If you’re a workaday lobbyist in Albany, the last thing you want is attention. You’re content to spend your time waiting on high-backed green velvet couches just off the State Senate Chambers, or pushing down cheese cubes and drinks at the endless whirl of fund-raisers. As a reward, you take in a quiet supper at the copper-roofed Fort Orange Club just a short walk from the Capitol.
Now, if you’re a super-connected Republican fund-raiser, and your wife is the District Attorney of Westchester County, and you’ve known the Governor personally, for years, you don’t have to bother with these sorts of things. You take care of business with a discreet phone call or two. But like your less elevated colleagues, you don’t want attention. It doesn’t really help your clients if the world knows how influence is peddled.
So the last thing you want is to be standing behind your mahogany desk in your White Plains law office, between your acoustic guitar and your photo with Governor George Pataki, with eight television cameras trained on you. You don’t want to explain a 66-count tax-fraud indictment, which contains embarrassing details about your personal life–like writing off your Ferrari and your wife’s Mercedes-Benz as business expenses.
But that’s exactly the situation Albert J. Pirro found himself in, on Feb. 23. With his wife at his side, her telegenic dark brown eyes cast downward, Mr. Pirro read a prepared statement, complaining about “a barrage of allegations, innuendoes and press leaks.” Then Ms. Pirro read her own brief comment, and the Westchester power couple ended the press conference.
In December 1994, neither of the Pirros would have seen themselves in that room, in that way. Jeanine Pirro had been District Attorney just under a year, and she was on the Republican short list for every statewide office that opened up. “Jeanine is a fantastic woman candidate,” lamented one top Republican recently. “In deference to my wonderful party, there aren’t too many of them.”
As Jeanine Pirro’s star rose publicly, Al Pirro’s star rose privately. In 1994, Mr. Pirro was known as a well-connected lawyer in Westchester County, but his power was purely local. In November of that year, however, another player in Westchester politics, Mr. Pataki, was elected Governor. Mr. Pataki and Mr. Pirro knew each other well in Westchester politics. (“The Pirros have been friends of Libby and mine for a long time,” the Governor said after the indictment. “We wish them well.”)
Ever the astute businessman, Al Pirro was not about to let these connections lie fallow. In 1995, for the first time ever, Mr. Pirro became an Albany lobbyist, billing $434,869 from clients ranging from Trump Plaza Associates to St. Mary’s Hospital for Children. And he did his work without spending much time in Albany. “Usually, you run into people at fund-raisers,” said a fellow lobbyist. “He’s not somebody you see on the circuit. Instead, his pitch is ‘I’m the guy that knows the guy.’”
It worked. By 1998, Mr. Pirro was billing more than $600,000 for his Albany clients. “Our lobbying function … allows us to bring our extensive experience in this field to bear in order to influence the development of new laws and regulations,” Mr. Pirro states in a typical contract with a client. “We will appear before the full legislature, all appropriate committees, departments or agencies, and the governor, and take any other steps necessary and appropriate to attain your legislative and regulatory objectives.” Mr. Pirro is not kidding.
Political High Jumpers
Mr. Pirro made his presence known as soon as the Pataki administration took office in 1995. Donald Trump was trying to get an environmental variance for a project in Westchester. Pataki administration appointees were eager to please Mr. Pirro. “The question wasn’t whether we should jump, it was how high,” recalled one former state official. Mr. Pirro went so far as to draft a memorandum of law for use by the Department of Environmental Conservation attorneys, suggesting ways Mr. Trump’s project could evade a state environmental review. Soon after, the project was abandoned for unrelated reasons.
Not long after Mr. Pataki took office, Mr. Pirro set up two political action committees, Citizens for Economic Development and Citizens for Environmental Conservation. Such committees are a particularly useful fund-raising tool in Albany. Because they are not subject to the same contribution limits as individuals or corporations, it takes an awful lot of legwork to find out who is really behind them. Mr. Pirro has used his committee in particularly clever ways.
In 1996, for example, in the thick of a debate over legalizing casino gambling–which Mr. Trump vehemently opposed–Mr. Pirro’s political action committees collected $130,000 from Marla Maples, still married to Mr. Trump at the time. The day after they deposited Ms. Maples’ money, the committees gave $75,000 to the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee, which happened to match Mr. Trump’s own contributions to the Assembly Democratic majority. But unless he did a lot of digging, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose support Mr. Trump desperately needed to defeat the gambling measure, wouldn’t have been aware of the contributions to his own enemies on the campaign committee.
There were other examples of the way in which Mr. Pirro operates below the radar. One client you won’t see on his disclosure list is the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, which Mr. Pirro represented as a lawyer and not a lobbyist, which exempts him from disclosure rules. But the benign-sounding association, as it turns out, is largely funded by the tobacco industry–it was fighting a smoking ban in Westchester. The extent of the industry’s support of the association probably never would have been known except that documents released as part of the Minnesota tobacco settlement included a memo discussing a secret “New York Strategy” of passing lobbying funds through the association.
Clearly, then, klieg lights are the enemy of a man like Mr. Pirro, even as they are his wife’s best friend.
Perhaps the tension between Mr. Pirro’s deal-making and his wife’s political ambitions would have come to a head sooner or later. But the federal indictment came as something of a surprise to Pirro-watchers, many of whom for years have circulated stories about Mr. Pirro bumping up against the law to advance his business interests. There was a bribery investigation in 1993–reviewed (and rejected) by two Attorneys General but apparently kicking off the federal investigation that led to the tax-evasion charges. Then there was an I.R.S. investigation in 1986, just after Jeanine Pirro became a candidate for Lieutenant Governor. But mostly, there are the stories that emerge from Westchester attorneys and Albany lobbyists, who complain that Mr. Pirro has been aggressively throwing his weight around and calling in his connections to his wife, to judges and to the Governor.
What’s a Lobbyist For?
Even friends don’t deny it. “That’s what lobbyists do–throw their weight around–isn’t it?” asked one associate, before relating a story Mr. Pirro told him about getting a speeding ticket. “How am I going to explain this to my wife?” the friend recalls Mr. Pirro telling it afterward. “The cop said, ‘Very slowly.’”
Speeding tickets aside, Mr. Pirro has had no real close calls with the law, until now. Still, the latest charges–tax evasion–have left some friends of the Pirros, and even some foes, shaking their heads at the frippery of the charges. The indictment was the legal equivalent of a hollow-point bullet–designed to inflict the maximum flesh wounds–with flamboyant accusations about Ferraris and deducting legal fees in a paternity suit. (Mr. Pirro eventually acknowledged that he fathered a child with another woman while married to Jeanine.) Legal or not, “every small businessman in New York at one time or another deducts personal expenses from their business taxes,” as one Pirro friend put it.
The timing of the indictment–as the state Republican Party is at war with itself, and as Ms. Pirro’s name has been bandied about as a possible Republican candidate for the United States Senate next year–has given rise to all sorts of rumors, with varying degrees of plausibility. The conspiracy theory with the most currency among some Republicans has it that somehow Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s allies had something to do with the indictment. Mr. Giuliani, of course, is widely seen as the front-runner for the Republican nomination for Senate, but Ms. Pirro was getting press as a possible opponent to Mr. Giuliani in a Republican primary. Several weeks ago, Liberal Party chief Ray Harding, a close Giuliani adviser, openly complained that Governor Pataki’s allies were pushing Ms. Pirro’s candidacy. A day after the indictment was announced, an ally of the Mayor chortled to the New York Post that Ms. Pirro was no longer a threat to Mr. Giuliani.
The conspiracy theorists point out that the prosecutor on the Pirro case, Elliott Jacobson, worked under Mr. Giuliani when he was a U.S. Attorney. What’s interesting about this scenario is that it exists at all, and demonstrates the level of distrust, bordering on paranoia, between the Mayor’s people and the Governor’s people.
“I wouldn’t put it past any of them,” ranted one Pataki administration official of the possibility that Mr. Giuliani played a role in egging on the U.S. Attorney. “They are so mean-spirited. They are so vindictive.”
Other friends were more introspective. “This is like the annals of ancient Rome,” said one. “As you get closer to the top, you’re in more and more danger.”