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State police chief abruptly quits amid Paterson scandal

Gov. David Paterson, left, talks with State Police

Gov. David Paterson, left, talks with State Police Superintendent Harry Corbitt in Albany. Corbitt abruptly said Tuesday, March 2, 2010, that he was retiring from his position. (May 27, 2008) Credit: AP File

ALBANY - State Police Superintendent Harry J. Corbitt Tuesday announced plans to step down as controversy engulfed the agency for the second time in less than three years.

Corbitt, who came out of retirement in 2008 to lead the State Police, has been criticized over allegations some troopers interfered in a domestic violence case involving David Johnson, a top aide to Gov. David A. Paterson. The governor's top law enforcement adviser, Denise O'Donnell, resigned last week, saying Corbitt misled her about the troopers' role in the case.

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Corbitt again denied misleading O'Donnell, telling an upstate cable TV show that she drew the wrong conclusions from information he gave her.

He told the "Capital Tonight" program he would retire this evening because he sees no other recourse to attacks on his character.

"Working as a superintendent . . . there needs to be this public perception that the person serving in that position is trustworthy, forthright, and has the best interest of the citizens . . . in mind," he said during the program. "This media firestorm has really destroyed my ability to function in that capacity."

“Any individual who is criticized constantly feels that pain,” Corbitt told the cable station Capital News 9. “And in most cases there is some way to fight back. But in public service there is not. I’m not an elected official; I’m a public servant, I’m a cop. And a good cop. So to continue to face that pressure, and even pressure from my family, the media showing up in my driveway — that’s unacceptable. So for my own health and for my own sanity it’s the right thing to do.”

Corbitt had acknowledged in February that a State Police official had contact with a woman who had accused a top Paterson aide of assaulting her on Halloween in New York City’s Bronx borough. Soon after, the woman dropped the domestic violence complaint against the aide, David Johnson.

Corbitt returned to the State Police as superintendent in early 2008. Paterson appointed him after a controversy involving travel records compiled by troopers of then-State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, the Republican nemesis of Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

Spitzer aides leaked the documents to the media to tarnish Bruno's reputation.

That controversy sparked the resignation of Acting Superintendent Preston Felton. Corbitt instituted a number of changes he said would prevent future impropriety by the troopers who protect Paterson and state buildings.

Asked about Corbitt's planned departure, Paterson said, "I think we will move forward now and we will look to see who will be the best person to lead the State Police."

The governor declined to comment on whether he had asked Corbitt to step down.

Sherruna Booker told police she was beaten up on Halloween by Johnson, her boyfriend at the time, but she decided not to press charges. At issue is whether Paterson or anyone from his staff or State Police security detail influenced her decision.

Paterson has acknowledged that he spoke with Booker but said she initiated the call and that he did not try to get her to change her story or not pursue a charge.

The New York Times on Tuesday provided new details on Paterson’s involvement in the matter, reporting that the governor had personally directed two state employees to contact the woman.

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo — often mentioned as a potential gubernatorial candidate by the very critics who dogged Paterson into abandoning his campaign — is investigating those contacts. Any criminal case will hinge on whether Paterson, staff members or members of his State Police security detail tried to get Booker to change her story, making charges of witness tampering or obstructing justice possible.

The departure of Corbitt, who had already retired once but returned to service at Paterson’s request, came on a day when the Times report gave Paterson his most damaging press yet. The National Organization for Women, long a Paterson ally, called for his resignation even as he got some rare support by lawmakers.

State Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs drove from Long Island to meet in the governor’s mansion with Paterson and later said Paterson’s account of his contact with the woman, along with the state police and staff members “explains an awful lot.” He declined to divulge details.

“I did not get the sense that the governor is considering resignation, that resignation is pending,” said Jacobs, a longtime friend of Paterson who owes his job to the governor. “There shouldn’t be any more shoes to drop. The sense I got from him is there won’t be.”

Minutes before Jacobs spoke, powerful Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver left a lunch meeting with Paterson at the mansion and told reporters: “I don’t feel he should resign.” The report outraged NOW’s state chapter, which called for his resignation despite his “excellent” policy record on women’s issues.

“It is inappropriate for the governor to have any contact or to direct anyone to contact an alleged victim of violence,” said chapter president Marcia Pappas.

Even Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whom Paterson appointed to the seat last year, said Tuesday that he would have to resign if allegations that he abused his power are proven true.

But five Latino legislators, all Democrats, met with Paterson about budget appropriations and the needs of their communities, then approached reporters waiting outside the mansion to voice support.

“No one has criticized the governor more than I have,” said Sen. Ruben Diaz of the Bronx. “Right now, we are supporting the governor to stay until the investigation is resolved.” Paterson said he would soon speak publicly. Some leading Democrats have said he should resign to avoid further damage to the party in the 2010 elections.

Arriving at Irish American fundraiser in Manhattan, Cuomo did not say whether he thought the governor should resign.

He said he hadn’t spoken to Paterson yet but that the governor’s office had cooperated, and he gave no timetable for completing the investigation.

“We will do the investigation as fast as we can, as fast as practical,” Cuomo said. “We also want to do it right, we want to be thorough, we want to be fair, and we want to have all the facts.”

-- With Elizabeth Moore and the Associated Press


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