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Candidates seek attorney general seat

Attorney General candidate Eric Dinallo speaks to reporters during the state Democratic Committee State Convention in Rye, N.Y. on May 25. He is one of six candidates seeking the office of attorney general. Mary Altaffer for The Associated Press/File

ALBANY — Two big city prosecutors, two prolific state lawmakers, a Naval aviator turned trial lawyer and a former Wall Street watchdog are vying to become New York’s next attorney general, the job that has reshaped corporate America and propelled the last two attorneys general into front-runners for governor.

All six say they will push reform and delve into government corruption if elected as the state’s chief lawyer who, with a staff of some 700 attorneys, defends the government in lawsuits, files civil suits and sometimes conducts investigations and prosecutions.

Five are in a Sept. 14  Democratic primary, the winner of which will face Republican Daniel Donovan on Nov. 2.

State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, 55, of Manhattan, is giving up his legislative seat to run. He led the investigation this year that forced the expulsion of Sen. Hiram Monserrate, a fellow Democrat convicted of misdemeanor assault in a domestic incident. He has the backing of several unions.

Schneiderman helped enact revisions softening some tough sentencing provisions of the Rockefeller-era drug laws and introduced legislation to expand the DNA data base of convicted criminals. Before law school, he worked as a deputy sheriff in Berkshire County, Mass., getting a federal grant for a drug treatment program and transporting prisoners.

“I think the attorney general’s job offers me an opportunity to work for justice and fight for the causes I’m passionate about even more effectively than I can in the Senate,” Schneiderman said. “I love being a lawyer and I love advancing progressive public policies and the attorney general’s job will allow me to combine the two.”

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, 45, of Locust Valley, now in her second term, has reported the most campaign donations and appears to have the quiet support of incumbent and gubernatorial frontrunner Andrew Cuomo, who hasn’t formally endorsed anyone. One of her most important efforts has been prosecuting drunken driving, which she called “an epidemic.”

Rice said she’s the only candidate who has conducted criminal investigations of members of her own political party. Her first initiative would be a legislative push to give the attorney general’s office primary jurisdiction in public corruption cases.

“Nobody is in a better position than the AG to be a watchdog of the public’s trust and government,” she said.

Former state Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo, 47, of Manhattan, now teaches ethics at the New York University business school. When Attorney General Eliot Spitzer received the nickname “Sheriff of Wall Street,” Dinallo was the de facto undersheriff, head of the Investor Protection Bureau that developed the strategy to use New York’s anti-fraud Martin Act to go after big financial companies and force large settlements.

Spitzer later became governor, a trajectory Cuomo is trying to duplicate.

Running the 1,400-person Insurance Department is one “core qualification” for being attorney general, Dinallo said. As insurance superintendent, he reformed workers’ compensation regulations and settled the insurance case over claims for the World Trade Center destruction in a terrorist attack. Dinallo said Cuomo has laid an effective foundation for investigating public officials, and he plans to do more without having to wait for new legislation.

Attorney Sean Coffey, 54, of Westchester County, retired last year from a lucrative private practice as a trial lawyer. A former Navy flight officer who chased Soviet submarines during the Cold War, former reservist and retired captain, he said he’s the political outsider. He has prosecuted criminals, defended corporations and won major suits on behalf of plaintiff investors, including a $6 billion settlement from WorldCom and $2 billion from JPMorgan, he said.

Coffey said he would probably add a bureau dealing with intellectual property to focus on growing 21st century problems of online copyright theft, and like several other candidates would seek legislation to allow the attorney general to bring public corruption cases without referrals from the governor.

“This isn’t an election about fixing the attorney general’s office,” he said. “It’s been in great hands.”

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, 64, a Westchester County Democrat, said he sees the job as the protector of New Yorkers, “a people’s lawyer” who will handle issues they face in their everyday lives, whether it’s mass transit, property taxes or schools. He’s been doing that for years as a legislator going up against powerful interests, he said. That has included challenging subsidies for Yankee Stadium, Metropolitan Transportation Administration fare hikes and currently the financial dealings of public authorities.

“I would dramatically increase the work done to assure that large corporate polluters pay for the damage they do. The same is true on Wall Street. That’s not a criticism of Andrew as much as it is a change in focus,” Brodsky said.

Brodsky has pledged to investigate the pricing mechanism by the industry-created not-for-profit that manages the state power grid and daily auction of electricity, saying it’s costing ratepayers more than $2 billion a year.

Donovan, the 53-year-old in his second term as Staten Island district attorney, is the Republican nominee. He said he reorganized the DA’s office after analyzing workload and the distribution of resources, raising its conviction rate and its rating to the top among the five city boroughs. He would likewise review the attorney general’s office, which has about 2,000 full-time employees and units dealing with Medicaid fraud, charities oversight, public integrity and organized crime.

Donovan promised to increase the focus on public corruption, noting that scandals have embarrassed the state.
“Our state government has become the laughing stock of the nation,” he said.