Questions of Influence in Abuse Case of Paterson Aide
By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM, DANNY HAKIM, DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI and SERGE F. KOVALESKI
Published: February 24, 2010
by William K. Rashbaum, Danny Hakim, David Kocieniewski and Serge F. Kovaleski.
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
Gov. David A. Paterson had a phone conversation with a woman who had sought a protective order against David W. Johnson, right, a close adviser. Mr. Johnson was suspended Wednesday night.
The State Police superintendent, Harry J. Corbitt, said that a trooper visited the woman who said she was assaulted by Mr. Johnson but that the officer did not pressure her not to press a case.
Last fall, a woman went to court in the Bronx to testify that she had been violently assaulted by a top aide to Gov. David A. Paterson, and to seek a protective order against the man.
In the ensuing months, she returned to court twice to press her case, complaining that the State Police had been harassing her to drop it. The State Police, which had no jurisdiction in the matter, confirmed that the woman was visited by a member of the governor’s personal security detail.
Then, just before she was due to return to court to seek a final protective order, the woman got a phone call from the governor, according to her lawyer. She failed to appear for her next hearing on Feb. 8, and as a result her case was dismissed.
Many details of the governor’s role in this episode are unclear, but the accounts presented in court and police records and interviews with the woman’s lawyer and others portray a brutal encounter, a frightened woman and an effort to make a potential political embarrassment go away.
The case involved David W. Johnson, 37, who had risen from working as Mr. Paterson’s driver and scheduler to serving in the most senior ranks of the administration, but who also had a history of altercations with women.
On Wednesday night, in response to inquiries from The New York Times, Mr. Paterson said in a statement that he would request that Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo investigate his administration’s handling of the matter. The governor also said he would suspend Mr. Johnson without pay.
Through a spokesman, Mr. Paterson said the call actually took place the day before the scheduled court hearing and maintained that the woman had initiated it. He declined to answer further questions about his role in the matter.
The woman’s lawyer, Lawrence B. Saftler, said that the conversation lasted about a minute and that the governor asked how she was doing and if there was anything he could do for her. “If you need me,” he said, according to Mr. Saftler, “I’m here for you.”
Mr. Saftler said the governor never mentioned the court case, but he would not say if the call had influenced her decision not to return to court.
The call also came as The Times was examining the background of Mr. Johnson, whose increasing influence with the governor had disturbed some current and former senior aides to Mr. Paterson.
The woman’s lawyer asked that she not be identified by name because she feared retaliation, in part because she works at a public hospital.
The alleged assault happened shortly before 8 p.m. on Halloween in the apartment she had shared with Mr. Johnson and her 13-year-old son for about four years, according to police records.
She told the police that Mr. Johnson, who is 6-foot-7, had choked her, stripped her of much of her clothing, smashed her against a mirrored dresser and taken two telephones from her to prevent her from calling for help, according to police records.
The woman was twice granted a temporary order of protection against Mr. Johnson, according to the proceedings in Family Court in the Bronx.
“I’m scared he’s going to come back,” she said, according to the proceedings, in which a court referee at the initial hearing noted bruises on the woman’s arm.
“I’m glad you’re doing this,” the woman told the referee, “because I thought it was going to be swept under the table because he’s like a government official, and I have problems even calling the police because the state troopers kept calling me and harassing me to drop the charges, and I wouldn’t.”
She added, “I’ve never been through this before.”
Two days later, the woman was back in Family Court, and the order of protection was kept in place. And she again asserted that she had been pressured by the State Police.
“The State Police contacted me because they didn’t want me to get an order of protection or press charges or anything,” she told the court.
The State Police superintendent, Harry J. Corbitt, said he was told of the episode within 24 hours after it occurred. He confirmed that a state police officer had met with the woman, even though the episode occurred in the jurisdiction of the New York Police Department. He said the visit was made only to tell the woman of her options, including seeking counseling.
We never pressured her, at least what I was advised; we never pressured her not to press charges,” said Mr. Corbitt, whom the governor appointed. “We just gave her options.”
He said that such an inquiry was customary for the department if an episode involved a high-profile person, and that it was done in the 24 hours afterward.
“It’s typical if it involves anything that might involve a media event; it doesn’t have to be a senior official to the governor,” Mr. Corbitt said. “It could be a politician or a high-profile physician, anything that might pique interest in the press, because it’s a special circumstance.”
The State Police perform a variety of functions, including patrolling the highways, counterterrorism, and narcotics and homicide investigations, but they do not have primary jurisdiction in New York City. The department also has a detail, or team, of about 200 officers who provide personal security for the governor and his family and officials traveling with them. These detail officers would have interacted frequently with Mr. Johnson.
It was a member of that detail who visited the woman. Mr. Corbitt, asked again if the woman had been pressured, said: “I’m not sure of her emotional state; I don’t know her. It just doesn’t make sense to me that we would do that.”
But Mr. Corbitt did allow that casual conversations may have occurred between the State Police and the woman that went further. “I’m sure that the person who spoke to her officially didn’t do that, and I can’t address any unofficial conversations because I have no way to,” he said. “If she had a conversation over coffee, perhaps somebody would have had that conversation, but if so I’m not aware of it.”
In his statement on Wednesday, Mr. Paterson said: “Serious questions have been raised about contact the State Police may have had with a private citizen who filed a complaint against a member of my staff. Any allegation of improper influence must be investigated thoroughly and completely.
“Superintendent Harry Corbitt has directed the State Police to conduct an internal investigation into this matter. I have full faith and trust in the integrity and ability of the State Police to conduct a thorough investigation.
“Because of the seriousness of these allegations, and the sensitive role of this staff member in my administration, I am asking the attorney general to investigate the matter to ensure in the public’s mind that a comprehensive and independent inquiry has been conducted. Pending the outcome of the investigation, I am suspending David Johnson without pay.”
Orders of protection are not considered in effect until they have been served on the person accused of the offense. The records in the case make clear that the woman, over the course of weeks, had become frustrated in her efforts to have Mr. Johnson served.
On Nov. 4, Judge Andrea Masley of Family Court asked the woman if she had served Mr. Johnson.
“No, ma’am, he refused to,” she said. “He avoided it.”
At a hearing on Dec. 17, the judge asked a lawyer for Mr. Johnson, William J. Madonna, if he would accept service of the protective order on behalf of his client. He refused. Mr. Madonna did not return several calls seeking comment.
The judge asked the woman if she wanted to proceed. “Yes, I do,” the woman said.
The judge then ordered that a new summons be issued and set the next court date for Feb. 8.
The records of that proceeding are brief. Mr. Madonna was present, but not Mr. Johnson. And the woman was not present.
“We were never served,” Mr. Madonna said, apparently referring to the court papers.
“The case is dismissed without prejudice,” Judge Masley said.
Mr. Johnson has had three known altercations with women, according to interviews with the women and the governor. Two of them involved the police, and one required the intervention of Mr. Paterson’s chief of staff at the time.
Last week, Mr. Paterson said there had never been a judicial finding that Mr. Johnson had been violent with women, and he characterized the Oct. 31 episode as a “bad breakup.” A spokesman for Mr. Paterson said last week that the governor had looked into the episode and that the complaint “had been withdrawn.”
The woman’s statement to the police, however, is a graphic account of a violent and menacing encounter in the apartment she shared with Mr. Johnson and her son.
According to the woman’s account, Mr. Johnson confronted her in their bedroom, choked her, tore her Halloween costume off, pushed her into the dresser and then continued to choke her with one hand.
In her account, she screamed for Mr. Johnson to stop and then screamed for the help of a friend who was visiting. The woman said Mr. Johnson first took one telephone from her to prevent her from calling the police, and then chased her into another room when she went to find a second phone.
Mr. Johnson then turned to the woman’s friend and told her to leave, “if you know what’s good for you,” according to the woman’s account.
Mr. Johnson was gone by the time the police arrived. The responding officers wrote up the encounter as second-degree harassment, a misdemeanor, and thus it was not referred to detectives for investigation.
A reporter for The Times visited the woman’s Bronx apartment on Feb. 6. She was not home, but the reporter had a brief telephone interview with her. At that time, she confirmed that the episode had occurred, but provided no details, and said she had not seen Mr. Johnson since Oct. 31.
Mr. Paterson, at a meeting with the editorial board of The Times on Feb. 8, said he was angry that a reporter had gone to the home of what he described as “an ex-girlfriend” of an aide. He suggested that the reporter’s real purpose had been to dig up damaging information about him.
The governor said he had met the woman only three or four times.
Mr. Paterson, who has championed the cause of battered women, then made extended remarks on the case of Hiram Monserrate, the former state senator who was convicted of misdemeanor assault against his companion and ousted from the Legislature. Mr. Paterson said he was offended that while the woman had been granted an order of protection against Mr. Monserrate, the senator’s aides had continued to have contact with her and assist her.
“The order of protection is designed to allow for independence of the victim,” he said. “This victim apparently had no independence.”
He said the conduct of the aides warranted a criminal investigation, perhaps for witness intimidation.
“There have got to be some issues or some questioning of this woman not on the witness stand about how she was handled,” the governor said. “Because that’s the whole essence of what domestic violence is. It’s control.”
One of Mr. Paterson’s earliest steps after becoming governor in March 2008 was insisting that the State Police end any meddling in political matters.
Mr. Paterson called on Mr. Cuomo to investigate the State Police, saying he believed there was a unit within the agency collecting information on public figures. He said such concerns led him to admit publicly, on his first full day in office, to having had extramarital affairs.
Mr. Cuomo’s report, issued in September 2009, did not find a rogue political unit per se but did find evidence of political interference by senior police officials, including an episode in which a police superintendent ordered changes to a domestic violence report involving a Republican congressman, John E. Sweeney, to make it less damaging. Mr. Paterson and his superintendent, Mr. Corbitt, had pledged to overhaul the agency.