“The members of this agency have gone through a terrible few years,” said the president of the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association on Thursday.
Daniel M. De Federicis was referring to several troopers killed in the line of duty, as well as the May 15 suicide of former Inspector Gary Berwick, who had led former Gov. George Pataki’s security detail. On Friday, another former state police employee, forensic scientist Garry Veeder, committed suicide. Last month, a state police lieutenant, Joseph Banish, killed himself in Colonie.
De Federicis bristled at the negative news reports, rumors and official investigations that seem to have tarnished the image of state police in the minds of many people, including powerful politicians.
“We the agency and we the members are being wronged,” is the first thing he said sitting down to be interviewed in his downtown Albany office, overlooking St. Peter’s Church, and the theme he kept coming back to.
“There is no rogue unit,” De Federicis said, referring to media reports that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s investigation is trying to find and expose such a unit within state police. “ … It’s wrong. It’s tragic. It’s a travesty, what’s been done to this agency and the people in this agency,” De Federicis said.
De Federicis did concede two areas of legitimate concern, and the possibility of Cuomo’s investigators exposing one or two more. One is the scandal he doesn’t like being called “Troopergate,” involving former Gov. Eliot Spitzer using the former state police acting superintendent, Preston Felton, to target a political rival, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick.
The other involves a 2005 domestic incident at the Clifton Park home of then-U.S. Rep. John Sweeney, whose then wife called police to report that he was “knocking her around,” according to a state police blotter review. In that case, De Federicis said, “There was a false document” apparently prepared by someone within the state police, giving a sanitized, noninformative account of the incident.
Whatever the motivation for this, it wound up hurting Sweeney, because when the real state police report was leaked to three newspapers a few days before the 2006 election, Sweeney disputed its veracity, apparently because all he had seen previously was the false document De Federicis referred to. Sweeney, a Republican running in a heavily Republican district, lost the election to Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.
The Sweeney case was cited earlier this month by Gov. David Paterson as one of the reasons why he asked Cuomo to conduct his investigation of state police. According to De Federicis, state police investigated the leak of the Sweeney report, but apparently not the creation of the false document.
State police spokesman Lt. Glenn Miner declined to comment on the Sweeney case, noting it will likely be a subject of Cuomo’s investigation. He also declined to respond to reports in the New York Post that Berwick’s suicide note referred to the Cuomo investigation.
De Federicis said the Post’s reporting has been irresponsible, and “It got legs. It got out of hand,” prompting Paterson’s call for Cuomo to investigate. Paterson cited incidents of troopers pulling over politicians’ cars, but De Federicis said he has seen no evidence of wrongdoing in that. The governor also cited the case of a state senator, Dale Volker, R-Depew, who had said he thought state police had followed him, but presented no evidence to substantiate it.
Nor has De Federicis seen any evidence of Berwick having done anything wrong. “This has put incredible pressure on people who have done nothing wrong,” he said.
Wayne Bennett, Felton’s predecessor as state police commissioner who is now the city of Schenectady’s public safety commissioner, said he had “no indication” that Berwick “was involved in any wrongdoing. Nor would I expect that of him.” But the circumstances of his death have raised suspicions in people’s minds, Bennett said, as have the other negative reports about the agency, and he supports the Cuomo investigation getting to the bottom of any allegations and clearing them up.
“There are all these unanswered questions and they need to be answered,” Bennett said.
No ’rogue’ units
De Federicis said he also wants to see a thorough investigation completed by Cuomo to clear the air.
Bennett, like De Federicis, said he did not believe there was any rogue unit in the police force, and hadn’t seen evidence there was anything wrong with the reported traffic stops of politicians. “I wouldn’t put a lot of importance on that,” he said.
Pataki also has denied the existence of any rogue unit, and gave the eulogy at Berwick’s funeral.
Paterson has said that his startling personal revelations, immediately upon becoming governor in March, of past marital infidelities, were prompted in part by his concerns over “out of control” state police officials, and what they might do with negative information about him.
Paterson’s press secretary, Errol Cockfield, declined to discuss the state police last week, citing the ongoing Cuomo investigation. The governor, however, is scheduled to make a public appearance on Tuesday morning at a state police promotion ceremony in Albany.
One influential and controversial former state police official, Daniel Wiese, was fired Friday from his job heading security at the New York Power Authority. Wiese, who had close ties both to Pataki and Spitzer, has been engaged in an ongoing dispute with the Power Authority and Cuomo, denying the latter’s implication that he deleted computer files to thwart investigators.
Wiese also said: “I am not aware of the existence of the alleged ‘rogue element’ in the state police currently under investigation. I have no knowledge of such an ‘element.’ Furthermore, I do not believe that any such unit or element ever existed within the state police any time during my association with the organization.”
Bruno spoke at a memorial service Wednesday on Empire State Plaza, paying tribute and giving thanks to the officers who gave their lives — along with some lighter remarks about the rain holding off. He greeted family members of David Brinkerhoff, the state trooper killed in 2007 by friendly fire.
Asked later about the investigation and the ongoing turmoil surrounding the agency, Bruno said a few members of the state police may have done “things that are not appropriate. That’s the way things are generally.”
After the ceremony, state police Superintendent Harry Corbitt spoke to reporters as he walked in the rain across the Plaza to the Capitol,
“I’m very saddened” about Berwick’s death, Corbitt said. Asked about morale, he said; “When one of our members is down, we’re all down.”
Corbitt said an internal report on the governor’s security detail has been completed. That report apparently deals with Spitzer’s assignation with a prostitute in Washington on Feb. 13, that led to his resignation in March. De Federicis said it is ridiculous to blame the security detail for obeying Spitzer’s orders, or to expect them to have investigated whether the governor was patronizing a prostitute.
Gillibrand could not be reached for comment Friday, and her spokeswoman, Rachel McEneny, declined to comment on whether the congresswoman believes her campaign leaked the Sweeney police report. Howard Wolfson, who worked on the Gillibrand race and is now a top aide to the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, did not return a call for comment. Sweeney and his lawyer, E. Stewart Jones, could not be reached for comment, either. Nor did the attorney general’s press office respond to phone calls Thursday and Friday, and Sen. Volker could not be reached.
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