Sweeney Ex-Wife’s Role Is Scrutinized

Posted June 11, 2008 at 6:40pm

Federal investigators appear to be looking into work performed by the ex-wife of former Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) while she was on the payroll of an Albany lobbying firm with close ties to Sweeney.

FBI agents on Friday raided the offices of Powers & Co., removing documents and electronic records involving Gaia “Gayle” Sweeney’s work at the firm, according to sources with knowledge of the case.

Donald Kinsella, lawyer for firm founder William Powers, would not comment on the case, other than to confirm that the raid occurred and that the company is cooperating with investigators. Kinsella said that neither Powers nor his company are targets of the investigation.

Powers, a close friend and mentor of John Sweeney’s, is the former chairman of the New York Republican Party. He hired Sweeney as executive director for the state party in 1992, and Sweeney ran the nominating convention for former Gov. George Pataki in 1994.

One of the lobbyists at Powers & Co. was Heather Briccetti, who was a partner with Sweeney in the early 1990s at a law firm called Sweeney, Cholakis and Wollowitz. Powers & Co. hired Gayle Sweeney after she married the Congressman, according to sources familiar with the investigation. The Congressman had proposed to Gayle on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 2003. The couple has since gone through a rancorous divorce, and Sweeney was defeated for re-election in 2006 after a police report was made public of a 911 call that she had made claiming he had hit her.

The Albany Times Union reported that the investigation is focusing on grants that may have been steered to Powers & Co., though it is not clear that Sweeney provided earmarks to the firm’s clients.

Powers & Co. lobbies primarily at the state level, but also filed federal lobbying registrations for five clients: Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.; the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, N.Y.; the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City; the Medical Society of the State of New York; and TVI Corp., a Maryland firm that makes biohazard protection equipment.

The firm has not made much money from federal lobbying on behalf of these clients — for the most part, the disclosure forms Powers & Co. has filed indicate that it has been paid less than $10,000 for each six-month period.

The registration forms for all of the clients list the same date as the “effective date” of the registration: Nov. 29, 2005. According to data compiled by Citizens Against Government Waste, the Lincoln Center received earmarks in federal spending bills in each fiscal year from 2001 to 2005, but all of those earmarks would have been approved prior to Powers & Co. registering to lobby on behalf of any of its clients.

Prior to 2007, Members of Congress were not required to publicly report the earmarks they sought, and Sweeney does not appear to have claimed credit for any earmarks that benefit Powers clients. However, in September 2005, he announced that $800,000 had been made available to Siena College for a road improvement project in a transportation spending bill, according to the Albany Business Review.

The New York Times suggested Wednesday that the investigation is linked to imprisoned former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, pointing out that investigations of other Members of Congress involved in the Abramoff scandal, including former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and retiring Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), have raised questions about payments made to the Members’ wives. Neither DeLay, Doolittle nor their wives have been charged in the case.

From 2003 to 2006, Sweeney’s campaign paid nearly $90,000 to Gayle Sweeney’s consulting firm for fundraising services and expenses.

Sweeney’s attorney, Stewart Jones, could not be reached for comment, but he told the Times that there was no evidence to suggest wrongdoing by either of the Sweeneys or the firm.

In 2004, the Almanac of American Politics declared that Sweeney’s star was “clearly on the rise” and he appeared to be a good candidate for statewide office. Two years later, the Almanac said he “appears to be settling in for a lengthy House career.” By January 2007, his career was over.