ALBANY, N.Y. – Gov. David Paterson could face a criminal charge for what a special counsel called inaccurate and misleading testimony on tickets he secured last year from the New York Yankees for the opening game of the World Series.
The state's former chief judge, acting as the special counsel, has asked a district attorney to consider a perjury investigation. That doesn't necessarily mean that Paterson, who rose to office in 2008 when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal, will ever be charged, though.
Former prosecutors say perjury is a notoriously difficult charge to prove, if it's pursued at all.
"If everyone in that Capitol who lies is going to be charged with perjury, the district attorney better hire a lot more prosecutors," said David Grandeau, former head of the state's lobbying commission and a widely respected investigator of misconduct in a capital noted for it.
In a report Thursday, former state Chief Judge Judith Kaye noted four of five of Paterson's tickets to the World Series opening game between the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies were paid for shortly afterward, following a press inquiry from the New York Post newspaper.
Kaye said there's a question whether the Democratic governor gave "intentionally false testimony" to the state Commission on Public Integrity about having written an $850 check in advance for two tickets.
However, Kaye said the perjury issue was "clouded" by the way Paterson's testimony was given, with the entries read aloud to the legally blind governor. If Paterson had personally examined the check used to pay for two tickets, which was not in his handwriting, that "would have been obvious to the governor," she said.
Paterson's private attorney, Theodore Wells Jr., said Paterson didn't lie, and he noted Kaye's report doesn't recommend bringing charges or conclude Paterson intended to give false testimony.
"We are therefore hopeful that (Albany County District Attorney David) Soares will ultimately conclude that no criminal charges are warranted," he said.
Paterson eventually paid for the tickets, but the question is whether he had always planned to and whether testimony about them was truthful.
Former Albany County prosecutor Paul DerOhannesian II, a defense attorney not involved in the Paterson case, called perjury "a tough charge." But he added that "certainly politicians and celebrities are more susceptible to these charges."
He noted that a jury was deadlocked on all but one of 23 charges in the corruption case against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a charge of lying to the FBI. But he also said the Albany County district attorney, a Democrat, will have great discretion to decide whether there's a basis for pursuing perjury against the governor, whose term ends Dec. 31, and whether it's in the public's best interest.
In Paterson's case, DerOhannesian said "there certainly is a basis ... many individuals get charged with less."
Grandeau said getting the baseball tickets probably didn't violate state law because Paterson was acting as part of his official duties. But he said the stories that followed from the governor's chamber are most troubling.
"So if the governor did nothing wrong, deal with the public fallout of the governor taking free Yankees tickets," Grandeau said.
He noted, however, that a perjury case would be complicated because it hinges on which check the legally blind governor was shown, what he had in his hand and what he had filled out.
Publicly handling the fallout was Paterson's communications director, Peter Kauffmann, who resigned shortly after, saying he could not "in good conscience" stay. He didn't respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The state Commission on Public Integrity staff recommended last week that Paterson be fined more than $90,000 in civil penalties for soliciting and accepting the tickets in violation of ethics law.
The Albany DA is separately reviewing the possible criminal case. Spokeswoman Heather Orth had no comment.
Kaye's investigators also found "two apparently backdated checks and an apparently backdated cover letter" sent to the Yankees to pay for tickets but concluded that does not warrant consideration of criminal charges. The evidence indicated the letter and checks were written by Paterson aide and friend David Johnson, who declined to cooperate with investigators.
Paterson had told commission lawyers that he had staff call to request tickets and did not pay for his own.
"This was the first game of the World Series," Paterson said. "It's always a national event, like the Academy Awards or, you know, governor's state address or something like that."
Yankees spokeswoman Alice McGillan said that the report is clear and that "we fully cooperated with them and we're in compliance with the law."
Paterson abandoned his bid for a full term shortly after this investigation began, saying he couldn't let the probe during a campaign distract him from the state's fiscal crisis.
Paterson has escaped calls for his resignation over rumors of sex and drug escapades that were never proved and over his role and that of state police in a domestic violence case involving one of his longtime top aides.
Associated Press writer Michael Virtanen contributed to this report.