John Sweeney, an upstate Republican congressman, became a national hero to his party when he led the infamous charge on the Miami-Dade elections commissioners by ordering the pro-Bush troops to “shut it down!” Sweeney’s directive inspired that hardened assemblage of GOP Capitol Hill staffers to bang on the election commission’s doors, intimidate the commissioners, and halt the recount.
But more recently, “Shut it down!” has taken on another meaning in Sweeney’s life, ever since the late-January night when his car rammed a utility pole on a rural upstate road. What Sweeney managed to shut down that night was power to the homes of several of his constituents and to the Willard Mountain ski resort, stranding skiers aloft on the chairlifts that relied on the juice that ran through the wires Sweeney’s 2001 Jeep Laredo managed to clip.
The story goes as follows. On the night of January 23, Sweeney was driving away from Willard, where he’d passed the evening skiing. Just before 10 p.m., he lost control of his vehicle and hit the utility pole. He told police he was fidgeting with his CD player. He was not hurt. A woman who lives along the road, Donna English – who happens to be a local Republican councilwoman – came out to offer assistance. A state-police trooper arrived on the scene. Live electrical wires lay strewn across Vly Summit Road. A local volunteer-fire-department chief offered to send a crew to the site to direct traffic, a common enough procedure in rural areas. But the fire chief was told by the state police that no assistance was needed. Instead, it was left to English to direct traffic. For an hour and a half. Sweeney was not charged or ticketed, and power was restored in about eight hours’ time (the ski resort managed to get the people in the chairlift down sooner).
Nothing strange about any of that, right? Maybe not. But editors at the Glens Falls Post-Star came to suspect otherwise. Small-town newspapers routinely call around to local police detachments and ask if anything unusual has happened lately. A Post-Star reporter did indeed call the state police covering the area where the crash occurred. But the reporter was never told about it. Then, seven days later, the paper learned about the accident via an anonymous e-mail from a reader. And this got the paper pondering a few questions. On February 1, it ran a benign story under the headline sweeney unhurt in crash. A February 2 story by reporter Don Lehman dug a little deeper, with state police explaining that Sweeney “was treated just like any other citizen.” By February 3, though, the story took a more interesting turn; that day’s edition bore the headline sweeney in bar before crash.
Witnesses came forward to insist that Sweeney had only one or two glasses of wine. On the other hand, the Post-Star noted, Sweeney was not given a sobriety test by the state trooper on the scene or even asked if he’d been drinking. Nor did the solon volunteer to take a test.
State-police sergeant Louis Badillo told me that nothing untoward happened here. “The routine was followed,” he said. As to why the police didn’t report the accident to the Post-Star, Badillo says, “We probably report on 2 or 3 percent of what happens. Little accidents, with minor injuries, we don’t give out.” Even when power lines are taken down? “We have power lines that are taken down constantly, and we don’t report that,” he says. Even when they’re taken down by the local congressman? “In that case, we would notify our commanding officers,” Badillo says. So things tend to go in that part of the state, when powerful Republicans – and generally speaking, there are no powerful Democrats there – are involved.
Sweeney – whose spokesman referred me to the state police for any comment – has accused the Post-Star of going on a witch-hunt. His defenders note that the paper’s advertising director, Nicholas Caimano, was one of his opponents in the Republican primary he won in 1998, when he first made it to Congress. The local Republican directorate was behind Caimano, but Sweeney was the anointed candidate of George Pataki and Alfonse D’Amato, and that was pretty much that.
Sweeney gained his notoriety only last November, but he has long been a crucial GOP insider and a very favorite son of the state GOP. He was the state party’s chief political operative in the early nineties, playing an integral role in the 1992 and 1994 victories of D’Amato and Pataki, respectively. Pataki named Sweeney his first Labor commissioner. I had dinner with him once back then. It was “Alfonse this” and “Alfonse that,” all night. He was clearly a plugged-in fellow.
By 1998, GOP congressman Gerald Solomon was calling it quits. Solomon is the fellow who, when the Republicans took over the House in 1994, decided that it would be nice to hang a portrait in the Rules Committee hearing room of former chairman Howard Smith of Virginia, an outspoken segregationist who devoted his chairmanship to trying to block civil-rights bills. (Solomon backed down after protests.) Sweeney, with Pataki, D’Amato, and Solomon’s help, won the seat.
In certain instances since, when the subject was purported Democratic mischief, Sweeney has hardly been shy about pressing for answers. When state Republicans tried to make an issue of Hillary Clinton’s use of government aircraft during her campaign, it was Sweeney who led the charge. When the Times ran a story alleging that Rick Lazio may have profited from insider information on an investment, Sweeney demanded a probe into how the Times got the story. Then came Florida. Sweeney, who called the Miami-Dade elections commissioners “thugs,” left a deeper mark than most of his Bush-courting colleagues.
So he has handsomely raised his profile – and, incidentally, been rewarded with a seat on the Appropriations Committee. But raised profiles also lead to things like local journalists being a little more aggressive than usual in trying to get to the bottom of a story that was hidden from them for a week and around which pertinent questions remain (“Is it customary,” the Post-Star’s Will Doolittle wondered in a column, “for the state police to rely on neighbors to direct traffic at crash sites, at night and in the cold and when live wires are involved?”). “Shut it down” Sweeney may not enjoy the new scrutiny, but he has done his part in inviting it.