ALBANY, N.Y. — The arm of the New York State Police that guards governors and state offices is once again fending off allegations that it doubles as a political goon squad, hijacked by state officials for political dirty deeds from snitching on lawmakers involved in indiscretions to spying on political enemies.
The latest scandal to embroil the State Police concerns questions over whether the executive services detail was used to interfere with a domestic violence complaint against a top aide to Gov. David Paterson. The burgeoning scandal has already resulted in the resignation of Deputy Public Safety Secretary Denise O'Donnell, who said the State Police misled her about their involvement.
The subordinate she spoke with, State Police Superintendent Harry Corbitt, abruptly announced his retirement this week, saying he was tired of media coverage of the scandal. Corbitt had already been brought out of retirement at Paterson's request to run the State Police and said only last year that the agency recognized "the strong need for a police force to operate independently from political pressures."
"The unit is out of control, and it's clear it needs to be cleaned up," said Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who is calling for creation of a special commission to investigate the detail.
The proposal comes after Paterson's request that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo investigate whether the State Police, governor or members of his administration improperly influenced the woman making the abuse allegation. Paterson has acknowledged that he spoke with the woman, Sherruna Booker, but said that she initiated the call and that he did not pressure her to change her story or not pursue a charge.
Top politicians are calling on Paterson, who last week dropped his campaign for a full term, to resign. Adding to his troubles, a state report accused him on Wednesday of violating state ethics laws by seeking and obtaining free Yankees tickets for the 2009 World Series, then possibly lying about his intention to pay for them. The charges came as he forged ahead with meetings focused on the state's budget deficit.
Paterson became governor after Gov. Eliot Spitzer's term ended with his 2008 resignation following disclosures that he was patronizing a prostitute at his Washington, D.C., hotel room with his security detail nearby.
Cuomo also investigated the Spitzer administration for asking State Police to create travel records on the use of state aircraft by his political rival, then-Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, in what became known as "Troopergate."
Troopergate led to the resignation in 2008 of Acting Superintendent Preston Felton, who instructed troopers to create official-looking documents about Bruno's use of state aircraft.
That probe came amid allegations by New York legislators — Democrats and Republicans — who claimed that a "rogue unit" in the State Police was carrying out political missions for the governor. Cuomo eventually determined there was no such unit, and his September 2009 report found no wrongdoing by rank-and-file troopers, although he cited a paramilitary culture of obedience in the state police and a governor's security force unquestioningly performing assignments.
A former member of the detail, Doug Paulsen, declined to comment on the latest controversy but did agree troopers are unlikely to disobey a direct order from the governor.
"If you put yourself in that position — a trooper, a lieutenant, a whatever — and the governor of the state of New York says to you, 'I want you to do this?' Are you going to say no?
"A trooper would never tell a governor no, unless he had marbles in his head," said Paulsen, 69, who spent 18 years on the governor's detail, the last 10 as Mario Cuomo's bodyguard.
After Felton resigned, Paterson brought in Corbitt specifically to address questions about the governor's security detail. When he was nominated, Corbitt said: "I do know that whenever politics and police mix, it's a bad mixture."
Among the changes Corbitt recommended was to have the superintendent pick the head of the detail, instead of leaving the choice to the governor. Corbitt named Maj. Charles Day to the head of the detail; the administration has not made him available for comment.
Changing how the detail head is named, though, falls short of the wholesale overhaul of the unit sought by some in Albany.
"The 800-pound gorilla here is how to reposition the State Police so that they're appropriately responsive to elected officials but separated from nefarious schemes and requests," said Eugene O'Donnell, professor in the law and police science department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The executive services detail is selected from a state police force of nearly 5,000 troopers and investigators. It includes Paterson's bodyguards, along with troopers who provide security at the state offices and residences.
The detail expanded during the administration of Republican Gov. George Pataki, who served from 1995 to 2006.
Stories of the governor's detail performing non-security duties for their boss go as far back as Franklin Roosevelt's administration in the '20s and '30s. The Pataki and Spitzer administrations discounted tales of a shadow operation, but Daniel Wiese, a high-ranking member of the detail who served under both governors, emerged as a key figure in several episodes, including Troopergate.
In March 1996, under Pataki, Wiese yanked the state police protection of Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey-Ross, who was on the outs with her boss. State Police said she abused the unit, treating them like chauffeurs.
The New York Times later reported that Wiese tried to monitor the investigation of a Pataki program accused of seeking to help Korean-American families get parole for relatives in return for campaign donations. The Times reported that Wiese insisted on updated information from detectives and demanded that one of his men join the team. No charges were ever brought.
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Cuomo's office reported that Wiese assigned executive detail members to special duties that one witness called "secret squirrel missions." One such assignment involved providing security for New York Yankee Darryl Strawberry when he underwent cancer surgery at a Manhattan hospital in 1998.