Carl Kruger was crying. He removed his gold-rimmed glasses and rubbed his fingers at his tears. A storm had come on, and to escape the torrents of rain, we’d ducked under an overhang at the City Clerk’s Office in downtownManhattan. It was only a short walk from the federalcourthouse where Kruger was facing corruption charges that ended his ascent as an Albany power broker and could possibly send him to prison for the rest of his life.
The charges against Kruger were the culmination of a lengthy federal investigation: FBI agents tapped 30,000 of the state senator’s phone calls, collected over 100,000 documents, and snapped surveillance shots of his every move.
Kruger’s own indictment wasn’t the reason he couldn’t stop crying, however. The tears, he told me, were over the indictment of Michael Turano, a gynecologist who had been a surrogate son to Kruger since he was a young man and, over the years, according to the Feds, had become the state senator’s muse. After listening to all those tapped calls, the Feds described Kruger’s relationship with Turano as “particularly close,” one in which “they relied on and supported one another,” and noted that both men spoke nearly every day, sometimes in “baby talk.”
The cooing, however, wasn’t all that the FBI found. Over the past four years, the Feds had tallied the more than $1 million in bribes that had gone from lobbyists and developers friendly with Kruger into bank accounts Turano controlled. The bribe money was used as a kind of allowance for Turano, who used it to pay down his Bloomingdale’s credit card, as well as to pay for the lease to his brother Gerard Turano’s Bentley and renovations to 139 Bassett Avenue, a garish mansion on the waterfront in South Brooklyn that he and his family had purchased.
Despite directing where his bribe money went, Kruger never spent it or saved it. It was all for the Turanos, a family he had adopted as his own. Kruger seemed to live his life for them.
Kruger had been a king of South Brooklyn. From the humblest of beginnings, the senator had turned his district office into a kind of one-stop shop for free constituent services like mammograms and flu shots. He artfully leveraged his ability to provide for Main Street into enormous power in Albany. He was a master tactician who was feared, not loved, and was appointed in 2009 to serve as chairman of the Legislature’s Senate Finance Committee, one of that body’s most powerful posts—all this with little more than a high-school education.
He choked back his tears and boasted about his rise with pride. “If you were to take my life and bottle it, and drink what was inside that bottle, it would be like a cough medicine,” he told me. “It wouldn’t taste very good, but it’d be good for you.”
The bottle was empty now. In late December, he pleaded guilty, as did Turano, to engineering yet another Albany corruption racket.
“My world is over,” Kruger told me. “I’m frightened of the future. Just frightened. And that’s very hard for me to say, because I was always the guy that you came to to sort out your problems, then sweep up the floor and leave. Now my floor is swept up, and I’m part of the sweepings.”
Kruger was back where he started—at the bottom, broke. “To this day, I still don’t have any money,” he said. “I took a loan on my pension to pay off my credit-card debt. I was just denied a Visa because I wanted to have a direct deposit on my Social Security check into it … Still don’t have any money.”
Brownsville, the Brooklyn neighborhood where he was born, is famous for its poverty and gangs—not an easy neighborhood to grow up in, and especially difficult knowing you were unwanted as a child. Kruger’s mother, Irene Leibowitz, was not proud to tell young Carl that she’d given him up for adoption. She worked in a factory that made hats. Her job was to place feathers in the brim. Her pay was $5 a week, Kruger said.
Until Kruger arrived, his mother’s life had been a series of tragedies. Kruger’s grandfather was killed during a labor dispute in 1910, the same year his mother was born. His grandmother was a janitor who died after fracturing a hip, leaving sisters and brothers to raise his mother, then 10 years old.
Irene’s first husband, George Kruger, an auctioneer, struggled with alcoholism. Irene tried for years to conceive, and she thought that adopting a child would perhaps persuade George to give up his drinking. So they adopted a baby girl, Marlene. Soon after, George died in the street of a heart attack. He was 44.
Irene struggled as a widow. Living on welfare in a walk-up, she dated a man named Abe Tack, whose family owned real estate in the neighborhood, and became pregnant with Carl. But Tack had no interest in marrying her and quickly disappeared. With abortions risky and costly at the time, Irene felt she had no choice but to arrange an adoption.
After he was born, Carl was later told, he was taken to his new family in a cardboard box, and an adoption official went over his health and family history. But after the presentation, young Carl’s adopted family decided not to take him. The official had no choice but to take the baby back to his mother.
“So here I am,” Kruger said.
He was rubbing his runny nose with a paper towel. He sat in the conference room along with his lawyer, Ben Brafman, composed himself, and told me his personal myth, now a tragedy. “I take on the impossible mission,” he said. “Maybe it was an impossible mission for me to achieve what I did in life. Maybe I belonged in that cardboard box.”
Irene practically forbade young Carl to play with kids his age. She walked him to school; brought him lunch, which he ate in the hall with her and not the cafeteria with the other boys; picked him up from school to give him his Hebrew-school books. Kruger often wondered if it was his mother’s guilt—giving him up—that made her so protective.
“She clung to me very, very much,” he said. “We had a very, very close relationship.”
He grew up poor. For Kruger’s bar mitzvah, he received a pound of honey cake, a pound of sponge cake, and a bottle of schnapps. During winter, the heat would go out in the apartment and the water in their toilet bowl would freeze.
Irene tried to reunite young Carl with his father. When she learned that Abe Tack was living in Flatbush, she took Carl to his building on the bus. He remembers seeing the tennis court in front, a sign that his father was well off. His mother rang the bell, but Tack didn’t answer. His apartment was on the ground floor, so Irene walked over to a window and picked up Carl so he could look in—maybe hoping that Tack would see his son and want to support him. In the window, Carl did not see his father—just people milling about, perhaps his other family.
After high school, Kruger found work in the computer department at Marine Midland Bank, earning $72 a week. At night, when he was coming home on the sketchy streets of Brownsville, his mother would open the window and, wearing a coat over her shoulders and a handkerchief to cover her head, watch for him. One day, she started to scream. Carl turned around—two men were on him. They threw him down some marble stairs. After that, the Krugers moved near Canarsie, and Carl got into politics.
In Canarsie, all roads to power led through the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club. Located in a barn-looking building on a quiet block, “the T,” as members call it, is arguably the most powerful political club in the state.
“There were all these big shots,” Kruger said about the time he first walked in. Stanley Fink, who became Speaker of the Assembly, was a member; so was Meade Esposito, the former bail bondsman and political boss of Brooklyn. Esposito was such a kingmaker that he was credited with swinging the ’77 mayoral election in Ed Koch’s favor, and once bragged that he was so powerful that he’d “made” 42 judges. Short, stocky, never seen without a cigar or cigarette, Esposito had a weapon in winning the wars in Brooklyn politics—a heavy, gruff, and inspiring assemblyman named Tony Genovesi.
“There was an upstairs and a downstairs,” Kruger said. “All these big shots were upstairs, and I was certainly downstairs.”
Kruger wanted to get upstairs, and swiftly. When local state senator Howard Babbush was indicted for allegedly abusing taxpayer dollars, Kruger voiced an interest in running for his seat, a move that was widely perceived as overly aggressive, considering that Babbush was a beloved member of the T. Eventually Kruger backed down, but many became wary of him and wondered where such ambition came from.
By the early seventies, Kruger was a neighborhood activist. He’d legally changed his name from Tack to Kruger, and he and his mother and stepsister cobbled together their savings to purchase a house on Avenue L with a small yard out front. He and his mother were concerned about the neighborhood, and they co-formed a civic association that met in diners and bowling alleys. Taking on quality-of-life issues made Kruger feel worthy. It also got him out of the house.
“I was looking for something other than tragedy,” he said.
His energy caught the attention of City Councilman Herb Berman, who hired Kruger to be his chief of staff, and later Assemblyman Genovesi, who saw that Kruger could organize people and run ground operations in Assembly races.
Meanwhile, Kruger’s mother got sick. He came home one day and found her on the floor in a pool of blood. He tried to pick her up; he couldn’t move her. He arranged the chairs in their house into a kind of line so he could slide her out the front door to his car and drive her to the ER.
She was diagnosed with liver disease. Kruger moved into the hospital with her and slept in the intensive-care waiting room. “Ninety-two days later, my mother was dead, and with that, a piece of me too,” he said. Kruger was in the hospital so long that when it came time to pay the bill for parking his car in the garage, the fee was more than his ’68 Olds was worth.
Back home, Kruger did not clean out his mother’s room. He left it as if she were alive, the possessions of an old lady—books, slippers, robes—frozen in time. He installed a bench by her grave at Beth David Cemetery in Long Island, a perch for sitting and pondering during his lengthy Sunday visits.
“I was not only her caregiver,” he said. “She was my friend.”
Her death left him alone with Marlene, who was suffering. “My sister was so drunk and so pilled out that she didn’t even know where she was or what she was doing,” he said. “At one point, she had like thirteen seizures in one day that basically cooked her brain. I knew something had to be done so she wouldn’t kill herself. She was doing all kinds of shit to get whatever she needed.” Kruger did what he could: rehab, meetings. “I was her tormentor. I was her jailer … This was Carl’s new mission in life: to rehabilitate my sister,” he said, speaking of himself in the third person.
The mission to live for others did not stop with Marlene. “I don’t touch the lives of somebody,” he said. “I become part of their lives, part of their very being. Maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.”
For a man like Carl Kruger to meet a woman like Dottie Turano was unavoidable. “She was president of every parent association at the schools,” Kruger said. She could have run for office. She had the gift he didn’t have. “When she came into a room, there was laughter. Like now that there’s tears, then there was laughter,” Kruger said.
Her energy was an asset. At the time, Kruger was working for the local community board, and he helped Dottie get a job there as youth coordinator. She also came to meetings at the T, to hobnob with Kruger and the big shots there. Around election time, Dottie brought her two sons, Michael and Gerard, to help with campaigning. With a mother as PTA president, the Turano boys perhaps had no choice but to become overachievers. At South Shore High School, Michael Turano, class of ’79, was chairman of the executive council. Two years behind him was Gerard, the class president.
Kruger got close to the Turano family. Dottie was working at the board with Marlene, whom Kruger had also helped get hired. “Dottie became like Marlene’s surrogate mother,” Kruger said. “It was wonderful.”
Outside the community board, the Krugers would run into the Turanos at the diner on Saturday nights. “And life just gels together,” Kruger said.
And splits apart. The marriage between Dottie and her husband was starting to fracture. He didn’t like that she was spending so much of her time with Kruger and at the T. Eventually they filed for divorce. Later, the ex-husband thought Kruger was making a move for his family. Dottie and Kruger claimed that her ex wanted to leave her and her boys. And like he’d done so many times before, Kruger saw an opportunity where he could be of help. He stepped in.
He micromanaged their careers. He helped them get scholarships and into medical school. He encouraged them to specialize in gynecology. When Michael graduated from medical school, he threw a party so big it made the local paper, the Canarsie Courier. Once the Turanos opened offices in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Kruger treated the joint practice as if it were a Jefferson Club political campaign. He targeted potential clients as if they were undecided voters. He sent out direct mail to 150,000 women.
In his way, Kruger was the ultimate doting parent, just like his mother. When the Feds were watching him, they noticed that Kruger brought the Turanos breakfast nearly every morning. When they went on trips, he bought them travel-size snacks. When Michael was working late, Kruger picked him up at the hospital to give him rides home.
Kruger wouldn’t admit or deny he had a romantic relationship with Turano. Nor would Turano. It’s a question they refused to answer.
“I love the Turano family, and the Turano family loves me,” Kruger said.
All the loving-kindness Kruger showed to the Turanos had an opposite. “There’s some Jekyll and Hyde there,” said Frank Seddio, a former assemblyman who has known Kruger for four decades and looked on as Kruger earned a reputation in Albany for ruthlessness. While elderly constituents came to depend on Kruger and his staff for services, it’s hard to find a colleague who has anything good to say about him. One lawmaker who has known Kruger for decades said he was surprised to learn Kruger was capable of displaying emotion. “The Carl Kruger I know does not cry,” the lawmaker said. “The Carl Kruger I know is stone cold.” Said another lawmaker: “One character flaw that most politicians have is that we go into office because we feel the need to be liked. Carl feels the need to be feared.”
Over the years, Kruger managed to isolate himself from those he was once close to. While members of the Jefferson Club still carried his petitions—after all, as Senate Finance chair, he had been the most powerful official in South Brooklyn—Kruger rarely went into the club anymore.
Some old hands tell the cancer story. In 1980, Kruger was indicted with another civic booster for allegedly extorting money from a local builder, a Holocaust survivor, and his partner. Before the trial, Kruger claimed he’d been diagnosed with cancer. Seddio remembers driving Kruger to the hospital with operatives from the Jefferson Club and waiting in the car for Kruger to come out after meeting with his doctor. At trial, the charges against Kruger were dropped, as, apparently, were Kruger’s cancer treatments. Some thought he invented the sickness, perhaps to drum up sympathy from friends and colleagues at the Club.
“We were pretty stupid to believe him,” said an operative who worked with Kruger in the old days. “You had to believe in the power of Saint Christopher to believe that cancer could be cured that quickly.”
Kruger disputed the story, saying he never had cancer, never claimed to, and suggested those telling it have vendettas against him. Or don’t like him. “Carl is a guy that doesn’t follow the flock,” said Seddio. “He does not go out for popularity. He goes out for what he thinks is right. The problem is, he’s innately nasty. He can be a great friend or a terrible enemy.”
In politics, achieving power doesn’t always mean being a nice and dependable guy. Kruger studied under one of the party’s most beloved practitioners, Tony Genovesi, who would come to regret helping push Kruger into office.
In 1994, a seat opened up. Genovesi lobbied party elders to put Kruger on the ballot. The race was a farce. Turnout for the special election was an abysmal 2.5 percent. Kruger collected only 3,044 votes for the win and started making the commute to Albany.
Less than a month after Kruger took office, a major issue for Genovesi was coming up for a vote. Genovesi had been such a staunch opponent of the death penalty that his office was once picketed. In Albany, Genovesi expected that Kruger would vote with him. After all, Genovesi had been instrumental in Kruger’s career, and Kruger’s vote was crucial.
Kruger agonized. Many of his constituents were vocal in their support for the death penalty. And centrist Democrats were supporting it. Many also suspected that Kruger was looking for a way to proclaim his independence from Genovesi. In the end, Kruger decided to vote against his mentor. The next day, Genovesi walked into the Senate chamber and waited until the vote was called.
“I want you to look at me while you fuck me,” Genovesi told him.
As a freshmen senator, Kruger was expected to befriend other Democrats. Instead, he kept to himself. “Socially, he’s a very strange cat,” said Marty Connor, who ran the Democratic conference during Kruger’s early years in the Senate. “I’ve known Carl for over 30 years and never had lunch or dinner with him.”
In Albany, Kruger spent his free time wandering the aisles of Home Depot, looking for things to help fix up 139 Bassett Avenue, the Turanos’ enormous waterfront mansion in South Brooklyn. While their Mill Basin neighborhood is dotted with McMansions, the home the Turanos purchased beats them all. From the street, it looks like a cruise ship, with many stories, balconies, railings, glass bricks. It’s a legendary property—its former owner was Anthony Casso, a Lucchese-family underboss who was known as “Gaspipe” and once proclaimed a “homicidal maniac.” Among dozens of other murders, Casso even ordered the hit of the house’s architect.
Where some might see ghosts at 139 Bassett, the Turanos saw their dream house. Michael and Gerard were now earning good incomes as gynecologists, and they took out a hefty mortgage to cover the nearly $1 million purchase price, a steal considering the waterfront home has roughly 7,000 square feet. The Turano brothers also took out a loan to cover the expected $500,000-plus in renovations.
Kruger oversaw the renovation of the house, which was fully tricked out. The New York Times found plans for a snow-melting system for the driveway and a bathroom steam system. An arcade room reportedly had a gumball machine, while another parlor featured an old-fashioned lunch counter with a soda fountain.
Outside, it’s just as ostentatious. Along the driveway are four flagpoles flying American flags; among the shrubs, sculptures of dolphins swim and dive in midair; seven sculptures of young boys play around a fountain, under the watch of nun-looking statues nearby.
The place at 139 Bassett was something else besides a dream house—a money pit. On wiretaps, Kruger is overheard chiding Michael Turano about making costly purchases. In one conversation, Kruger talks as a parent might to a spoiled child, telling Turano that he cannot buy a light fixture that costs $15,000.
I asked Kruger if the kickback scheme he devised was really a complicated way of keeping Michael and the rest of the Turanos happy. If they couldn’t rely on him any longer to solve their problems, they might push him away.
“It’s accurate that it’s complicated,” Kruger said. “It’s so complicated that you don’t sort it out. I did what I did, and it was wrong, and I will suffer the consequences.”
When the Feds started watching him, Kruger had reached the upper echelons of Albany’s ruling class. But his seat was surprisingly precarious. Back in 2002, Senate Republicans planned to redraw the district lines, and it was almost certain that Kruger would lose his seat. Kruger then appeared to cut a deal with the Republicans to change the lines in such a way that his career would be extended; in turn, Kruger made the unusual move of supporting a Republican in a tight race. Kruger became a GOP ally, and years later he made history by becoming the first minority-party legislator to be appointed a committee chair by the ruling party.
Kruger had learned he could gain power by leveraging his own Democrats against his new Republican friends. His mastery of the divide-and-conquer game culminated in 2008, when the Democrats were poised to win back the majority. Before the confetti had dropped, Kruger allied himself with a rebel faction of Bronx senators. Dubbed the “Three Amigos,” Kruger and the gang placed the entire Democratic majority in jeopardy by threatening to vote for a Republican leader, then hustling the Democratic leadership for top posts.
Back at the T in Canarsie, members loathed Kruger for his lack of party loyalty yet admired his cunning. “To watch Carl maneuver in politics is like stepping into Picasso’s studio and watching him paint,” one member said. “He puts himself in a position to put himself in position.”
After he became Finance chair, big checks started rolling in. When Kruger first started as a state senator, his campaign account was a piddling one, with a balance of only a few thousand dollars. In 2010, he filed statements that wowed other Albany pols. Here was a senator without any opponents and with a balance in his campaign account of $2.5 million.
Meanwhile, back at 139 Bassett, the Turanos struggled with ballooning payments on their home. The cost of medical-malpractice insurance had become so high it was hard for them to support the luxurious lifestyle they’d become accustomed to. Docked in their backyard was Special Delivery, a 39-foot yacht, and in the garage a $200,000 Bentley brother Gerard had leased.
Kruger had suggested that the Turano boys get into another field. In 2006, Michael formed a company called Olympian Strategic Development. In addition to working as doctors, the Turanos considered a second career as consultants in real estate. It would be easy for them to get hired by local developers. Kruger could help them, and their mother happened to be district manager of the community board.
The side business began to flourish. Soon, a developer sent Olympian checks for nearly half a million dollars in consulting fees for, in part, securing space in a proposed local mall. But it was a questionable setup, especially to the Feds, who began to discover how entwined Kruger was with the business. After subpoenaing bank records, the Feds followed the numbers and discovered that lobbyists with whom Kruger was close were sending Michael Turano hundreds of thousands of dollars. In essence, Kruger was using Olympian and Turano as a kind of bagman for his bribe money and letting Turano spend what he pleased. The Feds listened to the two discuss what envelopes had come in.
“I got the mail, nothing,” Turano told Kruger in one wiretap.
“I told him that,” Kruger said. “He said, should be.”
Kruger was suspicious he was being watched. The Feds had been after several lawmakers in Albany for all types of criminal shenanigans. After a lobbyist sent him an e-mail, Kruger called, paranoid.
“The e-mails … I mean … no good,” Kruger said. “I thought we were anti-e-mails?”
“I thought it was innocuous,” the lobbyist replied.
“All e-mails are never innocuous,” Kruger said, “even the weather report.”
On Bassett Avenue, the Feds watched Kruger’s empty Cadillac as it was parked outside the Turano home and listened as tensions in his extended family peaked. A month before Kruger and Michael were indicted, according to the wiretaps, it was revealed that Kruger had once told Gerard that he’d been infatuated with his brother since they met. As Michael recalled the conversation to Kruger, Kruger told Gerard how “ ‘from the day I walked into the T’ … you told me this … ‘you loved me and you wanted me.’ ”
According to the Feds, Gerard didn’t take the admission well. It must have been fair for Gerard to wonder: Was Kruger using himself and his mother Dottie all along to get close to Michael?
While the Feds proffered only snippets of Kruger’s talks, and without context, Kruger was apparently upset that Gerard was considering distancing himself from Kruger and his family. In a conversation with Dottie, Kruger sounded like a mob boss discussing the departure of a low-level soldier.
“What, [Gerard’s] going to be the beneficiary of my work?” Kruger said, according to the wiretap. “I made life easier for the two of you, and he is going to be the beneficiary of it? No, it was supposed to be we were gonna all share in the benefits of it.”
In Albany, Kruger seemed more aloof than ever. One lawmaker recalled running into Kruger in the elevator. Kruger had a grumpy, dour look on his face, and the lawmaker asked him about it.
Kruger shook his head. “You don’t know what my life is like,” he said.
Kruger and Michael Turano will be sentenced in late April. The former senator faces as many as 50 years in prison, but it’s unlikely the judge will sentence him to more than ten years. Turano faces as many as five years in prison. As part of the guilty plea, Kruger and Turano arranged the deal in such a way that the Feds agreed not to prosecute Turano for failing to file taxes on the bribe payments he collected. It was the ultimate gesture: a father taking the fall for his son.
In his lawyer Brafman’s office, I asked Kruger once again why he engaged in such a blatant kickback scheme, knowing as he did that the Feds had been investigating so many Albany pols recently.
Brafman objected to the question: “We don’t know,” he said. “He violated the law, he admitted it, he’s accepted responsibility.* I think it would take years of therapy to figure out where the compass went off its course. I don’t know how much further beyond that it gets. We’ve talked about this for months and months.”
“There’s no one day,” Kruger said. “There’s no one incident.”
“There’s no one moment you decide you’re going to become a corrupt politician,” Brafman said. “It happened, and his biggest regret was not only violating the trust of his constituents but getting Michael involved in this horror show. I don’t want him to wax philosophic now on why good people commit crimes.”
The conversation veered, as it often does with Kruger, to his mother, Irene, a woman to whom he spent his entire life proving he was worthy enough to keep. He still lives in the same house, the same room, with the same bed set and wallpaper. He sleeps only a few hours a night, and with the light on. He still visits his mother’s grave most Sundays.
“Go to the cemetery,” he said. “I want you to read the inscription on the stone. It says, ‘Your image will be a guiding light to me on the path of virtue, and someday when that pilgrimage is over, we’ll be home together again.’ ”
I asked him if the reason he went to so much effort to make himself invaluable to the Turano family, to sell his office in order to keep them flush, was because he simply wanted to be wanted.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe you need to come out of a cardboard box. Maybe then you would figure it out too.”
*This article has been corrected to show that Brafman said Kruger admitted to violating the law, not submitted.