King Alfonse D'Amato
Dole, who reportedly refers to D'Amato as "King Alfonse," is now counting on D'Amato's fund-raising savvy and friends in all places to bring home the bacon for his uphill 1996 presidential bid."Al is going to join our campaign, not just as one of my colleagues," Dole said at a March 1995 press conference. "He's going to join as the chairman of the national steering committee. And he's going to have an even more important role in the next two years."Dole's comment was prescient. That D'Amato is now chair of the powerful Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee while spearheading the Dole for President campaign, the Senate Whitewater investigation, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee's quest for a veto-proof majority in the Senate is nothing less than extraordinary. But then, D'Amato's ability to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of the numerous ethical and financial scandals that have scorched his 30-year political career is also extraordinary.The Republican senator from Island Park, N.Y. is arguably one of the most corrupt politicians ever to strut the halls of Congress. More than any other public official in Washington today, D'Amato epitomizes the old-style machine politician, consistently demonstrating his disregard for the public interest while routinely trading political favors for huge campaign contributions."D'Amato could be the poster child for the rotten campaign-finance system on Capitol hill," said Ann McBride, president of the national consumer-rights organization Common Cause, by phone from Washington." 'Yes' is definitely only the beginning with this senator," said one Washington, D.C., banking industry lobbyist who asked not to be identified. "[D'Amato's] got his foot all the way down on the accelerator -- and he doesn't stop for red lights.""Here you have an elected official in multiple positions of power taking money from special-interest groups that he has regulatory authority over," Common Cause vice president Don Simon said. "It just invites the exchange of campaign money for special favors. [D'Amato is] in a position to ask people for contributions wearing a number of different hats."Repeated calls for comment to D'Amato's Washington and other offices were not returned.GLASS HOUSES Despite a 1991 rebuke from the Senate Ethics Committee, the tough-talking D'Amato has risen to the stature of a kingmaker -- raising more money ($22 million) than any other U.S. senator in the last two (1986 and 1992) Senate election campaigns.Indeed, many national political careers have been made or broken on the yea or nay of the 58-year-old lawyer from Long Island.As chair of the Senate's Whitewater Investigation Committee, D'Amato adeptly kept the scandal alive and in the papers, turning Hillary Rodham Clinton into an election-year liability for her husband -- to the delight of Bob Dole.It is astonishing to listen to the "poster child for rotten finance" demand full disclosure from the Clintons as to whether they, as investors in the Whitewater real estate deal, benefited from the questionable transactions of a savings and loan owned by their friend and political ally James McDougal. D'Amato has accused the Clintons of behaving in a "disturbing pattern" of stonewalling and deceit in the matter.This coming from a man whose entire political career has demonstrated a disturbing pattern of shady backroom political deals and who has been linked to many of the major government and corporate financial scandals of the 1980s.As for disclosure, D'Amato himself has continually refused to release the 900-page transcript of his testimony relating to the Senate Ethics Committee's 1989 investigation of him on misconduct charges. The investigation was prompted by Mark Green, who ran against D'Amato in New York's 1986 Senate election. In 1989, Green, New York City's public advocate (an elected position that represents citizens' rights), filed a lengthy complaint with the ethics committee requesting a full investigation of D'Amato and his political activities, which, he wrote, "reveal a pattern of exploiting his public office for the private benefit of his contributors and cronies." Green alleged that D'Amato had links not only to convicted junk-bond broker Michael Milken but to organized crime figures, to two major Defense Department contractor scandals, and to a series of criminal mismanagement scandals at the troubled Department of Housing and Urban Development.D'Amato dismissed the complaint as "sour grapes" from a sore loser, but the charges led to an 18-month-long investigation by the committee that culminated with an official rebuke to D'Amato for being "negligent," in conducting "the business of [his] office in an improper and inappropriate manner."After initial requests from Green and members of the press to release his testimony transcripts, D'Amato claimed that he didn't have access to them. In fact, any senator can access testimony from ethics committee investigations, but only witnesses have the right to publicly release their testimony. Lately, when D'Amato has been asked about disclosure of his ethics testimony, he simply changes the subject to the Whitewater investigation. Significantly, in July 1995 the Arkansas Democrat and Gazette quoted a senior government official familiar with D'Amato's testimony as saying that if released, the report could cause a political firestorm.It wasn't easy for the ethics committee to investigate Green's complaint. More than two dozen of the 56 subpoenaed witnesses cited their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refused to testify.At the investigation's conclusion in 1991, the committee said it would "jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations or put contemplated prosecutions at grave risk" if it continued its inquiry into D'Amato's alleged misconduct. But the committee added that "if and when additional relevant testimony or evidence becomes available," it would consider reopening D'Amato's case.RELEVANT TESTIMONY One of the "ongoing" criminal investigations alluded to by the ethics committee in 1991 was what came to be known as the HUD Alameda Towers scandal in Puerto Rico.Back in 1984, Puerto Rican developer Cleofe Rubi was anxious to get an inside track on HUD subsidies for rehabilitating existing housing developments, but he lacked the clout in Washington to do so. Court records show that he soon formed an alliance with Eduardo Lopez Ballori, a public-relations specialist with first-rate connections inside the Beltway, and they founded Alameda Associates, a development corporation. Ballori was also the co-chair of the Dole for President campaign in Puerto Rico that same year.According to court documents and testimony from a June 1992 trial, Ballori suggested to Rubi in 1984 that they "get in contact with Senator D'Amato" to help get HUD subsidies, since D'Amato was a member of the Senate's Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee at the time. According to Rubi's testimony, Ballori told him that money, in the form of large campaign contributions, would help jump-start his development project. At the end of that trial Ballori was convicted of funneling thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to D'Amato. But after two more trials the charges against Ballori were dismissed.In a campaign-contribution scheme that court records show has repeated itself many times in D'Amato's career, 27 of Ballori's friends in Puerto Rico sent substantial monetary contributions to D'Amato and were later reimbursed by Ballori. According to court records and HUD documents, between 1985 and 1987 D'Amato received more than $150,000 through Ballori.D'Amato's lobbying at HUD on behalf of his Puerto Rican "constituents" was so intense that officials there dubbed him "the senator from Puerto Rico." The Alameda Towers project and other Alameda Associates ventures eventually received more than $60 million in HUD building subsidies. Between 1984 and 1988 the small U.S. territory received considerably more HUD subsidies than the senator's home state of New York, the second most populous state in the nation.When the Puerto Rico HUD subsidies story broke in New York in 1989, D'Amato told Newsday that he had "never as much made an inquiry" at HUD on the Alameda Towers project. He made a similar statement under oath to the Senate Ethics Committee, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Noyer said at Ballori's trial. Noyer prosecuted Ballori and was privy to D'Amato's ethics testimony regarding the Puerto Rican subsidies.According to an April 2, 1986, letter from Ballori to Michael Kinsella, D'Amato's key financial aide, not only had Ballori discussed the Alameda Towers issue with D'Amato's Office, but D'Amato had personally requested that Ballori submit a "white paper" on his situation."During the senator's visit to Puerto Rico, we discussed the situation described in the attached white paper, which he asked me to prepare," Ballori wrote.Kinsella's phone logs from July 8, 1986, say: "Eduardo called. His rehab project is called Alameda."D'Amato finally admitted that he had met with Ballori, but never to discuss housing matters, he said. "The major thread was GOP politics. I was supporting Dole [for president] at the time, and Eduardo was very active in connection with that," D'Amato told Newsday.And "Eduardo" still is. According to 1995 Federal Election Commission documents, Eduardo L. Ballori, chair of Agor Associates in Hato Ray, Puerto Rico, contributed $1,000 to Dole for President on May 10, 1995. According to the documents, four more $1,000 contributions came in on the same day, including one from a Conchita L. Ballori, whose occupation was listed as "housewife." Between March and June 1995, a total of 15 $1,000 contributions were made to the Dole coffers by various contributors in Puerto Rico.When asked about Ballori's past connections with D'Amato and whether it was of concern for the campaign, Dole for President deputy press secretary Christina Martin said that she didn't "have any idea who Ballori is" or know anything about his relationship to D'Amato. Martin said she "would look into it."OLD-FASHIONED ETHICS The Alameda Towers HUD deal was just a part of Mark Green's charges against D'Amato that the Senate Ethics Committee's aborted investigation touched on. Here are a few more:* In March 1992 Armand D'Amato, the senator's brother, was indicted on 24 counts of federal mail fraud after sending out letters to government officials in support of Unisys, a Long Island-based military contractor that was bidding on a number of Defense Department contracts. Ultimately, Unisys won government contracts worth $100 million. The letters, signed by Senator D'Amato himself, were later found by prosecutors to have been ghostwritten by Unisys employees.Armand, a lawyer, had been secretly employed by Unisys in the late 1980s. According to court records, he was paid up to $120,000 between 1986 and 1987 for his lobbying efforts, Newsday reported. An internal investigation conducted by Unisys later found that during that same time five of its executives falsified their expense accounts to reimburse themselves for monetary contributions they had made to Al D'Amato.Armand D'Amato was convicted on 7 of the 24 counts of mail fraud in May 1993. Those convictions were overturned on appeal. Neither Unisys or Al D'Amato was ever charged with wrongdoing. At the time, D'Amato claimed no knowledge of the letters bearing his signature.* The Wedtech scandal -- the secret takeover of a minority- owned military contractor eligible for a series of no-bid Pentagon contracts -- landed more than half a dozen of D'Amato's associates and political allies, including former Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), in jail for bribery and racketeering. At the March 1988 federal trial, Wedtech's former vice chair Mario Moreno testified that the company funneled at least $30,000 in illegal contributions to D'Amato "in exchange for favors we expected to get."At the trial, D'Amato said that he had no knowledge of any illegal activities at Wedtech. No charges were ever brought against him.* As chair of a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs subcommittee in 1985, D'Amato flip-flopped on a proposal to limit S&L investors from buying risky junk bonds. D'Amato first seemed to support the proposal and announced hearings on it. According to the Wall Street Journal, on May 31, 1985, during the hearings, Michael Milken and his associates at the New York-based investment firm Drexel, Burnham and Lambert threw D'Amato a $1,000-a-plate political fund-raising dinner in Beverly Hills. Drexel executives testified against the proposal the following week. D'Amato then opposed the proposal and the committee produced legislation that was junk-bond friendly. One week later, Drexel executives purchased 35 tickets for a $500-a-head fund-raiser. The loosened federal junk-bond restrictions led, in part, to the more than $500 billion S&L bailout that taxpayers are still footing the bill for.MANY HATS April 10, 1995, was a very good day for D'Amato's Dole for President team. Charles Gargano, the business executive who raised $14 million to fuel conservative George Pataki's upset victory over New York governor Mario Cuomo in 1994, once again delivered the goods for the Republicans. On that day Gargano threw a lavish $1,000-a-plate dinner for Dole at the Manhattan Sheraton. Before the festivities had concluded, $1.5 million had flowed into the coffers of the Dole campaign.Gargano, national vice chair of Dole's campaign finance committee under D'Amato, is the senator's most aggressive fund-raiser. And like his boss, the funding whiz wears so many hats -- including one as New York's economic development czar -- that it's never really clear where the money is coming from or where it's going.What is crystal clear is that a lot of money is moving through Gargano's channels to the Dole campaign. Gargano himself could pose an ethics problem for Dole once the presidential campaign rhetoric gets nasty.As a co-owner and executive of J.D. Posillico Inc., a Long Island-based concrete-manufacturing company, Gargano became a defendant in a 1981 federal civil lawsuit based on the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. The charges involved a Long Island sewer project that became a billion-dollar boondoggle. According to court documents quoting Patrick Henry, then Suffolk County's district attorney, Posillico employees and others "conspired among themselves to devise and ... participate in a scheme to defraud Suffolk County, the State of New York, and the United States of public moneys." The civil complaint sought $118.8 million in damages from Gargano's company alone.Ultimately Posillico did not go to trial; the company settled out of court for a meager $315,000. At the time Gargano denied knowledge of any of the bribery and political corruption associated with the scandal because, after all, he told Newsday, he was "just a civil engineer."Gargano did not return repeated calls for comment.On many occasions Alfonse D'Amato has used his powerful influence to approach prosecutors and government officials on behalf of known organized crime figures. And on several occasions the same mobsters have been indicted for making illegal campaign contributions to the senator.In the mid- and late 1980s D'Amato made calls and personal visits to then-U.S. Attorney Rudolf Giuliani to ask that cases involving reputed mobsters associated with the Genovese and Gambino crime families be "looked into," according to the Village Voice. But D'Amato has repeatedly denied looking after the interests of criminals. In one instance, D'Amato admitted that he approached Giuliani about charges brought against Paul Castellano, the Gambino crime-family head (who was murdered in 1985), but D'Amato denied any unethical activity."I acted properly," D'Amato told Newsday in 1989 when asked about the incident. "Rudy did nothing wrong, and I did nothing wrong. I never suggested any course of action on any of these matters."In 1983, D'Amato appeared as the only character witness in the trial of Long Island nightclub owner Philip Basile, a longtime friend and campaign contributor. D'Amato described him as an "honest, truthful, hardworking man; a man of integrity." Armand D'Amato was Basile's defense attorney. Basile was eventually convicted by a federal court of conspiring with Lucchese-family crime captain Paul Vario in a scheme to defraud the government."Everybody knows there's organized crime in there," New York State Liquor Authority investigator Carlo Diresta told Newsday in 1981 regarding Basile's Island Park nightclub, Channel 80. D'Amato has celebrated some of his key victories in the nightclub over the years -- a nightclub at which, according to Mark Green, some 20 drug busts took place in one year.Many crime figures have been generous D'Amato supporters over the years. But sometimes D'Amato has had to return contributions because of legal technicalities, as was the case with contributions made by Joseph Asaro, who court papers have described as an associate of the Bonanno crime family.In April 1995 Asaro pleaded guilty to felony charges of making illegal contributions to D'Amato's campaigns. As chief lobbyist for the Cumberland Corporation, the producers of Sweet'n Low sugar substitute, between 1984 and 1993 Asaro helped funnel more than $58,000 to D'Amato through third-party donors who were later reimbursed.D'Amato has been a highly effective supporter of the moratorium on a 1977 FDA ban on cancer-causing saccharin, a key ingredient of Sweet'n Low.Last July, toward the start of the Whitewater hearings, Mark Green wrote D'Amato a letter recapping the ethics charges he made in 1989 and asking D'Amato to come clean on his ethics file. But Whitewater seems to have made the senator immune to any serious investigations into his questionable history. In fact, D'Amato seems stronger than ever."D'Amato is moving ahead like a steamroller," one Republican congressional aide said, "and all the people I talk to on the Republican side are pleased as punch."That would certainly be an apt description of Dole's assessment of King Alfonse's fund-raising on his behalf."I told Al today [when] he was in my office," Dole told CNN on January 10, "I just said, 'I'm going to tell you Al ... I've been watching you, you've done a good job.' "