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Judgment Day for Senator Pothole

By Russ Baker
Russ Baker has been a New York-based investigative reporter for 15 years.

May 7, 2002

When I first heard about plans to name a federal courthouse after former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, I thought it was a joke. And a pretty good one, at that.

I quickly learned otherwise. Today, the House of Representatives is expected to easily pass a bill from Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) that will rename Central Islip's federal courthouse after D'Amato, thereby forever associating the administration of justice in these parts with the former three-term senator from New York.

D'Amato, who lost a reelection bid in 1998 and is now a lobbyist, avid golfer and squire of beautiful women to hot parties, has expressed delight with the honor. Others, including investigative reporters and prosecutors around the state and the nation, must be scratching their heads in disbelief.

Any regular reader of Newsday, the paper of record for D'Amato's hometown of Island Park, surely knows some of the details surrounding D'Amato's controversial career.

From my own days as an investigative reporter for The Village Voice, I recall a steady stream of "D'Amato stories." These typically involved some shady character who had been accused of doing something sordid with the tacit blessing, or even active involvement, of public servant Alfonse D'Amato. D'Amato is certainly familiar with courthouses, if only from the large number of his close associates who have been convicted of crimes. His mentor, then-GOP County Chairman Joseph Margiotta, was sentenced to two years in prison for an insurance commission kickback scheme. D'Amato was referred to in the indictment, but, as has been the case with other accusations, walked away a free man, leaving others holding the bag.

When a scheme requiring 1-percent kickbacks to the D'Amato-led local GOP from town employees came to light, D'Amato denied under oath to a grand jury that he knew anything about this illegal, Tammany Hall-style scam. He later essentially admitted knowledge of the kickback scheme, calling it a bad idea in retrospect.

In the Senate, to which he was first elected in 1980, D'Amato was famous among lobbyists for the astonishing directness of favors paid for and rendered. Time and again, he would get a big campaign contribution, then alter his stand on a vote of importance to the giver. For example, in 1985, D'Amato changed his position on legislation of keen interest to Michael Milken's Drexel Burnham junk-bond operation after receiving dozens of contributions from the firm.

As the master of (barely) plausible deniability, he always claimed ignorance of improper acts carried out on his behalf, like the illegal contribution from the scandalous military contractor Wedtech, that his campaign accepted in 1985. D'Amato allowed his brother Armand, a lobbyist, to use his Capitol Hill office to help a paying client, an act that earned the senator a 6-0 reprimand from the Senate Ethics Committee.

D'Amato's offenses against propriety, most of which must be assessed anecdotally since they always seemed to slip under the wire of foreknowledge and intent, include the $37,125 one-day profit the senator made from the purchase of a classic pump-and-dump IPO through Stratton Oakmont, a brokerage house that was subsequently revealed to be corrupt and put out of business by the SEC. Although the Senate Ethics Committee seemed poised to punish him, D'Amato got off Teflon-clean after Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Darth Vader of the anti-campaign finance reform forces, blocked any action.

D'Amato's legendary ability to beat a succession of raps was of little help to another of his shady friends, nightclub operator Philip Basile, who was charged with conspiracy in a mob-connected case. After D'Amato testified as his sole character witness in 1983, Basile was convicted.

Despite such a tawdry track record, D'Amato has lived a truly charmed existence, buoyed by the amusing opera buffa of his life, featuring Mama D'Amato's recipes and the senatorial rendition, at a budget hearing, of "Old McDonald Had a Farm."

Yet the courthouse matter is hardly amusing. Other courthouses have been named after respected jurists and founding fathers. Surely, the D'Amato anointment will represent a nadir of nomenclature.

Last year, for instance, U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer successfully sponsored legislation naming the U.S. Courthouse in Manhattan's Foley Square after Thurgood Marshall, whose career ranged from fighting segregation as chief counsel of the NAACP to serving on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he became one of the 20th century's most influential, admired justices.

Others around the United States might think it a local matter, but associating public buildings with the names of public figures is serious business, as Henry David Thoreau understood: "If the fairest features of the landscape are to be named after men, let them be the noblest and worthiest men alone."

The only category in which D'Amato stood out as a public servant was sheer chutzpah in taking care of constituents, which earned him the nickname of Senator Pothole. Asked how he could justify diverting HUD antipoverty funds to the building of a swimming pool for his comfortable Island Park neighbors, he explained: "They wouldn't go in the ocean."

Since D'Amato helped get funding for the soon-to-be-named courthouse, he might consider it only fair to get permanent recognition above its entrance, although former Rep. Rick Lazio, a Republican whose district contains the building, preferred to name it after Theodore Roosevelt.

Assuming the House passes the D'Amato Courthouse bill - and many New York State Democrats say they will hold their noses and vote affirmatively, because of the federal pork D'Amato brought home - there is always the Senate. But who expects that old boys' club to do anything except honor a former colleague? After all, they're probably all scouring the available list for their own monuments.

Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.


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