Lawrence Schwartz is Cuomo's behind-the-scenes muscle

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and top aide Lawrence Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and top aide Lawrence Schwartz, left, talk during a cabinet meeting in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany on Wednesday, May 9, 2012. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

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ALBANY -- He is the most powerful state official most New Yorkers have never heard of.

When a top state commissioner in 2010 was suspected of leaking an email to a reporter about layoffs ordered by then-Gov. David A. Paterson, Secretary to the Governor Lawrence Schwartz fired him.

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took office in 2011, he took the unusual step of retaining Schwartz, dispatching him to take care of issues public and private, such as attending months of public hearings to drum up support for rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge, persuading state legislators to overhaul the Long Island Power Authority, and even answering a local assessor's questions about improvements and tax assessments on the Westchester County home the governor shares with Food Network personality and author Sandra Lee.

And when Cuomo wanted to advise his Moreland Commission on public corruption, which he said he created as an independent body, Schwartz stepped in.

"When he wants something done, he'll do whatever he needs to do to get it done," one former state official said of Schwartz. "He definitely gets into the middle of things."

Schwartz, 57, is the first person in at least several decades to serve as the powerful secretary to the governor for two governors. Schwartz, who lives with his wife and daughter 20 miles from Cuomo in Westchester, is the governor's right hand, a friend he's known for 20 years.

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"He has the reputation of a sort of no-nonsense tough guy who has really implemented the will of governors Paterson and Cuomo," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group and an observer of Albany politics for more than two decades. "He is the implementer who runs through the brick wall."

Now Schwartz is at the center of the Moreland Commission controversy being investigated by Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District. Schwartz was accused in a July 23 New York Times article of interfering with the commission Cuomo created a year ago.

"This is wrong," Schwartz is said to have told a commission co-chairman last year when the panel planned to subpoena a TV ad company used by Cuomo's campaign. "Pull it back," Schwartz said, according to an email from co-chairman William Fitzpatrick cited in the Times. The subpoena ultimately was served.

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Further accusation

Schwartz also was cited in the Times article as having interfered with the commission when it planned to issue a subpoena to one of Cuomo's biggest campaign donors, the Real Estate Board of New York, and other allies.

"Even I was surprised at the level to which there might have been interference," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters, who was a nonvoting adviser to the commission. Cuomo, however, discounts claims of interference. He said he, through Schwartz, merely provided advice the commission could take or ignore. Schwartz reportedly has agreed to talk with Bharara.

"Not only was Secretary Larry Schwartz's advice and counsel legally permissible, it was also much needed," Cuomo said in a response to the Times article. "The commission did not understand the budget or legislative process or how state government worked, and they benefited from Larry's experience."

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One of three co-chairmen and two other commission members agreed, and support the role Cuomo and Schwartz played. Cuomo calls the commission "a phenomenal success" for forcing the State Legislature to adopt ethics reforms. The legislature acted in March in exchange for Cuomo's ending the commission, which was investigating lawmakers.

Cuomo and Schwartz aren't commenting publicly on the Moreland case, citing the federal probe that has caused most of state government and even former Cuomo and Paterson staffers to clam up. Cuomo said last week he's instructed his staff to cooperate with the U.S. attorney's office.

In a statement, Cuomo director of communications Melissa DeRosa said, "There are few people in public service with more integrity and commitment to this state than Larry Schwartz. He is a great boss and friend who always looks out for his colleagues and who works tirelessly and selflessly to make New York a better place."

Schwartz declined to comment, aides said.

When Cuomo relied on Schwartz to work with the Moreland Commission, the governor picked a proven staffer with a strong background in government and politics.

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Schwartz was senior class president and a soccer goalie at Comsewogue High School in Port Jefferson Station and graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton, majoring in political science.

After college, Schwartz worked on local political campaigns. He also worked at M&R Strategic Services, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that works with nonprofit groups, where he rose to senior vice president.

Schwartz began the road to the executive chamber in 1994. Like many current Cuomo confidants, he was an aide that year in the unsuccessful re-election campaign of Gov. Mario Cuomo, whose top adviser was another hard-charging 20-something named Andrew M. Cuomo.

That led Schwartz to a stint with the State Senate's Democratic minority. Later he took a deputy county executive job in Suffolk County, where he irritated lawmakers so much they briefly deleted his job from the budget. As a deputy executive in Westchester, he was the guy who stopped opposition, the guy who said "no" and the one who delivered the bad news.

For example, in 2002, it was Schwartz, not County Executive Andrew Spano, who announced that most county residents had to face a 1 percent sales tax increase because of a county budget gap. Schwartz argued that if the sales tax wasn't increased, the result would be higher property taxes, layoffs of police officers and spending cuts.

In 2009, Schwartz became secretary to the governor for Paterson, a formal title that translates to the governor's top aide and chief of staff involved in every initiative. Schwartz, who makes $178,000 a year, once described his role as "chief operating officer," a title that doesn't exist in state government and which many thought overstated his role.

In 2010, Schwartz was involved in one of the scandals of the Paterson administration. Inspector General Joseph Fish released a highly critical report about the awarding of a contract to create a video slot machine casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.

 

Political brawl

The state had sought to generate as much as $650 million a year in tax revenue by creating the casino, but what the inspector general later called a "political free-for-all" ensued, involving several lobbying groups and accusations that their campaign contributions swayed the selection process.

"Secretary to the Governor Lawrence Schwartz, the self-proclaimed 'chief operating officer' of the state . . . testified that he was 'outside' the selection process, yet he organized and attended many key meetings with executive staff and various vendors," Fish's report stated.

"Schwartz further engaged in communications with the governor regarding the selection despite his ignorance of the salient facts," the report said. "Schwartz further incredibly claimed to not recall myriad meetings he organized and attended, various e-mail correspondence between himself and other individuals, and numerous conversations in which he engaged."

Schwartz survived unscathed as some lawmakers -- but no administration officials -- faced investigations. The bid award was rescinded and Paterson established rules for a new bidding process. Schwartz was later credited with helping to stabilize the Paterson administration.

Schwartz's role with the Cuomo administration began before Cuomo was elected governor. In the fall of 2010, as Paterson battled more scandals, Schwartz took a bigger hand in running state government. He was the secret emissary between Paterson and Cuomo as attorney general and governor-elect, according to a state official familiar with the matter.

A state lawmaker who asked not to be identified said the legislature's fight in 2010 with Paterson over layoffs and spending cuts seemed to be about making politically difficult budget cuts before Cuomo took office. The legislator said the fight "led me to the conclusion that Larry Schwartz was Cuomo's surrogate and that Cuomo was acting as governor a year before he was elected."

 

He is ever-present

In public, Schwartz is quiet, intense and easily overlooked at meetings with the governor, but always present, often whispering behind his hand to Cuomo, who leans in. Cuomo also uses Schwartz as his comedic straight man to try to ease tension at news conferences, often poking fun at Schwartz's hard-edged reputation. Two years ago, Schwartz was the only Cuomo senior staffer willing to ham it up for the governor in front of reporters at a going-away party for Rich Bamburger, Cuomo's communications director. Schwartz made a dramatic entrance, with his tie worn as a bandanna, to the off-the-record party at the governor's mansion.

Privately, Schwartz can have a wicked sense of humor. He's also as avid a golfer as he can be for a guy who a former colleague once said "works 25-8."

Schwartz is known as a dogged advocate for his bosses, delivering messages at maximum volume to staffers, lawmakers and reporters. He's the guy who has reined in state agencies to keep annual spending increases under 2 percent, which was critical to balance budgets and cutting huge deficits. (Because he is secretary, agency commissioners are answerable to Schwartz and he enforces Cuomo's spending restraints.)

"It's been a focus of Larry's," said Elizabeth Lynam of the independent Citizens Budget Commission. She said there has been a lot of pressure on agencies to restrain spending, but that also has forced consolidations and efficiencies. "There's been a good effort," she said.

Cuomo sent Schwartz to Long Island to promote a plan to privatize LIPA last year after superstorm Sandy -- a contentious issue in a politically crucial region. Schwartz shepherded the project, which ultimately stopped short of privatization, replacing National Grid with PSEG Long Island and reducing LIPA's role.

This year, a local tax assessor had questions about recent improvements to the Westchester house Cuomo shares with Lee. The story hit the local newspaper and spread fast. Schwartz was dispatched in his state-owned 2014 Ford Explorer to explain their perspective.

Cuomo said the improvements to the $1.2 million home were merely decorative and that the governor's office involvement was necessary for security issues. The tax assessment for the house ultimately was increased 29 percent, adding about $8,000 to the tax bill.

The intercession by the governor's office, however, blew the story up further. It became fodder for Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, who has turned the incident into an attempt by Cuomo to evade property taxes.

"Larry and Cuomo reinforced their own worst tendencies of bullying and conflict," said a former official who had been on the opposite side of contentious issues from Schwartz. "I've known him to bend the rules. I have not known him to break them."

Others who worked closely with Schwartz agreed.

"Schwartz has a lot of skills," one former colleague said. "But no one can call him subtle."

With Yancey Roy

LAWRENCE SCHWARTZ BIO

Age: 57

Home: White Plains

Education: Comsewogue High School; State University at Binghamton, political science major.

Career: Aide to State Senate Minority Leader Manfred Orenstein, 1982-1987; deputy Suffolk County executive, 1988-1991; senior vice president, M & R Strategic Services, 1993-1997; deputy Westchester County executive, 1998-2009; secretary to Gov. David A. Paterson, 2009-2010; secretary to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, 2011-present.

Family: Married to Susan Hessney; one daughter.

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