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On Libous

July 27, 2015

And just like that – the man is gone.

Convicted of a felony, Tom Libous is out of the state senate that he loved so much.

That he loved the senate was evident from the way he continued to serve even as he struggled with spreading cancer. In recent years, his appearance changed dramatically as he underwent various treatments. But he kept coming back. They actually wheeled him in for his last session.

Libous was always someone who fascinated us. He was a fixture in the senate, a respected guy. At his peak, he was probably the best political mind the Republicans had. But think about it – he was different. He was a Lebanese guy in a conference of white establishment types.  Yeah, the conference had people with ethnic backgrounds – Italian, Irish, Greek. But Libous was technically a person of color, though you never would have known it from his politics.

He was very conservative. He voted against same sex marriage. He always led efforts against abortion.  He spoke for “traditional values.” That said, he was friendly and engaging and respectful of everyone, and everyone seemed to like him.

How he was brought down is a story no one has really examined. Reporters covered the trial, but did so with detachment.  And now that he’s gone, reporters are on to different angles: What are the consequences of his departure for control of the Senate? What will happen next?

In this post, we want to revisit the case against him and simply note – with similar detachment – some aspects of this case were really unusual.

It started when the FBI showed up at Libous’ Capitol office unannounced one Monday morning five years ago. Libous was just arriving from “Binghampton.”

The agents were said to be quite cordial. They asked a few questions, took some handwritten notes and then departed. Libous went right to his preparations for the day’s legislative session.   Little did he know that what had just transpired in that 15-minute exchange would eventually bring him down.

Without an attorney present, Libous had said several times in response to questions: “I really don’t recall. I don’t remember exactly what happened. ”

The subsequent case against Libous was that he lied when he said that he didn’t remember.

Digression on memory: To a person in our group, we’re not that good at instant recall. We are much better having some time to reflect. In fact, we’ll do this little memory exercise that involves thinking of the context.  Ask us something about 1996. At first, we’ll draw a blank. And then we’ll remember that it was the year the Yanks won the World Series. It was Jeter’s first year.  And it was Pataki’s second year and Spitzer was AG and McCall Comptroller.  All the memories come back in a rush.

It’s all about context. It’s what gets you to remember, and it’s what sticks in your mind and influences you.

Context works in other ways, too. In this regard, the prosecution was absolutely brilliant in creating context. Around Libous’ simple “I don’t remember,” comment, they created an extraordinary narrative.

It was a narrative less about Libous than his son. But before we get to the portrayal of the son, there’s another relevant point. Prosecutors investigated Libous himself over a seven-year period. They had numerous lines of inquiry. They looked at his real estate dealings in Florida. They looked at his second home on a lake in the Southern Tier. And they poured over his campaign finance holdings and relationships to lobbyists.

They never turned up anything actionable in any of those areas, so they turned to his wife and his son. The review of the wife produced nothing, but the review of the son did.  He was found to have underreported his income by 20k over a three-year period. Normally, this offense would have been met with a directive by the IRS to repay what was owed, plus a penalty. But because Libous’ son is an attorney who should have known better, he’s going to jail.

More on the son: He wasn’t blessed with good looks. Nor is he said to have his father’s interpersonal skills. But Senate staffers who worked with Libous and knew the family well describe the son as a decent person. He was not spoiled, arrogant, abusive, drunk or anything else that might fit the description of yet another 30-something, son of a famous person ne’er do well. A little awkward, yes, but not a failure.  Again, he was a bar-admitted, practicing attorney.

But in court, Matt Libous became a detestable figure. He was portrayed as corrupt, greedy, lazy, and, most importantly, a cad. On this later point, it was said that he got drunk at an office party and hit on his boss’ wife who was in a leg cast at the time.

Digression on plot lines: We are avid aficionados of narrative.  And we have this theory – a well-constructed story always has a detail, seemingly extraneous, that works to establish credibility. The classic example is Spitzer keeping his knee-high socks on in bed with a hooker. Roger Stone has admitted he made that up, but it has really stuck.  Stone said: “It was perfect because it was so creepy.”

Indeed, it’s the creep factor that moves people more than anything else. And in the Libous case, it was hitting on the boss’ wife who was in a leg cast. From that point on, Matt Libous was a creep and Tom Libous was going down.

Again, with detachment, this is what prosecutors in high profile cases do. They work the jury. They pull at strings that influence jurors. And they did it very, very well here. They did it without wire taps, emails or anything other than the testimony of cooperating witnesses. Again, you really have to tip your hat to the prosecutors.

And yet, and yet – how weird it all was and is. What extraordinary effort they made to bring down Libous. Seven years worth of investigation. How bizarre the resolution. How conflated it all seemed with superseding indictments of Skelos and his truly cad-like son occurring at the same time.

It has been suggested to us by some smart people that this just isn’t the time for any Albany pol to have to appear before a jury. The mood of the public is just too ugly. This jury, in fact, took three hours to decide the case. They were home for dinner.

Now Libous is bound for jail for saying that he didn’t remember when he supposedly did.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Delmartian permalink
    July 27, 2015 1:37 PM

    Not to quibble, but Spitzer didn’t take office for his 1st term until 1999. Carry on.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    July 28, 2015 5:32 PM

    Re previous comment: You NT2 people knew that Spitzer didn’t take office until 99. But you got confused about the 94 and 98 cycles. Because you knew it, and said something different, you technically lied. It’s a good thing Delmartian isn’t an FBI agent or you’d be going to jail.

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