“There comes a point in time when the piling on—you want to set the record straight and try to get some things straight. And I think that, here it is.” – State Sen. Malcolm A. Smith
Two hours into questioning former State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith about the host of accusations and criticisms leveled against him over the years, I asked him whether he could say unequivocally that he had never done anything dishonest as an elected official.
“Absolutely. 100 percent. Never,” replied Smith without hesitation. “Never taken money, never even tried to, never had no interest to. I got into office to try to help somebody. I was in business. I know how to make money. I had a boat, cars, all that kind of stuff. I don’t have to go into public office to do something like that.”
So there you have it. Either Malcolm Smith is one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned politicians in New York State or he’s a bald-faced liar. Either that, or he’s utterly deluded.
While this article cannot establish a conclusive answer, it will for the first time give Smith’s full accounting of the story—a side he has, by his own admission, been poor at conveying to the public.
This interview came about when Senator Smith reached out to City & State through an intermediary to express his desire to reflect upon his time in the Legislature, particularly the events that toppled him from power. Guessing that Smith’s motivation for wanting to open up was related to the rumors that he is mulling a run for New York City mayor, City & State responded that the paper would be willing to speak with him provided he agreed to answer any line of questioning about his political career, with no topic of discussion off-limits. The senator agreed.
As Smith would admit, many of our readers will no doubt be inclined to question his credibility. For years he has been hounded by damaging headlines in the tabloids, like “Feds probe Sen. Smith grants to firm he founded” and “Federal Probe shows Senate President Malcolm Smith ripped off elderly couple for $60,000.”
Reading the small library of articles detailing Smith’s alleged abuses, schemes and crimes, one gets the impression he has been under investigation or in some sort of legal or ethical quandary nonstop since January of 2009, when he reached the pinnacle of his career by becoming the first Democratic Senate majority leader in over 40 years and the highest-ranking African-American legislator in state history.
While Smith avowed that he has been the subject of far less scrutiny from the legal authorities than the media has suggested, he realizes the cumulative affect reports about him have had on his reputation.
“People think that I’m a crook and a thief—and I’m absolutely not,” he said.
As for the rumors about a run for mayor, Smith was coy about his ultimate intentions, but eager to leave the door open to a run when I asked him about it.
“I’m flattered that some people have had conversations with me about it, and I’ve had conversations with consultants who have worked for both Bloomberg and Giuliani, and Democratic consultants as well, but for me right now, I have to worry about my Senate seat,” he said.
Until now Smith has stayed remarkably silent on the controversies he has been linked to in recent years: the AEG Aqueduct bid; a Hurricane Katrina charity accused of exploiting the tragedy’s victims; and the disastrous coup that stripped him of his position and made the Senate under his leadership a symbol of dysfunctional government.
When I asked Smith why he wanted to speak now on so many topics he had been reticent to discuss in the past, he responded, “It’s not even a matter of reticence,” he said. “It’s just that as an elected official, the one thing that allows you to continue what you’re doing is your reputation, your integrity, and what people see as your ability to serve. And so while I have continued to serve and continued to do things, I don’t know what the future holds, and so because of that I think it is important that as much of the public as possible knows the good, the bad, the misunderstood.”
ALL THAT GLITTERS
After not seeing Malcolm Smith up close for almost a decade, the first thing I noticed about him is how ashen he has become. His graying hair and fading skin blurred drearily into a loose-fitting suit tailored for a different man. Once the master of the Senate—one-third of Albany’s all-powerful “three men in a room”—Smith, 55, now barely filled the leather chair across the table from me in a generic midtown conference room.
He was not always this way. Ten years ago he beamed with the confidence of a management guru, while looking the part of a Wall Street financier. With his million-dollar smile, easy affability, and taste for suspenders and pinstripes, Smith had an undeniable flash about him, as if he were already certain of his stardom, even though at the time he was still largely unknown beyond his majority African-American district.
The following years would ratify his self-assurance. Smith shot up the Senate ranks so quickly that by the time Minority Leader David Paterson resigned his seat to join Eliot Spitzer’s ticket as lieutenant governor, just shy of seven years after Smith was elected, the senator outmaneuvered opponents like then Sens. Eric Schneiderman, Martin Dilan and Neil Breslin to become the head of his conference.
Two years later, with the Democrats taking over the Senate, Smith became majority leader.
What happened next is widely known, though the reason it occurred will perhaps forever remain in dispute.
Less than six months into his term, Smith was deposed as majority leader after the so-called Four Amigos, in particular Democratic Sens. Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate, threw their support behind the Republicans, thus giving the GOP back the majority and making Dean Skelos the Senate leader. Over the following weeks Monserrate and Espada defected back and forth between the parties, and ultimately the Democrats regained the Senate after agreeing to the Amigos’ demands, one of which was that Espada be given Smith’s title of majority leader.
Although Smith retained the title of Senate president until the end of the term, when Republicans regained control and reinstalled Skelos, the “coup,” as it came to be known, in essence ended Smith’s leadership, marginalizing him in the body he once controlled.
Three years later it still seems difficult for Smith to reflect upon the bewildering change of fortune that was his undoing. Though he expressed pride in some legislative accomplishments during his short time in the majority, his estimation of his performance as leader was “average,” and his overall feeling about the experience “bittersweet,” with perhaps a greater emphasis upon “bitter” than “sweet.”
Some participants in those extraordinary events judge Smith a casualty of circumstance. State Sen. Diane Savino, who was part of the group that brokered the deal elevating him to majority leader, recalled that the troubles that ended up sinking Smith began even before he had assumed his post.
“The day after election day Malcolm got shaken down by four members, who turned out to be the undoing of the Senate,” said Savino, alluding to the Amigos. “[They] basically sent a message to anyone else that if you want something, all you have to do is upend the apple cart and the leader will be forced to capitulate to you, regardless of whether it’s good for the larger group.”
Political consultant Steve Pigeon, who had helped engineer the Democratic takeover and had been dispatched by Smith after Election Day to help woo Espada’s support for Smith’s leadership, disputed Savino’s analysis that Smith could not have avoided the outcome that ultimately befell him.
“I believe he brought it upon himself,” said Pigeon. “It was a very fragile coalition that you really needed to be a master inside-dealing personality to keep together… The power went to his head too quickly, and that’s why he blew it in three months and he ended up making it impossible for [the Democrats] to be reelected that cycle.”
Smith contended it was his choice to cede power to the Amigos, and that he did so to serve his conference.
“When we got to the majority, it wasn’t about Malcolm,” said Smith in a gravelly voice that betrayed a certain weariness. “For me the greater good was making sure that 32 members who had not been in the majority for almost 40 years had the opportunity to be in the majority, which also meant they had the opportunity to serve their constituencies, which had been shortchanged for so many years. So I had to weigh that versus saying, ‘You know what? Screw you all…I’m not giving nothing to those two guys or three guys who want to do anything.’ ”
In hindsight Smith has plenty of regrets. He should not have antagonized Republicans by announcing his intention to redistrict them into “oblivion”—which he describes now as an unfortunate “tongue-in-cheek moment.” He should have stood up to the Amigos and refused to negotiate. He should have been more mindful of his members. He should have counseled his caucus to be more patient.
And he should have had the courage to say to his members—at least once—that they shouldn’t take the traitors back.
Pigeon discounted Smith’s recollection of the events as revisionist history, calling him “a famed exaggerator, fabricator and hustler.”
When I asked Smith how he thought his successor, John Sampson, had done as leader of the conference, a smile slipped over his lips. “I think he has a very tough job. The same job that I had [that was] very tough… Probably he’s finding out how great a job I was doing for six months versus what he’s done over the last 18.”
THE AEG AFFAIR
Though Smith rocketed to the leadership of the Senate, his journey to becoming an elected official was far more arduous. The first three times he ran for office—one time each for City Council, Assembly and Senate—he was defeated. Indeed, it wasn’t until State Sen. Alton Waldon Jr. vacated his seat in 1999 to accept a judgeship on the State Court of Claims that Smith’s moment finally came.
As the clear consensus candidate to replace Waldon, Smith ran on the Democratic, Republican and Conservative lines, amassing 90 percent of the vote in the special election against his two opponents.
Waldon is perhaps best remembered for having won the 1986 special election by squeaking past Smith’s mentor and minister, Rev. Floyd Flake—only to lose the seat to Flake in a rematch in the Democratic primary a mere six weeks later.
Flake would serve until 1997, when he quit to devote himself to the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral, a 23,000-member Queens megachurch with a $34 million annual budget that he leads to this day as senior pastor, along with his wife.
Like Smith, Flake’s time in office was blemished by rumor, allegations and worse. In 1990 Flake, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, was indicted with his wife and charged with fraud, embezzlement and tax violations for allegedly looting $140,000 from his congregation and federal housing funds. A month into his trial, the charges against Flake were tossed, and black leaders pointed to the case as part of a pattern of the government persecuting black politicians.
For Smith, Flake’s ordeal taught him that “as long as you know you’re doing the right thing, good always conquers evil.”
Since 1986 Smith had been district manager of Flake’s congressional office and an attendee of his church. Smith described Flake’s prosecution as “political retribution” against Flake for challenging Waldon and the county organization; he said he never doubted Flake’s innocence.
“I knew his character,” Smith said. “I trusted him.”
Flake remains a seminal figure in Smith’s life. A February 2010 article in The Wave described Smith and Flake’s relationship as so close that the two “reportedly speak…several times a day by telephone.”
While Smith downplayed the frequency of his contact with Flake, confining it primarily to church and Sundays, he did not dispute the closeness of their friendship. Indeed he publicly acknowledged it, in effect, when he recused himself from the bidding process to build the Aqueduct racino, a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in the backyard of Smith’s district in Queens.
At issue for Smith was that one of the bidders for the contract was the Aqueduct Entertainment Group (AEG), of which Flake was a minority owner with a reported 0.6 percent stake in the company, valued at $625,000. Another party with a 0.6 percent share in AEG was the Darman Group, a real estate development company headed by attorney Darryl Greene.
“We haven’t been in business together for 12 years,” Smith said when asked to characterize his relationship with Greene. “He’s somebody I know. He’s a friend.”
Shortly after Gov. David Paterson selected AEG as the winning bidder in early 2010, Greene relinquished his interests in AEG after it was discovered that he had pleaded guilty to stealing $500,000 from various government and public entities. Greene, who had avoided jail time but gotten three years probation and community service for his theft, was forced out.
Greene’s stepping aside from AEG—followed by Flake a few weeks later amid accusations of various conflicts of interest between himself and officials—was not enough to stem the uproar over AEG, which lost the license.
In the aftermath state Inspector General Joseph Fisch issued a report that was expressly critical of Smith.
In Fisch’s report Smith was interviewed by the IG, not just as a former business partner of Greene’s but also as cofounder of the Darman Group, the same real estate and consulting company through which Greene was a partner in AEG. Though the report repeats what Smith told me—that he hadn’t been in business with Greene since getting elected to the Senate and that he had wholly divested himself from Darman over a decade before—the IG still concluded, “Smith’s actions belie any recusal on his part.”
Smith did not dispute some involvement, but claimed it was a purely bureaucratic one. His role, he said, “actually wasn’t much of a role at all.” His only direct involvement, he said, was because as the Senate president he was the designated second signer on the actual contract. Brushing aside a passage of the IG report that found that “documentary evidence reveal[s] that Smith was very much involved in advocating for AEG, including advocacy to the [g]overnor,” Smith maintained that all of his discussions about the AEG bid pertained to the Senate Democrats’ chief counsel, Shelley Mayer, going over due diligence.
“As a lawyer her obligation is to say, ‘Before I have you sign this document, you need to see what was going to be in it,’ ” Smith said. “But if your question is, ‘Did I take that document and then call up everybody I know and hand it out?’—absolutely not.”
Asked about the IG’s finding that Paterson had “ ‘got the impression’ that Smith had a preference for AEG,” and, upon being pressed, “acknowledged… yes, he spoke to me about AEG,” Smith admitted to discussing AEG with Paterson, but said he had not expressed a preference for a bidder, and had spoken favorably of all of the contenders, stating that “they were all equally just as good.”
In general, Smith insisted he kept an appropriate distance from any parties involved in the bidding process.
About Flake, he said, “We consciously stayed away from each other at that time—that’s not impossible. If you’re smart enough to know, you don’t get yourself into any trouble, which was what I said to myself: ‘You do what you have to do. You have public responsibility.’ ”
The senator granted that his relationship with Greene and Flake raised red flags.
“That’s why I volunteered to recuse myself!” he exclaimed. “The minute I heard that [Flake and Greene were involved in AEG] I was like, ‘You know what? I need to keep my arm’s length from this thing.’… If you go to that report, everybody they spoke to says, ‘Senator Smith never told us what to do or suggested that we do anything,’ because I totally kept myself out of it.”
Smith declined to assign blame or speak specifically about any one individual’s involvement—or even to criticize the IG’s report. He instead attributed the problems to the way the bidding process had been set up.
“You should never have government and casinos gambling at the same table,” he said. “It’s a bad combination.”
His criticisms of the process are undoubtedly valid. The criteria by which the winner would be picked were left markedly vague when Joe Bruno, George Pataki and Sheldon Silver agreed upon a process that essentially allowed the majority leader, governor and speaker to choose whichever bidder they wanted with essentially no oversight—a process that invited a bonanza of lobbying dollars and campaign contributions aimed at getting the decision makers’ attentions.
Before he was deposed as majority leader, Smith was poised to be one of the three men in the room who would have been in a position to divvy up the spoils sure to come from the gamed Aqueduct bidding process. Though Smith brought up his self-imposed recusal several times with me to deny charges of wrongdoing, the IG’s report asserted he never intended to recuse himself from the process when he was still majority leader. According to the report, on May 19, 2009, a Senate spokesperson had publicly confirmed Smith’s relationships with Greene and Flake, “but proclaimed that they had not and would not influence ‘any governmental decision’ made by Smith and that the connections did not pose a conflict… Therefore, prior to the coup while serving as the uncontested leader of the Senate, Smith publicly declared that, even considering the aforementioned apparent conflicts of interest, he could and would participate in the VLT decision-making process.”
Smith did acknowledge making mistakes. The most glaring was his decision to attend a “victory party” celebrating AEG’s selection, despite his stated neutrality in the process. The party, held at the home of senator-turned-lobbyist Carl Andrews, was also attended by Sen. Eric Adams, who was the chair of the Racing and Wagering committee, and then Majority Leader John Sampson, who was blasted by the IG’s report for leaking competitive-bid data to AEG through Andrews.
Reflecting upon going to party, Smith expressed regret. “That was probably not the smartest thing to do.”
There is a recurring cast of characters who come up in articles about Malcolm Smith. These individuals, all of whom are or were influential in southeast Queens, tend to pop up in different capacities that intersect with Smith’s professional, political and private lives. Besides Flake and Greene, they include: Flake’s successor, U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks; Smith’s attorney Joan Flowers; Flake’s congressional chief of staff, Rev. Edwin C. Reed; and Mortimer Lawrence, Smith’s chief of staff when he was minority leader.
These individuals all seem to share some sort of connection to one another. For one thing, a number of them, like Meeks and Smith, currently are or have been parishioners of Reverend Flake’s or worshippers in his church. Mortimer Lawrence’s wife, Rev. Denise Lawrence, is an associate minister at Allen A.M.E., and Reverend Reed is the church’s former chief financial officer.
In 2006 Joan Flowers, who has also attended A.M.E., filed a petition with the attorney general’s office on behalf of a for-profit real estate venture, controlled in part by Flake and Reed, which yielded its partners over $1 million in fees as part of a $14 million purchase of a housing project from—you guessed it—A.M.E. Cathedral of New York.
In addition, Flowers has served as campaign treasurer for both Meeks and David Paterson when he was lieutenant governor, and though she has often been incorrectly identified as serving as Smith’s treasurer, too, she was, according to Smith, his “financial manager.”
When Smith became majority leader, he made Lawrence special counsel to the Senate majority, at an annual salary of $176,748. Around the same time, Flowers became deputy secretary for appointments, meaning that it was her job to recommend whom Smith named to various boards.
At other times during his years in the Senate, Flowers served as Smith’s personal lawyer and was his business partner in a title insurance company called Great Abstract, a company he received clearance from the Senate to be a part of.
Connections like these abound. In another example, Flowers, Meeks, Greene and Smith were all on the board of the Merrick Academy charter school—but the real nexus for all of these associates appears to be the New Directions Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit created by Smith and Meeks.
Meeks recalled that he and Smith had conceived of New Directions, founded in 2000, as a vehicle to bring together the talented professionals in their community to work together on economic development.
“Malcolm and I agreed, so we went and we talked to some folks,” explained Meeks. “They all agreed. They then went with the idea that was formulated by Malcolm and I, and they took the ball and ran. They agreed with the idea, and then they became New Directions.”
When I asked Meeks the names of some of the professionals who had acted upon his idea and formed New Directions, he initially struggled to recall who they were. When I suggested Joan Flowers, Meeks said, “Joan Flowers could have been one,” before coming up with Mortimer Lawrence and “Edwin,” presumably Reverend Reed, as the “individuals that ran” New Directions. When I asked if Darryl Greene were perhaps among this group too, Meeks responded, “Absolutely.”
According to the New York Times, New Directions’ website, which no longer exists, indicated that Reed was the organization’s treasurer, and its tax returns from 2003 through 2005 listed Lawrence as chairman of the board. From 2002 to 2008, when the organization filed its last tax return—it has since been disbanded—the nonprofit’s address was listed as the same Queens building as Flowers’ office.
Flowers, who maintained that she was only the attorney for New Directions for a very short time at its inception, acknowledged having been a board member, but said that she had resigned soon after because she had become too busy. Flowers defended New Directions, saying, “It was a positive organization for the community.”
Flowers backed up Smith and Meeks’ assertion that they were not involved in the organization other than at its founding, though beyond that, she claimed to have very little knowledge about New Directions. She said it was Lawrence, as chair of the board, who was better qualified to speak about the organization.
Lawrence did not respond to multiple calls to his office requesting to interview him for this article.
Smith said he knew that a board of directors had been in charge of New Directions, but “I can’t really tell you who was on the board, because all I know was when they formed it with those three names, and then they went and got their own board. So it was like Edwin Reed, Mortimer Lawrence, Joan Flowers. There were quite a few board members; I don’t remember them all.”
The initial “three names” to which Smith was referring were Flowers, who drew up the organization’s incorporation papers, and two of the individuals listed in those documents as founding board members of New Directions: Darryl Greene’s wife, Cathy, and Smith’s own wife, Michele.
Smith identified this information about his wife, which has been repeated in numerous articles, as emblematic of the press’s tendency to distort information to draw unfair inferences about him and those around him.
“This is where the press…” Smith began to lament, before holding his tongue. “You have to have three names just to incorporate. Just to get the organization formed. And then once that happens, then the organization is formed, and then those three people disband. I think my wife was on the board all of the day or two it took to form the corporation legally, and then she was off. That was it. But they made it sound like she was operating on the board, she was there every day, she was part of it for years. I think you can count the hours.”
It has been more than unfounded inferences, however, that has drawn media scrutiny to New Directions. In the first week of February 2010, amid an already tense time thanks to the AEG fiasco, federal prosecutors in Manhattan subpoenaed all of Smith’s records related to New Directions.
While the intent or extent of the federal investigation is not clear and has never yielded a summary of its findings or resulted in any legal action against anyone involved, newspaper reports covering the issuing of the subpoenas delved into the interconnectedness of the players involved with New Directions and called attention to the fact that New Directions had requested $111,500 in member items from Smith’s office since 2000, receiving $56,000 in four disbursements—one in 2001 and three in 2006.
Meeks had not directed any congressional earmarks to the organization, but according to the congressman he was contacted by federal authorities, and turned over all his papers pertaining to New Directions.
Both Smith and Meeks told me that they had not been questioned by any authorities since then, and they emphasized that they never had any involvement in New Directions whatsoever beyond being its creative spark.
Echoing a sentiment expressed by Smith, Meeks insisted, “It was never intended for me to be a part of the internal structure as far as being a board member, of signing, or asking anyone to be a board member or anything of that nature. I haven’t been intricately involved in that regard. That never happened.”
Added Meeks, “If I’m guilty of anything, I’m guilty of being a catalyst—of getting people who live in the community involved in the community.”
As to the member items Smith allocated to New Directions—an organization with which he had so many apparent ties—Smith maintained that all of the member items were properly approved by the Legislature.
Still, he admitted, “The perception looks bad. I don’t disagree with you. It looks bad, but there was nothing wrong, and nothing was illegal.”
NO GOOD DEED…
In Meeks’ opinion, the whole New Directions situation is an example of the old sardonic observation “No good deed goes unpunished.” Take, for instance, New Yorkers Organized to Assist Hurricane Families, or NOAH-F, another apparent focus of the federal investigators’ probe into New Directions.
“Here I am trying to do a good thing, and it’s damaging my reputation,” howled Meeks. “That’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!… Here I am, I’ve been a prosecutor, an investigator, and all of a sudden it’s flipped on me! When I got the first call from the Post, I was shocked!”
The New York Post story to which Meeks was referring was about NOAH-F, an organization put together by Smith, Meeks and several other area elected officials, ministers and community leaders, to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in 2005.
According to Meeks, the money raised by NOAH-F was administered by New Directions, which served as the fiscal conduit for the organization. Meeks explained that New Directions was selected because it had agreed to handle all of NOAH-F’s administrative affairs without charging a fee, thus enabling 100 percent of the money collected to go to Katrina victims.
Although NOAH-F took in $31,000 in donations, the organization’s contact person in New Orleans, a former Louisiana Democratic political director, told the Post “We never got a dime.” Moreover, NOAH-F’s own filing said it had distributed only $1,392 of the money raised.
Meeks explained that the money hadn’t ever ended up going to New Orleans because the organization’s plans for distributing the money changed when some of the hurricane victims began to be evacuated from New Orleans to hotels by JFK Airport in Meeks’ own congressional district. At that point it was determined that it made more sense to concentrate their charity locally.
As for what happened to the almost $30,000 unaccounted for, that appears to remain a mystery to this day.
Reverend Reed, New Directions’ treasurer, did not respond to requests to interview him for this article, but back in 2010 he told the Post he couldn’t remember any details about how donations to the charity were dispersed.
Meeks, who reiterated to me that his role was only to organize the community behind the effort and that he “was not involved in saying what money went where or anything of that nature,” declared he did not know what had happened to the money but was anxious to get to the bottom of the matter.
When I asked him who, then, was in charge of New Directions, Meeks erupted with enthusiasm, “Now you’re asking the right questions, my friend! Now you’re being a good reporter! I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask the damn question!”
Meeks continued to laugh riotously, almost to the point of comic exaggeration. “Now you’re asking the right question, because I want to know as bad as anybody else!”
Becoming serious again, Meeks said, “The guy who was in charge was a guy by the name of Claude Stuart… You gotta ask the guys who were in charge of New Directions, and he was the guy who was in charge of New Directions!”
According to a 2010 Times article, Stuart was the executive director of New Directions from “sometime before May 2007, when he signed its tax return.” Meeks, who claimed he had nothing to do with the decision, said the board had picked Stuart for the job.
Like other figures involved in New Directions, Stuart has a checkered past. A former Queens prosecutor and JAG Corps officer, Stuart was fired as an assistant district attorney and subsequently suspended from practicing law for three years for lying to a judge about not knowing the whereabouts of an individual who could have contradicted testimony of a key witness in a murder trial.
Though when I asked Smith the name of New Directions’ executive director, he professed to not knowing who it was, or even if the organization had had one (he assumed it did), a Times report from February 2010 made it clear that Smith knows Stuart.
Shortly after being dismissed from his job in the Queens D.A.’s office, Stuart was placed on the payroll of the State Senate by none other than Smith. When I asked Smith about Stuart, he claimed to have not been “too familiar” with him, but that he had nonetheless taken it upon himself as a Christian to help Stuart out amid a rough patch in his life.
When the Times sought more information about Stuart’s role in Smith’s office, the senator’s spokesperson at the time played down Stuart’s position, saying he had been hired as a part-time constituent liaison and had not spent long on the payroll before leaving to take another job, though the spokesperson “was unable to say what it was.”
Stuart did not return calls to be interviewed for this piece, but he did speak to the Post after a flurry of articles came out connecting him to New Directions in February 2010. Describing him as “exasperated,” the Post quoted Stuart as exclaiming, “I was only an administrator! I didn’t control the money. I don’t know why the focus is on me.”
Bringing the chain of denials and finger-pointing full circle, he continued, “You are looking in the wrong direction. There were other people in control. There was a treasurer and board members.”
When I asked Smith why it is that it seems so many people with whom he has been associated have had trouble with the authorities, he grew pensive. “You know what it is? Part of it is I gotta separate my Christian beliefs from making business decisions. My Christian beliefs state you always give somebody a second chance…but that’s where I have to draw that line. From a business standpoint, you have to make business decisions…which requires me not to mix the two, which was a fault in the past…. I’ve got to do that moving forward.”
LESSONS FOR THE FUTURE
The most glaring omission in almost all of the damning articles with lacerating headlines dicing Smith and his associates to pieces is any denial from Smith. On occasion he has commented—more often than not through a spokesperson—but largely he has remained silent through times that would have tempted even the strongest person to scream.
Smith contended that in the past he had simply trusted that the truth would vindicate him.
“My response to that was, the cream rises to the top,” he said. “People will find out. They’ll find out about the Katrina and the New Directions stuff, what happened to all that stuff.”
To be fair, Smith has not fallen nearly as far or as hard as some of his former colleagues or associates. Smith has never been arrested, indicted or even censured. For all of the talk of investigations into his activities, he said the only instances when he has actually been contacted by authorities during his 12 years in the Senate were the IG report and New Directions subpoena previously discussed.
Nonetheless, Smith told me he realized his failure to respond had been a mistake.
“That’s a fault I clearly have learned not to do in the future,” he said. “Absolutely not to do. Somebody writes something, you gotta call ’em right back up or put a statement out or something. Can’t just let it sit.”
Whether Smith can learn from his mistakes will be a key factor in determining how his future will unfold. All that Smith has gone through over the past years has not extinguished the fiery ambition that once propelled him to the pinnacle of state government.
When he told the Daily News in April that he was contemplating a run for mayor of New York in 2013, the notion was quickly derided as ludicrous. Doug Muzzio, a professor at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, quipped to the News, “If he’s not joking, it’s the most absurd thing I’ve heard today. If he’s joking, it’s still absurd.”
Be that as it may, Smith was serious. A friend of Smith’s who didn’t wish to betray his confidence disclosed to me that as early as six months ago, Smith had floated the idea to him of running for mayor.
Even the minutest threat of a Smith mayoral run immediately gave rise to a number of conspiracy theories, alleging the true, sinister animus behind his calculation. One theory I heard often enough that I thought it worth asking Smith to address was that Smith was being encouraged to run for mayor by emissaries of Christine Quinn in an effort to cut into Bill Thompson’s vote in the African-American community.
“I’ve heard that,” said Smith, amused. “I’ve heard that Republicans are asking me. I’ve heard all kinds of rumors. I guess I’m intrigued [by] the fact that one little blurb spread that quickly, but I can tell you one thing: If I chose to get into this race, I would get into this race because I think I could do a great job as mayor of this city. End. Period.”
On July 19 the first new negative article written about Smith since our interview hit the stands. Played up for maximum effect by the Daily News with a picture of a grinning Smith beside faux postcards of his destinations, it slammed Smith for “drain[ing] more than $41,000 from his campaign war chest on airfare, rental cars and hotel stays in more than a dozen cities.”
The article said that Smith “did not respond to requests to explain his expenses,” so I decided to call up the senator to ask him why. After all, the revelations sounded rather mild, especially given how many elected officials routinely take junkets to faraway lands on official business. Surely Smith had to have some sort of plausible explanation.
Smith sounded thrilled when I brought the article up to him. He disputed that the News had made an adequate attempt to reach him before putting out the piece, but he was pleased to announce that he had gotten a response into motion as soon as he read the article. In fact, it was on its way into the paper as we spoke.
The next morning Smith called up, excited. “Did you see the News?”
A follow-up article titled “ ‘Air Smith’ on training missions” told Smith’s side of the story just as he had related it to me the day before: Most of the travel had been to promote and study high-speed rail, a concentration of Smith’s, who heads a working group on the subject formed by the National Conference of State Legislators.
It was all much ado about nothing, Smith claimed—and the article seemed to affirm. For once it appeared that Smith had set the record straight.
At the end of our first interview, Smith said he appreciated the chance to answer questions about his past.
“It’s good for me,” he confessed. “It’s liberating for me. I have not had an opportunity, other than in my own bedroom, to have a private moment for myself to talk about some of the stuff you raised, like the feeling upset about it, the feeling betrayed, unfairly treated, all that kind of stuff. But at the same time, this is the business that I chose. I choose to be in this business. So whether it’s unfair, untrue, whatever else, I’ve got to manage that. I accepted that, and I fault myself for not managing it right.”
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