Robert Ryan was once one of the most feared and respected political operatives in New York State. A fixture in Upper East Side conservative politics since the early 1970’s, he once grabbed a political opponent by the neck andbeltand tossedhim through a door. His most glorious moment came in 1994, when he managed Governor George Pataki’s upset victory over Mario Cuomo, making him a star in state Republican circles.
But now, Mr. Ryan is reeling. He’s been suspended from his job as Mr. Pataki’s head of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, or RIOC, the state agency which manages the island, pending the outcome of a state investigation into his tenure. Rumors are swirling on the island, with some people whispering that Mr. Ryan was led out of his office in handcuffs. He wasn’t-but the rumors, and the weight of a pending investigation, are taking their toll.
“The last three mornings, I’ve woken up and puked in the sink from nervousness,” he said in an interview with The Observer . “My 19-year-old daughter has been sobbing, saying, ‘Daddy, are you a crook?'”
The official allegations against Mr. Ryan are that he improperly granted bonuses to himself and 14 other corporation workers. But friends and detractors alike suspect that the charges are part of a broader campaign against Mr. Ryan by critics who allege that he has been rowdy and out of control when leading official RIOC public gatherings. Political opponents have charged that Mr. Ryan showed up drunk to a board meeting, an accusation he denied. Whatever the motives behind the allegations, Mr. Ryan’s plight is the talk of New York Republican circles, mainly because he was once one of the party’s most important operatives.
On the afternoon of Feb. 11, Mr. Ryan greeted a visitor to his East Side apartment wearing socks, an old pair of corduroy pants and a faded yellow Polo shirt. Mr. Ryan, who recently lost over 50 pounds from his previous 285-pound frame while on the Atkins diet, looked worn out. He paced back and forth, agitated, between a couch and a 35th-floor window looking towards his domain, Roosevelt Island.
Mr. Ryan said that although he’d been one of Mr. Pataki’s most loyal lieutenants, the Governor’s office hadn’t called to inform him of the accusations against him.
“One of my principles is that you never leave a wounded soldier on the beach,” said Mr. Ryan, who learned about the charges in scattered press reports and by asking political reporters around the city what they’ve heard about the case against him. “I’m a little confused that I’ve been left wounded like this, especially since I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said.
Mr. Ryan’s sudden departure capped several months of tension on the small island, which is home to 8,500 residents. Board meetings have been punctuated by shouting matches between Mr. Ryan and his rivals. The local Roosevelt Island paper, The Main Street Wire , has been on a tear, bashing him in editorials and running pictures of an angry and disheveled Mr. Ryan under headlines like “Ryan in Shouting Matches.”
In early February, Mr. Ryan was abruptly escorted from his office by a Roosevelt Island public-safety officer-even as the nine-member RIOC board was meeting to decide his fate. Within 24 hours, his RIOC beeper and cell phone went dead. He was later told simply that the state inspector general was undertaking an unspecified investigation into his tenure. There were no specifics, but on Feb. 10, Newsday reported that the investigation was focusing on whether Mr. Ryan had granted bonus time in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks to 14 RIOC workers-time they could later exchange for cash bonuses.
Mr. Ryan has been suspended for 60 days, during which he will continue to draw his $123,000 annual salary. He has since received a letter from RIOC’s acting chairman informing him that he has been banned from setting foot on Roosevelt Island.
Some of Mr. Ryan’s supporters on and off the island have been surprised that Mr. Pataki hasn’t come to his defense. They echo his complaints about his treatment.
Mr. Ryan said he’s surprised that he hasn’t heard from the Governor’s inner circle. He said he stood by Mr. Pataki during the campaign’s darkest moments, when many other people were prepared to desert him. In early 1994, he said, he persuaded renowned consultant Arthur Finkelstein, who was losing faith in his candidate, not to abandon Mr. Pataki’s seemingly impossible gubernatorial candidacy.
Now, Mr. Ryan complains that his onetime allies around Mr. Pataki have deserted him. “A very wise man once told me that when you’re down to your last piece of armor, you put it on your back,” he said. “You always tend to be disappointed by the people around you. I don’t know whether these actions were sanctioned by the Governor or other individuals on the second floor [of the state Capitol, where the Governor's offices are], or whether this is a political attack by Democrats. I do know that the Governor’s people haven’t told me what I’m officially charged with. I haven’t been given my day in court.”
Jennifer Farina, a spokeswoman for the state Division for Housing and Community Renewal, said, “It’s unclear what the Governor’s office could do for him, given that this action was taken by the board.”
Other allies professed surprise that Mr. Ryan was being accused of official corruption. “Is it possible he made a bad judgment call? That’s possible,” said Mike Long, the chairman of the state Conservative Party, who has worked on a number of campaigns with Mr. Ryan. “But his ethics are very much intact. I don’t believe he would take a penny off the table.”
Making matters more interesting, Mr. Ryan freely admits that he committed the actions that are reportedly the center of the allegations against him. He says that he did in fact authorize bonus time for his workers, many of whom, he says, were shell-shocked after volunteering their time at Ground Zero. He showed The Observer a memo he had written and signed authorizing the vacations. The memo, dated Sept. 26, 2001, authorized bonus time for 15 employees, ranging from eight hours to 234 hours.
“I can’t imagine that this is what this is about-giving bonuses to people who responded to an emergency on Sept. 11 and worked around the clock without asking for anything in return,” Mr. Ryan said. “If that’s what this is about, I’m prepared to fight it to the end.”