"I am not an appendage"

District attorney Jeanine Pirro, who's opposing Hillary Clinton in New York, hopes to separate herself from her husband's sleazy business dealings. Good luck.

Published August 12, 2005 1:27PM (EDT)

The smart money in New York was betting that Jeanine Pirro would avoid running against Hillary Rodham Clinton in next year's Senate race. With her celebrity status, overwhelming approval ratings and massive fundraising capacity, the Democratic incumbent looked likely to scare off Pirro, a smart and telegenic but relatively obscure suburban district attorney.

Yet this week Pirro surprised the oddsmakers and thrilled the political press by announcing that she would indeed seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. And although the would-be challenger denied that her candidacy is intended merely to bruise Clinton, her essential message was that unlike the former first lady, she "will give her all to the people of New York for a full term -- full time -- and not miss votes to campaign in the 2008 presidential primaries."

Clearly Pirro hopes to play upon New Yorkers' lingering resentments, if any, of Clinton's carpet-bagging arrival in their state almost six years ago -- and the related impression that she may have used New York to further her Oval Office ambitions. When Clinton ran for the Senate in 2000, she gave an ironclad promise to serve a full term in the Senate. She is unlikely to provide any such pledge next year.

While the silliness of such petty issues ought to be evident to New Yorkers, who have always taken take pride in their state's history of nurturing national leaders, the parochial approach may garner votes. If raising resentments about the hardworking Clinton is the most that Pirro can offer, however, she won't get far.

Actually, she may not get too far anyway. Before any confrontation with Clinton she may have to defeat Edward Cox, a Manhattan lawyer and son-in-law of the late President Nixon, who seems eager to enter the campaign as an orthodox conservative against the socially liberal Pirro.

In her announcement speech, the pro-choice, gay-friendly Pirro said that while she is "Republican red" on tax cuts, she boasts "broad blue stripes" on social and environmental issues, including stem cell research. That could cost her the nomination of the New York State Conservative Party, which might make Cox competitive and would certainly split the right-of-center vote in the general election. No Republican has won statewide office without the Conservative Party's backing since 1974.

With the support of the state's Republican leadership, Pirro can probably finesse her way around her differences with her party's right wing, as her mentor George Pataki did to win three terms as governor. (And the Roman Catholic hierarchy that attacked John Kerry and Mario Cuomo for departing from church orthodoxy somehow fails to notice the sins of straying Republicans such as Pataki and Pirro.) She may not be prepared to debate national and international issues, but that is no obstacle to advancement in New York, as proved by the long career of retired Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a small-time suburban hack who vaulted in one great leap to the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

Jeanine Pirro has another problem, however -- and you can call him Al.

That would be her wayward husband, Albert Pirro, whose misadventures as a lobbyist, entrepreneur, and Republican power broker are certain to embarrass his wife in her quest for higher office. In recent years he has lost a paternity lawsuit brought by a woman in Indiana and served 18 months in prison and home detention for evading federal taxes -- and those may be the least of the problems he brings to his wife's campaign.

Al Pirro is, to be blunt, a pretty sleazy character. He has long made his living at the nexus of Republican fundraising and political influence peddling on behalf of dubious clients, notably in the nursing home and garbage-carting industries. Among the unsavory figures he has represented since his wife's election as district attorney is an alleged organized-crime associate, who needed his help with a state thruway authority contract.

Al Pirro's tax evasion trial in 2000 featured evidence of his abuse of a million dollars' worth of "business deductions" to finance the couple's garishly baroque lifestyle. (They both deserve to be indicted for their crimes against taste, but bad taste is certainly no barrier to elected office in either party.) The list of illegally deducted items on their joint returns included a $13,000 Chinese carpet, an $800 bathroom faucet, an $1,800 wrought-iron pen for their Vietnamese potbellied pigs, a late-model Mercedes for her and a $100,000 Ferrari for him. There was even a touch of Leona Helmsley, the queen of mean who also went to jail for tax evasion, when a painter testified that Jeanine had docked him $50 for dripping paint on a rug. The exposure of the pretentious Pirros played like a weird sitcom combining "Arrested Development" and "Law & Order: Trial by Jury."

More significant, the trial evidence showed that Al was deducting expenditures related to Jeanine's political career, such as the production costs of her weekly show on Westchester's cable channel and her debts to Republican political consultants. She was never charged with specific wrongdoing in the case, which resulted in convictions of both Al and his brother and accountant, Anthony, but the prosecution put on plenty of testimony showing how she had benefited from her husband's schemes.

"Is it really possible," asked a columnist for a New York business weekly last year, "that a smart, savvy politician didn't have any idea about her family's finances?"

The bad news about Al Pirro wasn't over when he served his sentence. In fact, he is currently under investigation by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which encompasses Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester, over alleged connections with the Mafia. The allegations stem from a wiretap in which a known gangster quoted another gangster, who claimed to have obtained confidential information about Jeanine Pirro's office from her husband.

The taped conversation took place last October in a Westchester diner, where Gambino family capo Gregory DePalma was meeting with other mobsters. On the tapes, he said that Robert Persico, a contractor long alleged to be a Gambino associate, had told about learning from Al Pirro that his wife's office was investigating a certain corrupt police officer. DePalma also claims on the tapes to have met Al while playing golf.

Now Persico happens to be the contractor who was represented by Al Pirro in a dispute with the state thruway authority. His alleged ties to the Mafia have been a matter of public record since 1998. Last spring Persico was among 32 alleged Gambino family associates indicted, along with DePalma, in a broad undercover probe that experts have compared with the case featured in the movie "Donnie Brasco."

After the telltale tapes were revealed in the New York Daily News, Al Pirro threatened to sue DePalma and Persico for slander -- and Jeanine Pirro urged the U.S. attorney to open the investigation that is apparently still ongoing. In the meantime, however, Al Pirro's name popped up again during another organized-crime trial.

During a federal extortion trial last spring, a prosecution witness testified that he had paid the Republican Party chairman in Yonkers, the largest city in Westchester County, to "get information from a politically connected person about criminal investigations by his wife." That politically connected figure, according to FBI documents, was Al Pirro.

The witness, a confessed extortionist named Maurizio "Mo" Sanginiti, told the FBI that he had paid $5,000 to Yonkers Republican chief Zehy Jereis to get information from Pirro about the district attorney's office. Sanginiti said he met with Jereis at a Dunkin' Donuts in Yonkers, where the GOP boss told him that if he ever got into any trouble with the Westchester D.A., Al Pirro could make the problem "go away."

Jereis and the Pirros angrily denounced Sanginiti as a liar -- and Al Pirro has pointed out, quite accurately, that when this conversation allegedly occurred in 2001 he was serving his tax evasion sentence in a Florida prison. "During this time period, I was unavailable to Jereis or the public," he said in a statement released by his attorney.

It is possible, of course, that these goons are all inventing stories about the Pirros for their own nefarious purposes. It is possible that Al Pirro had no idea his client Persico was associated with the Gambinos. It is even possible that unlike Geraldine Ferraro, another famous female politician from New York with an embarrassing spouse, Jeanine Pirro will somehow escape association with her own husband.

Certainly that seems to be her hope. Pirro's campaign Web site is curiously devoid of any mention of Al or the couple's marriage. Her "biography" on the site discusses "interagency partnerships" and media appearances, but says nothing about her husband or family. She even has room for an endorsement from disgraced former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, but nothing from dear old Al.

Her site's very extensive photo gallery includes pictures of Pirro with Pataki, Al Sharpton, Sean Hannity, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., her mother, Esther, her kindergarten teacher, late actor Ossie Davis, Vice President Dick Cheney, President George W. and First Lady Laura Bush, Tony Bennett, Mike Bloomberg, former Israeli Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, former Sen. Zell Miller, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, attorney Barry Scheck, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, author Patricia Cornwell, various schoolchildren, soccer moms and soldiers, and a monkey. She is seen posing with an Israeli tank in the Golan Heights and holding a little American flag at last year's Republican Convention (which she waved "energetically"), and addressing a hometown crowd at the YWCA in upstate Elmira.

But there is no picture of Al (or even of their two children, although she once paid $4,500 for an oil painting of the kids).

Pirro's desire for higher office, or whatever she is seeking in this race, must be powerful indeed. Last spring she found out how daunting an election could be when she met with a reporter from the Daily News, which had just broken the story of the DePalma tapes. The account of that 90-minute interview, which portrayed her as shouting repeatedly and slamming her hand on a desk, was not flattering.

"I'm not here to talk about my husband!" she yelled at the News reporter. "I'm my own person! ... I don't tell him what to do just like your wife doesn't tell you what to do ... I am not an appendage. I am an independent woman who's worked her tail off to make it in a man's world ... I don't follow him around. I work 18 hours a day. I don't want to hear about what he does. He doesn't care what I do."

Perhaps Hillary Clinton will sympathize with an opponent who wants to talk about herself instead of her husband. Or perhaps she will hear the plaintive cries of Jeanine Pirro -- and emit a mordant laugh.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

MORE FROM Joe Conason

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Hillary Rodham Clinton