As NY governor resists pressure to step down, his state police chief abruptly resigns

By Valerie Bauman, AP
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

NY state police chief abruptly retires in scandal

ALBANY, N.Y. — An unfolding scandal threatening Gov. David Paterson and his administration claimed its second public safety official Tuesday when the head of the New York State Police said he was retiring, partly because of intense media scrutiny.

And late Tuesday night, The New York Times reported that Paterson told a state employee in February to contact a woman at the heart of the scandal who had accused a Paterson aide of domestic violence to “make this go away.” Soon after, the woman dropped her case against the aide. The newspaper attributed the executive branch worker’s recollection of the governor’s request to a person with knowledge of the state worker’s testimony to investigators in the attorney general’s office.

A Paterson spokesman denied Tuesday night that the governor ever told the worker to “make this go away.”

The head of the state police, Superintendent Harry Corbitt, had acknowledged in February that a state police official had contact with the woman who accused the aide of assaulting her on Halloween in New York City’s Bronx borough. Soon after, the woman dropped the domestic violence complaint against the aide, David Johnson.

On Tuesday in a TV interview, Corbitt talked about the pressures of being involved in the story and why he was leaving office — a course some critics are also urging the Democratic governor to take.

“Any individual who is criticized constantly feels that pain,” Corbitt told the cable station Capital News 9. “And in most cases there is some way to fight back. But in public service there is not. I’m not an elected official; I’m a public servant, I’m a cop. And a good cop. So to continue to face that pressure, and even pressure from my family, the media showing up in my driveway — that’s unacceptable. So for my own health and for my own sanity it’s the right thing to do.”

Corbitt’s boss, Deputy Secretary for Public Safety Denise O’Donnell, resigned a week ago, saying direct contact by the governor and troopers with the woman was “unacceptable” regardless of their intent. She said that at the time, Corbitt had assured her that state police were not involved in the investigation.

Paterson, who has denied wrongdoing, earlier had hinted that he would soon tell his side of the story in the scandal but refused to comment on whether he had asked Corbitt to step down.

“I think that we’ll move forward now and we will look to see who will be the best person to lead the state police,” Paterson told reporters. “I think he worked very hard and he was helpful at this period.”

Sherruna Booker told police she was roughed up on Halloween by Johnson, her boyfriend at the time, but she decided not to press charges. At issue is whether Paterson or anyone from his staff or state police security detail influenced her decision.

Paterson has acknowledged that he spoke with Booker but said she initiated the call and that he did not try to get her to change her story or not pursue a charge. Paterson’s administration has not made Johnson available to comment or answer questions.

The New York Times on Tuesday provided new details on Paterson’s involvement in the matter, reporting that the governor had personally directed two state employees to contact the woman.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo — often mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate by the very critics who dogged Paterson last week into abandoning his campaign for a full term — is investigating those contacts. Any criminal case will hinge on whether Paterson, staff members or members of his state police security detail tried to get Booker to change her story, making charges of witness tampering or obstructing justice possible.

The departure of Corbitt, who had already retired once but returned to service at Paterson’s request, came on a day when the Times report gave Paterson his most damaging press yet. The National Organization for Women, long a Paterson ally, called for his resignation even as he got some rare support by lawmakers.

State Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs drove from Long Island to meet in the governor’s mansion with Paterson and later said Paterson’s account of his contact with the woman, along with the state police and staff members, “explains an awful lot.” He declined to divulge details.

“I did not get the sense that the governor is considering resignation, that resignation is pending,” said Jacobs, a longtime friend of Paterson who owes his job to the governor. “There shouldn’t be any more shoes to drop. The sense I got from him is there won’t be.”

Paterson left a closed-door meeting with staff and said only that he doesn’t plan to quit and didn’t even feel pressure to resign, despite widespread speculation in the Capitol. A driver passing by the mansion honked and shouted to reporters, “Get him out of there!”

Minutes before Jacobs spoke, powerful Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver left a lunch meeting with Paterson at the mansion and told reporters: “I don’t feel he should resign.”

The Times report outraged NOW’s state chapter, which called for Paterson’s resignation despite his “excellent” policy record on women’s issues.

“It is inappropriate for the governor to have any contact or to direct anyone to contact an alleged victim of violence,” chapter president Marcia Pappas said.

Even Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whom Paterson appointed to the seat last year, said Tuesday that he would have to resign if allegations that he abused his power are proven true.

But five Latino legislators, all Democrats, met with Paterson about budget appropriations and the needs of their communities, then approached reporters waiting outside the mansion to voice support.

“No one has criticized the governor more than I have,” said Sen. Ruben Diaz, of the Bronx. “Right now, we are supporting the governor to stay until the investigation is resolved.”

Paterson said he would soon speak publicly. Some leading Democrats have said he should resign to avoid further damage to the party in the 2010 elections.

Arriving at an Irish American fundraiser in Manhattan, Cuomo did not say whether he thought the governor should resign. He said he hadn’t spoken to Paterson yet but that the governor’s office had cooperated.

“We will do the investigation as fast as we can, as fast as practical,” Cuomo said. “We also want to do it right, we want to be thorough, we want to be fair, and we want to have all the facts.”

Corbitt succeeded acting Superintendent Preston Felton, who was part of another scandal known as Troopergate. The administration of then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer was accused of using state troopers for surveillance of the governor’s political enemies.

In November, the state Public Integrity Commission found that Felton ordered state police to create official-looking documents about a political foe’s use of state aircraft. He was accused of producing the material at the request of one of Spitzer’s aides, who then gave the documents to a reporter. Felton faced no penalty.

Spitzer later resigned amid a prostitution scandal, and Paterson, who was his lieutenant, ascended to governor.

Associated Press writer Cristian Salazar in New York contributed to this report.

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