Confidants told the Brooklyn State Senator that federal agents had approached them and asked questions about Kruger. Private questions. It unnerved him.
Kruger needed an attorney. He called Benjamin Brafman.
“He came to see me, said that he had learned there were people being interviewed, and he wanted me to represent him in case he needed counsel,” Brafman recounted. “I concluded that he did.”
Brafman soon learned that the U.S. Attorney’s offices in both the Southern and Eastern districts of New York had launched simultaneous investigations into Kruger. Brafman quickly signed on as Kruger’s counsel and began to monitor both probes.
He met with Eastern District attorneys and said he convinced them that allegations against his client were “baseless.” They dropped their inquiry.
But attorneys from the Southern District possessed a series of taped conversations between Kruger and his associates, which led them to conclude they had the basis to file a corruption case against the senator.
On March 9, 2011, prosecutors notified Brafman that they were going to charge his client with federal crimes and that Kruger should surrender the next day. Brafman informed his client. The news depressed Kruger, but he hoped he could still prevail.
“It’s very hard for someone who is not a criminal to come to grips with the fact that in the next 24 hours the whole world is going to assume that he is a criminal because he’s involved in substantially adverse publicity,” Brafman said.
Brafman, once a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, has secured several high-profile acquittals and dismissals in his 30-year career, including hip-hop mogul Sean Combs, on alleged weapons-possession charges, former City Councilman Dennis Gallagher, on alleged rape charges, and International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose sex abuse case was ultimately dropped.
But he could not save Kruger, his friend of nearly three decades.
“Based on the evidence, it appeared on the merits that a trial wouldn’t be successful,” said Brafman. “Sometimes in my practice you have to do damage control. Sometimes you can’t win. Sometimes the facts don’t allow you to hit a home run. In those cases, a plea is in the best interest of the client, however difficult it may be to consider.”
New York City is a place teeming with pricey political consultants, whip-smart communications strategists and Ivy League-educated attorneys.
But there’s another set of operatives whom politicians tap when they find themselves staring down a scandal or suddenly facing a fight for their professional or personal lives. These crisis-management specialists are the consultants of last resort—the people politicians turn to when they find themselves stuck in a deadlocked election, when they hear a federal indictment is imminent or when they get served a warrant for their arrest.
When those desperate calls come, that’s when these top-flight operatives go to work.
These are the elite consultants who accompany their clients to court or lurk in the background of a hard-to-stomach press conference. They sometimes answer questions on their client’s behalf, but usually avoid the press altogether. And often their best and most important work—killing a story before it breaks or quietly settling a criminal matter to avoid a trial—ends up a carefully guarded secret that the public never learns.
Each situation is different, but crisis managers rely on a similar set of skills to steer their clients out of further trouble.
They must be discreet, meticulous, responsive at all hours and willing to absorb withering media scrutiny while insulating their client from the storm.
It’s a stressful job—perhaps the most difficult in politics—but they relish the challenge of saving careers, or at least keeping their clients out of prison.
They are the fixers. And they are here to help.
Bad news travels faster than good news—it’s almost a law of physics.
Another truism in politics? Always tell the truth.
“The number one skill you need as a crisis manager is to never lie,” said communications wizard Ken Sunshine. “It doesn’t mean you have to answer every question. There are ways to duck questions. People lie all the time in this business. Ethically it’s unacceptable and frankly, it doesn’t work. You get caught.”
Sunshine, whose firm, Sunshine Sachs, is one of the most respected communications firms in the world, knows how to steer his clients through a crisis. One of them is Kerry Kennedy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ex-wife, whom the New York Post splashed across its cover for crashing her car in Westchester County, and who later tested positive for traces of Ambien. Sunshine won’t answer any questions about Kennedy.
Sunshine and his crackerjack team of public relations managers, including Jesse Derris, who heads its crisis division, and Shawn Sachs, his business partner, have been keeping stories out of the press since 1992, when Sunshine founded the company. Today they run a West Coast branch based in Los Angeles that handles celebrity clients—Leonardo DiCaprio, Barbra Streisand, Ben Affleck, John Mayer, to name a few—and employ about 90 hush-men and -women.
“We pride ourselves on our discretion,” Sunshine said. “I think our record is pretty good, but the greatest part is nobody knows we’re doing it, except our client and us.”
Sunshine has the ear of many of the country’s most powerful people, including Governor Cuomo, whom he calls “one of the most talented and effective public servants” he’s ever seen. If Cuomo ever found himself mired in a quandary like his predecessors, Sunshine would likely get one of the governor’s first calls —or text messages—though Sunshine doesn’t expect that moment will ever come.
“Believe me, there’s nothing. [The Cuomos are] as clean and honest as any public servants in the country,” he said.
Preventing a scandal from making it into the news cycle, let alone showing up in the Twittersphere, is a herculean task, but crisis managers employ a range of strategies to get in front of a story.
“It’s a very difficult thing for people to understand they are about to be in very serious trouble,” said Stefan Friedman, a managing partner of SKDKnickerbocker and an experienced crisis specialist. “A normal person holds out hope that it will go away and thinks about how they can get out of this, or at least limit the damage.”
Friedman knows tabloids. He worked at the New York Post for eight years as a political columnist and says his experience helps him determine the intensity of a scandal.
“It’s about identifying how bad something can be. A conversation we have at the office is if it’s going to be ‘the wood.’ The wood will drive a ton of coverage,” said Friedman, using the term “wood” to mean the front cover of a daily newspaper.
Savvy communications managers occasionally identify potential pratfalls by scanning Twitter, the blogs and online media. More often a snooping reporter calls with a request for comment on a tip or a politician’s aide warns of a burgeoning catastrophe.
Lupé Todd, a vice president at George Arzt Communications, has had panicked clients reach out to her at all hours of the night. She usually meets with the politician’s crisis-management team the following morning.
“The person in trouble has to be honest with the team, and sometimes that can be difficult with elected officials,” said Todd, an architect of Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries’ congressional bid. “To be an elected official you have to have an ego, and it’s a humbling experience when they’re in trouble. It’s equally humbling when they have to admit their faults.”
Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s personal crisis manager, said that consultants must ask the right questions and quickly assimilate a lot of information from a reluctant client before preparing a statement.
“Whatever story you tell, it better be right,” Wolfson said. “You really only have one opportunity to tell your first story. You have to have your credibility around that, and telling that story and making sure it’s accurate is very important.”
A good crisis communicator must be willing to drop everything and respond to the needs of the client when something breaks, experts say. Speed is key, but accuracy is more important. And a spokesperson must be organized when a deluge of media requests arrives.
“If you let one call slip through the cracks, you can have an entirely different story on your hands,” Friedman said. “We now have a responsibility to get back with near immediacy because of the 24-hour news cycle on steroids. It takes being very quick on your feet and having the right instincts.”
But it can be frustrating when a scandal slips out of your grasp.
In one of her highest profile jobs, Republican consultant Susan Del Percio had to react to a completely unexpected turn. In April 2008 an aide from Rep. Vito Fossella informed her that the Staten Island congressman had been arrested for driving drunk in Virginia. She met with Fossella’s team, crafted a response, and the congressman held a press conference to apologize. Less than a month later Fossella resigned after revelations showed that he had a secret family in Washington—something Del Percio said she had never been told.
“When I was first called I was not made aware of the facts,” she said. “You go in assuming you know what’s going on, you handle it, and then learn there’s more. You have to reassess your original strategy, you have to modify.”
And then there are times when a crisis becomes so monumental that the crisis-management team must make room for another player—the lawyer. Communicators must balance issuing a statement with a lawyer’s preference for resorting to an artful “no comment.”
“Public relations is not nearly as valuable as a legal opinion when there can be fines or jail time,” Friedman said. “Ninety-nine out of 100 times I will not put up a fight when a lawyer gets involved, but I will give advice.”
And sometimes the best strategy is saying nothing at all.
“You have to trust your gut, you can’t be rash, and you have to be very dispassionate,” Sunshine said. “If you let your own emotion get in the way, you can make a mistake. You have to look client in the eye and say, ‘Sometimes it’s better to do nothing, or suck it in for a while.’”
Politicians can face their first serious predicaments even before taking office.
“Eliot Spitzer called me at 1 or 1:30 in the morning once,” said Marty Connor, a former State Senator and an expert on election law. “That’s when he ran for attorney general in ’98 and had a statewide recount.”
Connor is one of the few attorneys in the state who specialize in election law. He has been taking inquiries from former colleagues, novice Democrats, and even political foes for more than four decades. The calls start coming just hours after the polls close on Election Day, as soon as an unofficial count of votes is over—and the candidate realizes the race is essentially tied.
“There are a lot of mistakes to avoid that can avert a crisis, but the postelection proceedings tend to be crises,” Connor said. “Nobody plans for being in a close race when there’s going to be a recount.”
Much like a baseball closer, a skilled election lawyer enters in the late innings of a campaign to preserve a hard-fought victory or snatch one away from certain defeat.
“Every candidate, no matter whether an incumbent or insurgent, is extremely anxious if there’s a close vote,” said election attorney Jerry Goldfeder, who wrote a book—the book, some say—on election law. “The hardest part is managing the candidate’s expectations. I help them face the reality that these are unofficial totals, and other exigencies may pop up that will need to be addressed.”
A recount can be a painstaking process.
Election workers count paper ballots and attorneys spend hundreds of hours tracking down voter records to certify or invalidate votes. The slimmer the margin, the more contentious the proceedings, and the more intense election records research will be.
Connor developed his hard-boiled meticulousness as an attorney at a Wall Street firm over four decades ago. One of his colleagues encouraged him to join a Brooklyn Heights Democratic political club, where he taught himself election law to challenge the county’s candidates’ petitions and won several battles. A decade later he won election to the State Senate and began helping many legislators with their campaigns, pro bono.
Connor credits his Wall Street training and obsessive, detail-oriented natured for making him a good election lawyer.
“The law is very intolerant of mistakes, and deadlines are absolute,” he said. “In election law, there are no extensions of time. There’s no forgiveness for filing something late, there’s no forgiveness for serving papers improperly.”
Goldfeder shares Connor’s perspective on professionalism.
“You have to be responsive to the wishes and needs [of] your client,” he said. “Candidates see this as the most meaningful part of their lives. You need to be extremely responsive to who they are as people when you are representing them.”
Spitzer’s statewide campaign, when he defeated Attorney General Dennis Vacco after a lengthy recount, is perhaps Connor’s most heralded accomplishment. He oversaw the training of scores of lawyers placed in each county across the state as the count progressed over a four-week period.
But this year Connor was on the losing end of two close elections.
One client, Councilman Lew Fidler, conceded a razor-thin State Senate race to Republican David Storobin, who eked out a 16-vote victory at the end of an acrimonious two-month process marked by allegations of fraud over affidavit ballots from voters in Brighton Beach.
Another client, State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, admitted defeat two weeks after Rep. Charlie Rangel’s margin of victory shifted repeatedly as the Board of Elections discovered more ballots during the recount.
That won’t stop politicians from hiring him in the future.
“Marty’s the best,” said Jo Anne Simon, a Brooklyn State Committeewoman and a longtime friend. “He has probably dealt with more variety of election-
law matters than anyone else. He’s very smart, and he has very good judgment.”
Connor believes that in addition to mastering election law, it helps to have political common sense, which he honed in Albany for 30 years.
“I will give legal advice to a client and say, ‘Now that’s the law, but as a practical matter you’d be very foolish to take advantage of that because it won’t look good in the press,’” he said. “Not everything the law permits is necessarily wise for a candidate to do. What they want to do may be legal, but it smells, and may get them bad publicity.”
Every year it seems that another politician has gotten himself in trouble with the police or the Feds.
And it pays, often handsomely, to have a top-flight criminal defense attorney by his side.
“The primary goal is to try to make your client into a nonperson and explain he has nothing to do with the investigation,” said Ed McDonald, a partner at the law firm Dechert LLP and a former federal prosecutor. “You must persuade prosecutors not to bring charges, or you try to negotiate the best possible deal. If someone goes to trial, it’s at the end of a failed process.”
For decades politicians have approached Paul Shechtman, Gerald Lefcourt, Gerald Shargel and Ben Brafman for representation in extreme crises. Each has a reputation for being discreet with clients and pugnacious in negotiations with prosecutors.
“You can tell me you killed someone, robbed a grocery store, embezzled money, defrauded a public agency—whatever you tell me, I’m going to hunt for reasonable doubt,” said Shargel, who has represented former Suffolk County Republican leader Nicholas Barbato and several individuals with suspected Mob ties, and is currently representing defendants in the CityTime payroll scandal. “I’ve never said to a client, ‘Did you do it? Are you guilty?’ Those aren’t questions I ask.”
Shargel favors a “holistic” approach toward legal counseling, which includes holding a series of client meetings and having dinner with the client’s family in order to explain the consequences. He also tells each defendant the “unvarnished truth” about the case.
“I don’t make a bad situation appear worse than it really is, and I don’t make it appear better because it’s an easier thing to do,” he said. “If someone is under investigation and I think he or she will be indicted, I don’t say they have nothing to worry about.”
Brafman says he spends as much time counseling his clients emotionally as he does discussing the facts of the case.
“I’ve probably talked more people out of committing suicide than most psychiatrists,” he said. “When the storm comes and you are at the center of a criminal investigation, it’s worse than being told you have a terminal illness. You quickly learn that you don’t have as many close friends and colleagues as you thought you did. Sometimes the life you had never comes back the same, even if you are ultimately completely exonerated.”
Both Brafman and Shargel try to dissuade politicians from speaking to the press as a matter of sound legal practice.
Shargel cautions that prosecutors will leap on a politician’s statement if it is inconsistent with the facts and use it to decide whether to push for a trial. Brafman compares press relations to being the underdog in a boxing match.
“Good boxers are always counterpunching, but in my practice, sometimes you take punch after punch after punch,” Brafman said. “You do not allow the punch to knock you down, but you cannot always fight back until an opportunity presents itself so that there is no downside to the client.”
It often works.
Nearly a year ago prosecutors abruptly dropped sexual-assault charges against IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, citing a lack of evidence. The global press corps had all but convicted Strauss-Kahn, then a leading candidate for president of France, when news of the accusation first broke.
Brafman’s philosophy when it comes to media relations in high-profile cases is to not be concerned about winning the news cycle.
“If you get a good press day and as a result you compromise your ability to win the case, at the end of the ordeal, no one is going to remember your good press day if you lose the case,” he said. “If you get bad press day after bad press day but manage to prevail at the end, no one is ever going to remember the bad press day. The objective is to prevail.”
Brafman believes his insistence on Strauss-Kahn’s innocence persuaded Manhattan district attorneys to examine the evidence more thoroughly.
“My assertion that DSK was not guilty had a great impact with that office, which began to take a careful look at the facts, a more careful look than if someone who did not have my background was making those claims,” he said.
But sometimes prosecutors plod ahead, especially if they have a preponderance of evidence against a client. Attorneys must then change strategies and advise a client to consider pleading guilty or risk punishment in trial.
With Kruger’s situation, he and Brafman examined the facts of the case for six months after prosecutors issued the indictment. In the end Kruger chose to plead guilty to accepting $1 million
in bribes. He is currently serving a seven-year sentence at the Federal Correction Institution in Fort Dix, N.J. The decision continues to weigh on Brafman.
“It breaks my heart to see him in federal prison,” Brafman said. “I think that his plea of guilty was the absolute correct way for his case to be resolved, but it hurts me that I wasn’t able to save him despite my best efforts. But I’ve grown up in this profession, and after 37 years, I get it. Some cases don’t end well. Sometimes the right advice is for an individual to plead guilty even though the consequences are going to be severe.”
A crisis is finally over when reporters stop calling.
“The end is when all the facts appear to have come out and there’s nothing new to report,” Del Percio said. “Then you plan on the next year, and figure out what to do, so you’re prepared. It’s not that you fold; you go from crisis to communications strategy.”
The road to perdition is taxing, and the return journey can be just as long.
But some politicians have been able to accelerate their public rehabilitation after embarrassing episodes.
Take former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who stepped down four years ago due to revelations of sexual encounters with a prostitute. Spitzer has since reinvented himself as a media pundit, writing for Slate and hosting television programs on CNN, Current TV and NY1.
“I think the comeback of Spitzer has been incredible to behold,” Wolfson said. “It wasn’t that long ago that it broke. He’s a reputable public figure, and it shows that people can be rehabilitated.”
Other times the memories are too fresh for a reintroduction to the political sphere.
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner mishandled his own messaging in the days after he tweeted photographs of his crotch, explaining his account had been hacked. He subsequently acknowledged sending the tweets, and resigned less than a month later.
Public relations experts say there was nothing that could have been done to save him.
“Anthony has famously been his own person and taken his own counsel, for better or worse,” Friedman said. “I don’t see what any master PR person could do to put that back in the box that was salvageable. This was something that was going to explode.”
Last month the antsy former congressman gauged the public’s interest in a redemptive run for citywide office—and the city’s press corps slapped his wrist, prompting a retreat.
“Even though there’s talk that he could run for office again, a lot of reporters won’t forget that he flat out looked at them and lied,” Del Percio said. “And that’s a character issue. He tried to use the press.”
Sunshine believes both Spitzer and Weiner are “good people who made mistakes.” He blames the press for putting intense pressure on those who lead a life in the public eye.
“Personal lives should be left alone,” Sunshine said. “To nitpick politicians is just unfair, and the media keeps making us believe the Puritans are still around. The Puritans weren’t so pure back then.”
But crisis managers who have been through enough fires know the media will continue to vet politicians as long as papers print ink and cyberspace spews ones and zeroes. Perhaps the most useful advice a crisis manager can give to aspiring consultants is to not put politicians on a pedestal.
“At the end of the day, elected officials are merely a man or a woman,” Lupé Todd said. “They’re not Queen. They’re not God. I respect those I work for, but I don’t drink the Kool-Aid anymore. When you get drunk on the Kool-Aid, that’s when you get shocked.”
Tags: Adriano Espaillat, Andrew Cuomo, Anthony Weiner, Barbara Streisand, Ben Affleck, Benjamin Brafman, Board of Elections, Carl Kruger, Charlie Rangel, CityTime, CNN, Current TV, David Storobin, Dennis Gallagher, Dennis Vacco, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Ed McDonald, George Arzt Communications, gerald lefcourt, Gerald Shargel, Howard Wolfson, International Monetary Fund, Jerry Goldfeder, Jesse Derris, Jo Anne Simon, John Mayer, Ken Sunshine, Kerry Kennedy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lew Fidler, Lupe Todd, Marty Connor, Michael Bloomberg, New York Post, Nicholas Barbato, NY1, paul shechtman, Sean Combs, Shawn Sachs, SKDKnickerbocker, Stefan Friedman, Sunshine Sachs, Susan Del Percio, twitter, Vito Fossella
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