By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, October 24, 1986
Every time information surfaces that Alfonse D’Amato has compromised his position as a United States Senator, D’Amato contracts sudden amnesia and, pretending not to have heard the damaging evidence, looks into the television cameras and says he is proud of his record of service to the people of New York.
The problem is that the more one looks at that record, the more it resembles as six-year chronicle of service, not to the people, but to D’Amato and to his personal power and self-interest.
The Republican-Conservative senator keeps acting as if the disclosures about his ethical lapses are nothing more than “absurd” and “desperate” concoctions by his Democratic opponent, Mark Green, instead of the well-documented reports that they are.
When The Wall Street Journal, in a lengthy, detailed front-page story, showed the linkage between D’Amato’s legislative favors to the investment community and that community’s swift thank-yous in the form of heavy campaign contributions to the senator’s campaign treasury, D’Amato ignored the article and instead criticized Green for suggesting, heaven forfend, that he was “a senator for sale or rent.”
Green tried hard this week — during the only two debates with D’Amato that the senator would agree to — to hammer at D’Amato’s integrity gap. The senator seemed shaken by the fusillade of evidence, but pointedly refused to speak to the details that Green kept listing relentlessly. All he would say, time and again, was that he was “proud” of his record. He is relying on public indifference to conflict of interest and weariness over corruption in high places.
Since D’Amato, as the incumbent, was in control of the debate process, he chose to hold the first one — the only one of television — on Tuesday evening, when a World Series game was being played on television. According to Channel 13, where the debate was shown, the audience consisted of about 100,000 viewers — not bad for public television, but hardly a meaningful chunk of the state’s electorate.
The second and final debate was held the very next morning, again by D’Amato’s decision, the purpose being to control all the potential damage within one brief time period — producing, the senator hoped, only two days of headlines.
If we possess, as D’Amato believes, so short an attention span, then we deserve to be represented by politicians who hold us in contempt and themselves beyond accountability.
After the two debates, Gary Lewi, a D’Amato spokesman, said the senator had adopted a “why bother” position rather than respond to Green’s statement. He added: “We’ve stuck to stating the record and the facts.”
Not all the facts, exactly. One of the matters Green brought up was D’Amato’s testimony, at a federal trial in 1983, as the sole character witness for Philip Basile, an operator of discos and nightclubs in Island Park, D’Amato’s Long Island hometown.
A few days after the senator testified that Basile was “an honest, truthful, hard-working man, a man of integrity,” the jury convicted Basile of fraud. Specifically, he was found guilty of having conspired with an organized crime figure to win the early release of a drug dealer from jail. His sentence was five years of probation plus community service.
At Tuesday night’s debate, a reporter on the panel of questioners asked D’Amato about his connection with Basile and the senator replied: “This was a person in my community, a local community, who I had known as a hard-working family man, businessman. I was not aware of his associations that have come subsequently.”
Subsequently? We’re Basile’s associations brought out at the trial? How could D’Amato not have been aware of them at the time?
There’s more. D’Amato also, in the Tuesday debate, spoke to Green’s disclosure, a few days earlier, that D’Amato had accepted $1,000 in campaign contributions from Basile and his wife after the trial and conviction. He said that was another thing he “was not aware of.” Once it was brought to his attention, he said in tones clean and pure, “those contributions were returned.”
What’s odd is that D’Amato’s memory is so selectively dysfunctional. He certainly knew that the Basiles had given him campaign money before the 1983 trial, because he acknowledged those donations in his testimony. And if he knew about those earlier gifts, how is that he didn’t know about the later ones? And why didn’t he take steps after the trial to ensure that his campaign staff would accept no further money from this convicted felon?
Also revealed at the 1983 trial was that the senator’s bother, Assemb. Armand D’Amato, is Basile’s lawyer in civil matters. And after the trial, through Armand D’Amato’s representations before the State Liquor Authority, a deal was worked out whereby Basile was permitted to keep his four liquor licenses — even though state law normally prohibits convicted felons from operating bars or nightclubs.
This fascinating record could lead a reasonable person to believe that Sen. D’Amato’s memory is in perfect working order. It just disappears occasionally, along with his ethics, when unpleasant facts emerge to embarrass him.
The issue in this senatorial race is not whether Mark Green, a public interest lawyer, is too liberal, as Mayor Koch has suggested. It’s not even D’Amato’s awesome campaign treasure of $10 million, which will allow him to outspend Green by five to one.
The issue, clearly, is whether New Yorkers want a senator who meets the minimum standards of character and integrity.