Schenectady County

Sweeney continues recovery, resumes law career at Albany firm

Mathew Tully marked April 6, 2011, on his calendar.

Mathew Tully marked April 6, 2011, on his calendar.

That date happened to fall exactly two years to the day after former U.S. Rep. John Sweeney swore off alcohol, according to accounts in the media. Tully, a partner in Tully Rinckey law firm, saw it as benchmark he’d allow the 55-year-old recovering alcoholic to pass before extending him a job offer.

Tully got Sweeney’s phone number through a mutual friend and called the one-time state Department of Labor commissioner. After talking briefly about Sweeney’s recovery, Tully extended an invitation for coffee and a discussion about his career plans.

“John was in need of a second chance and we were there to provide him with it,” he recalled Monday.

Sweeney, who went from serving in Congress to serving a jail sentence for drunken driving, started training with the Albany-based law firm last week. Tully is hoping Sweeney’s experience on Capitol Hill and with labor relations will give the firm a unique insight in defending its clients, about half of whom are either military personnel or civilian federal employees.

“His experience in public office, specifically as New York’s former labor commissioner, is an asset to the firm’s federal sector employment law practice,” he said.

For Sweeney, getting a job at Tully Rinckey is a blessing along the road to recovery he continues to travel. He said joining the law firm allows him to get back into the legal practice he abandoned in 1995 for a career in politics.

“I couldn’t have written a better opportunity for myself, in so many ways,” he said from the law office on Monday.

Sweeney served eight years in the House of Representatives representing New York’s 20th Congressional District and was regarded as a rising star in the Republican Party. President George W. Bush dubbed him “Congressman Kick-Ass” for his take-no-prisoners approach to politics in 2003 and he was later mentioned as a potential candidate to succeed then-Gov. George Pataki.

But Sweeney’s drinking began to take a toll on his public image. He appeared intoxicated when photographed during an impromptu campaign stop at the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity party at Union College in April 2006.

Sweeney was also identified in a state police blotter in connection to a December 2005 domestic violence incident at his Clifton Park home that surfaced the week before the November 2006 election, which he lost to Kirsten Gillibrand. Sweeney and his wife Gayle accused each other of alcohol-induced domestic abuse during their divorce proceedings in 2007.

In November 2007, Sweeney was stopped by state police on the Northway. Though he told police he’d had four glasses of wine and was returning home to Clifton Park from the Envy Lounge on Pearl Street in Albany, a breath test determined his blood alcohol content to be at 0.18 percent, more than twice the legal threshold for driving while intoxicated.

Sweeney pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DWI and was ordered to enroll in drunken driving school, attend a victims impact panel and surrender his driver’s license for six months. He was also ordered to refrain from using alcohol while attending the alcohol classes and submit to an alcohol evaluation weekly and follow any recommendation from it.

In April 2009, Sweeney was again charged with drunken driving and spent 16 days in Saratoga County Jail after pleading guilty to the charge the following year. After his release, he was introduced to the Rev. Peter Young, the founder of Peter Young Housing, Industries & Treatment.

Young offered to take Sweeney aboard as the addiction treatment group’s compliance officer in July 2010. Meanwhile, Sweeney said, he’s continued on the path to recovery — something that’s been helped by his work with Young.

“It’s a day-at-a-time proposition and I work at it very diligently,” he said of his sobriety. “And I have to in order to maintain it.”

Sweeney’s affiliation with Young won’t end with his new job. He said Tully has “emphatically” encouraged him to continue working with Young’s agency.

But Sweeney’s return to law means he’s likely closed the door on politics for good. He said the “bright lights of politics” pulled him away from the career in law he’d wanted ever since graduating from Western New England School of Law.

“In a way [my career] is kind of coming full circle,” he said.

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