be vindicated through re-election.” But, said another knowledgeable source, “they’re broke. They don’t even have the dough to pay for an appeal.” It has been quite a fall for a couple who spent lavishly on cars-Bentleys, Mercedes, Ferraris-household help and security gates for their home in Harrison, N.Y.

A third source said that political considerations are part of Mrs. Pirro’s deliberations. “They want to keep the seat Republican,” the source said. If Mrs. Pirro were to resign before Sept. 20, said Lee Daghlian, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections, the county leadership of each party would chose a nominee to run in the general election in November, with the winner assuming office on Jan. 1, 2001. If the resignation came after Sept. 20, the election would be in November 2001. In either case, Governor George Pataki would appoint a replacement to serve in the interim.

But political observers say it would be far better for an interim D.A. to hold the seat for as long as possible in a county where a Republican victory is no longer assured. Mr. Pirro’s sentencing date is Sept. 28.

A spokesman for Mrs. Pirro denied that she was considering resigning. “Absolutely not, not to my knowledge,” said David Hebert. “She has not indicated to me that she won’t fill out her term. I have no indication that she won’t run for re-election in 2001.” Mr. Hebert called talk of resignation a “disappointing rumor.”

But four family friends say the Pirros have been discussing the option for weeks. “These are the kinds of things you have to talk about if you are a family facing serious financial problems,” said one friend.

After her husband’s conviction on June 22, Mrs. Pirro’s advisers insisted that the D.A.’s political career was far from over.

“The reports of Jeanine Pirro’s political demise are premature,” said consultant Kieran Mahoney, who worked on both of Mrs. Pirro’s races for District Attorney. “She is enormously popular in her district, and she can win re-election and go on from there.” And though Mr. Mahoney would never draw the comparison himself, he implicitly made an argument that Bill Clinton’s defenders used during the impeachment crisis-that is, if voters know an elected official, and like the job that official is doing, they can be very forgiving.

If Mrs. Pirro does in fact resign, it would mark a stunning conclusion to a dazzling political career. The 49-year-old attorney, who began her career as a judge and was elected Westchester D.A. in 1993, was once one of the brightest stars of the New York State G.O.P. Just two years ago, she wowed delegates at the state Republican Convention with a memorable nominating speech for Mr. Pataki. At the time, Republican insiders were touting her as a likely U.S. Senate candidate. She had a résumé made for a statewide race: a woman from the politically crucial suburbs, a crime fighter and a telegenic performer with enormous charm.

But all that changed in February 1999, when her husband, Albert, and his brother, Anthony Pirro, were indicted on tax fraud charges. The two were charged in a 66-count indictment with paying personal expenses from Albert Pirro’s business accounts and then claiming those personal expenses as business tax deductions.

Mrs. Pirro was not named in any of the charges.

A Life of Luxury

In four weeks of testimony, prosecutors presented a blizzard of evidence against the Pirro brothers, showing that Albert Pirro had deducted from his business taxes everything from an enclosure for the family’s pet pigs to political consulting and personal trips. And there were cars, lots of fancy cars: a Bentley for the couple’s Florida vacation home, a Mercedes for Mrs. Pirro’s mother, two Ferraris for Albert Pirro, a Chevy Tahoe, even a Mercedes for Mrs. Pirro that she drove, while she was a judge, with judicial plates.

Prosecutors even presented a complicated scheme in which Mrs. Pirro, preparing to run for D.A. in 1993, took out a loan to pay for the Mercedes so opponents or reporters checking into her background wouldn’t find out that her husband’s business owned her car. But then one of her husband’s 32 businesses make the loan payments, according to the prosecution.

Mr. Pirro’s attorneys disputed few of these facts. Instead, they said Mr. Pirro, a real estate lawyer and lobbyist whose clients included Donald Trump, simply couldn’t keep track of all his expenses, that he always intended to account for the expenses properly and that they represented a tiny portion of his tax bill. And, they said, as soon as Mr. Pirro realized his mistake, he paid more than a $1 million in back taxes, interest and penalties – more, they said, than he actually owed.

Another defense was mounted outside the courtroom. Albert and Jeanine Pirro frequently chatted amiably with reporters covering the trial. (Mrs. Pirro attended every day of deliberations.) In the middle of closing arguments, an exhausted Mrs. Pirro actually stopped to discuss makeup tips with a television reporter. And Mr. Pirro, a man of considerable charm who no doubt wins clients and influence in part by standing close and making people feel like they’re being taken care of, grew to be on a first-name basis with all the courtroom reporters.

The warmth is not an act, friends of the Pirros say. They adore both Pirros and would do almost anything for them. “I would mow her lawn, if she asked me,” Mr. Mahoney said.

Pirro family allies have charged that the case was a Democratic-controlled Justice Department vendetta against one of the rising stars of the Republican Party, designed to embarrass Mrs. Pirro with intimate details of her lavish lifestyle. Or they blamed Anthony Pirro, an accountant, for the troubles.

Associates of the Pirros were stunned when Mr. Pirro was found guilty on all charges. “I was shocked by the conviction, personally and as a citizen. I don’t see that justice is served by sending Al Pirro to jail,” said Maureen Connelly, a public relations executive who has worked for Mr. Pirro. “I really felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me. I felt so terrible for them. And that is a feeling shared by so many people. Al is a person who, when you’re in trouble, he’s there for you.”

Now, however, it’s Albert and Jeanine Pirro who are in trouble. And it’s Mrs. Pirro who is faced with the daunting prospect of trying to rebuild the family’s finances.