Feb 2, 2006

Lobbying Panel Probes Bashes

State wants to know if Cooperstown parties violate any laws
Saturday, January 28, 2006
By Michelle Breidenbach
Syracuse Post-Dispatch Staff writer

The state lobbying commission has asked railroad executive Walter Rich to produce records that show who he wined and dined during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekends over the last few years at his Cooperstown mansion.

The New York State Temporary Commission on Lobbying asked Rich in the fall to turn over the names of people who stayed at his home, called Edgewater, and in other guest rooms he reserved around the village during the busy baseball weekend. The commission wanted records as detailed as the names of people who got $11 tickets to the Hall of Fame Museum, said Nathan Fenno, spokesman for the NY Susquehanna & Western Railway.

David Grandeau, executive director of the lobbying commission, said he cannot comment on pending investigations. He said the commission plans to hold a public meeting Feb. 8.

New York state's lobbying laws prohibit a lobbyist or client from offering or giving gifts valued at more than $75 per year, Grandeau said. The commission uses eBay and other methods to put a market value on an item such as an autographed baseball, he said.

The state commission regulates the people who lobby state and local government officials, but not the government officials. That is up to the state ethics commissions for each branch of government.

The maximum penalty for lobbying violations is $50,000 per violation, he said.

For the past two decades, Rich and his wife, Karine, have invited New York's business and political elite to enjoy the induction weekend from their fenced-in lawn, just down the street from the Hall of Fame. Some guests make the mansion their home base for the entire weekend. Others come for just a few hours to attend political fundraisers, staged back-to-back under a tent on the lawn.

The baseball players filter in and out of the parties and sign memorabilia.

Sometimes the politicians pay the players to attend. Sometimes the players just show up.

Last summer, for example, Yogi Berra stopped by at Edgewater on Thursday before the parties really got started, Rich said in a Post-Standard interview in July. Rich asked the former Yankee to sign a jersey that he gave to Gov. George Pataki during a Republican fundraiser two days later on Edgewater's lawn.

State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-New Hartford, also held fundraisers at Edgewater during the Hall of Fame weekend.

Rich's partyguests were the subject of another state investigation in 2004. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer interviewed party guests as part of his investigation into the state's sale of Erie Canal development rights to a Pataki campaign contributor.

Richard Hutchens, the Buffalo man who got that contract, made his connections with state canal officials during baseball-themed parties at Edgewater. Three former Canal Corp. officials may have violated state ethics laws when they hit up Hutchens for campaign donations and steered the contract to him, but they could not be prosecuted because they left their jobs, Spitzer said.

Rich told Spitzer's investigators that he spends about $100,000 a year on the Hall of Fame weekend. He said in a Post-Standard interview after his 2005 party that he sends an itemized list to the politicians, who must reimburse him for lodging, food and other expenses.

Seward spokesmanDuncan Davie said the senator has reimbursed the railroad company for all of its expenses. Election records filed in January for the Friends of Senator Seward show a $12,586 payment to NY Susquehanna & Western Railroad for the 2005 reception and a $6,000 payment for an outstanding bill from 2004.

Davie said the senator received a letter Friday from the lobbying commission that asks for information about the events in Cooperstown. He would not elaborate on the information requested, but said the senator will comply.

Rich and his railroad companies have reported at least $100,000 in donations to state candidates and committees since 1999, according to records filed at the state board of elections. Rich has retained the firms Ostroff, Hiffa & Assoc. and Marsh & Assoc., records show.

Rich has along history of contributing money to politicians and receiving tax money for his railroads, which include OnTrack, the little-used passenger train that shuttles between Carousel Center and Syracuse University. OnTrack has received more than $8 million in state grants. In recent years, the New York Susquehanna & Western was the recipient of a $3 million state grant that Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, said would be used to run passenger trains daily between Syracuse and Binghamton. Four years after that announcement, there is no such passenger service.

Fenno said the railroad has cooperated with the commission. He said the Riches try to keep within limits for gifts and campaign donations. He said, however, that it is difficult to distinguish between the guests who come to a certain fundraiser and guests who stop in at another point during the weekend.

"We certainly don't think we did (go over the limit) and if we did, it was definitely something unintentional," he said.