02/17/2006 12:00AM

Spitzer's latest 'scandal' takes a hit

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NEW YORK - Remember the overweight jockey "scandal" that New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer so proudly announced last September? At the time, the story seemed to have more holes and stench than an old piece of Swiss cheese, and now it looks even less appetizing in the light of allegations of impropriety from an outspoken upstate grandmother who sat on the grand jury.

The Albany Times-Union reported Friday that 62-year-old Deanna Buckman, of Mechanicville, N.Y., blasted the investigation in a Feb. 8 letter to Spitzer's office, accusing it of "wasting taxpayers' money, prosecutorial abuses, and shameful politics." The newspaper said Buckman thinks prosecutors misled jurors by suggesting that the investigation was about "medical consequences and the pressure on jockeys to hold down low weights," and that she now believes it was instead a "vendetta" against Gov. George Pataki, whom Spitzer hopes to succeed later this year.

The "fat jockeys" story, as it was quickly called on televised and tabloid news, always had a ring of Keystone Kops incompetence about it. The 291-count indictment of two New York Racing Association officials who promptly lost their jobs, Braulio Baeza and Mario Sclafani, alleged that riders routinely rode "seven to 15 pounds" above their assigned weights. This preposterously large number suggested that investigators did not understand the intricacies of what equipment is included in an announced weight. The crimebusters produced hidden video purporting to show weigh-in and weigh-out discrepancies without any apparent knowledge that such differences are common and often with good reason.

Spitzer announced the indictments last Sept. 21, putting out a press release headlined "Track Officials Indicted for Fraud, Conspiracy, Race Tampering," an overblown summary not supported by either the investigation or the indictments. That didn't stop a chorus of politicians from praising Spitzer's latest apparent triumph. State Comptroller Alan Hevesi said, "I want to commend Attorney General Spitzer and [State Police] Superintendent Bennett on successfully ferreting out more corrupt activity at NYRA's racetracks."

Buckman's charges are further cracks in Spitzer's white-knight armor, which already has been dented by other allegations of overzealous prosecutions and a low conviction rate on other ballyhooed scandals. Once unopposed within his party and considered a 1-10 shot to move to the governor's mansion next year, Spitzer has now attracted a formidable primary rival in Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, who was expected to announce his official candidacy this weekend.

NYRA may have gotten a raw deal in this case but is far from blameless. At least one former official, a horse owner annoyed about possible weight irregularities on a smaller scale than the indictments eventually alleged, first brought the matter to investigators. When NYRA brought in a new management team in late 2004, just before State Police raided the tracks' jockeys' rooms and seized records, it neglected to tell the new executives about the ongoing investigation, leaving them to profess ignorance and bafflement on the day of the raid. Two days later, NYRA trustees said they had been aware of the matter for months.

Involving prosecutors in what should have been internal housekeeping was typical of the reign of fear that paralyzed NYRA during its lengthy deferred-prosecution arrangement for an earlier Spitzer crusade, the molehill of mutuel clerks fudging their tax returns that led to more sensational press conferences and put a 69-year-old retired track official in prison for four months. That entire case spent millions of taxpayer dollars while costing the state hundreds of millions more by delaying the construction of the Aqueduct racino for at least two years.

Similarly, nothing positive has come out of the weight case. Whether or not prosecutors misled jurors by pretending this case was about helping malnourished athletes, no one in racing or government has taken any next steps, such as initiating a serious discussion about revising the antiquated scale of weights or clarifying what total weights horses really do carry for those who believe the information is important.

As for Buckman, a retired administrative assistant who runs a volunteer rescue agency for German shepherds, no one's giving her a medal for whistleblowing. Her letter to prosecutors was turned over to a Saratoga County judge, who has ordered her to appear in court Feb. 23 for possibly violating her oath as a grand juror by discussing the case. At least she will probably get off with a warning, which is better than Baeza, Sclafani, NYRA, the public, or any struggling jockeys have made out.