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It has been called an oasis of legal analysis in the pressure cooker of policy and politics at the New York State Capitol. And although it has never been home to more than about a dozen lawyers at any given time, it ranks among the most prestigious “firms” in Albany, New York. For nearly 100 years — a surprisingly short period in some respects — the Office of Counsel to the Governor has played a pivotal and almost always behind-the-scenes role in the governance of New York State. Its list of alumni itself is impressive. Cuthbert W. Pound served under Governor Frank W. Higgins around the turn of the century, and went on to a career at the Court of Appeals, where he succeeded Benjamin N. Cardozo as Chief Judge. Charles D. Breitel, who later became Chief Judge, was once counsel to Governor Thomas E. Dewey, as was Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel who investigated the Iran Contra scandal. Richard D. Parsons, now president of Time Warner Inc., served under Governor Malcolm Wilson. Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown was formerly counsel to Governor Hugh L. Carey. Today, the office is run by a low-key, mild-mannered Fordham and Cornell graduate named James M. McGuire. McGuire, a former organized crime prosecutor with the New York County District Attorney’s Office, former deputy counsel to the State Commission on Government Integrity and former litigation associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is the second lawyer to serve as counsel to Governor Pataki. Governor Pataki’s first counsel, Michael C. Finnegan, moved on to JP Morgan Securities in 1997. McGuire said the confluence of law and politics is “endlessly and enduringly fascinating … You learn the process and influences that affect the creation and modification of laws.” Yet he clearly views his role as that of a legal counselor rather than a political advisor. “The Governor did not hire me for my political acumen,” McGuire said. “Yes, there is a political dimension to my role, but I see my role as providing the Governor with the best legal advice I can give him.” This spring, several counsel and assistant counsel formed an alumni association and held a reunion at the Union League Club on East 37th Street in Manhattan. Attendees spanned seven Governors, from Dewey through Pataki. “Everyone looks back on it, as I certainly do, as one of the great professional experiences of a legal career,” said Evan A. Davis, president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and a litigator at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in Manhattan. Davis spent five years as counsel to Governor Mario M. Cuomo. “A lot of the work is negotiation of legislative proposals,” Davis said. “It is a tough negotiating environment, and if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.” The office, as an official part of the executive department, is actually a fairly recent development, according to Scott N. Fein, a partner at Whiteman Osterman & Hanna in Albany and assistant counsel to Governors Carey and Cuomo. It was established in 1905, when Governor Higgins became the first executive to include a counsel as a member of his staff. “Every Governor probably had confidantes, but no lawyer was provided for,” Fein said. “You had Governors appointing secretaries, stenographers, military liaisons — but no lawyers.” For the next three decades, the counsel’s office consisted typically of one lawyer with unique access to the Governor. Governor Dewey expanded the office in the mid 1940s, but it was not until 1951 that the position was institutionalized under Executive Law. Since then, the office has grown moderately, from a handful of lawyers to a dozen, but with the attorneys always serving dual functions as counselors and advocates. “The office transcends one political party or another,” Davis said. “It brings a measure of independence, a measure of judgment on the merits, and is an important force in state government. You are right at ‘action central,’ and bring to bear the talent and perspective of a lawyer.” A WELL-CONNECTED FIRM Michael Whiteman, a name partner at Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, was recruited from Harvard Law School, where he spent a year working as a research assistant following his graduation, to serve on Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s staff. He spent nearly 12 years working in the administrations of Governors Rockefeller and Malcolm Wilson before returning to the private sector. Few, if any, other lawyers remained in the counsel’s office as long. “Working around Nelson Rockefeller, I can’t think of a more exciting, challenging environment,” Whiteman said. “He was the ultimate Type-A personality, going all the time, energetic, full of ideas, full of questions. He was a person who always asked questions, always challenged people, was interested in your ideas and what you had to say — if you had something to say. If you didn’t have anything to say … well, that was another story.” After leaving government, Whiteman formed a law firm with Melvin H. Osterman, who had served as assistant counsel to Governor Rockefeller in the early 1960s, and John Hanna Jr., who had been counsel to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations and held other high-ranking positions during the administrations of Governors Rockefeller and Wilson. With Fein, the firm has partners who have worked intimately with four Governors — Republican Governors Rockefeller and Wilson and Democratic Governors Carey and Cuomo — and that institutional knowledge is an obvious benefit to a legal enterprise that focuses on the interplay between public and private. “We all around here pride ourselves on having an understanding of how government works and what the opportunities are to take advantage of the services and help that government provides,” Whiteman said. “Sometimes, we have had problems where it seemed to us that the legislation on the books was what was standing between a client and a solution to the problem, so we tried to address not only the private interests of a client, but the public interest so that a change could be justified — and then we went after the changes.” EXPERIENCED LOBBYISTS In terms of billings, the firm is one of the top 10 lobbyists in Albany. Its clients include the New York Stock Exchange, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Hertz Corporation and several other businesses and organizations that paid the firm more than $1.1 million last year for its lobbying efforts. Whiteman said the experience of working in the Capitol is invaluable. “You learn to learn quickly, to make judgments, to make your mistakes and move on,” Whiteman said. “You learn a lot of different lawyering skills that many lawyers don’t have an opportunity to experience early in their career — relating to clients in a different way, having more work and responsibility thrown at you more quickly, and also dealing with the whole governmental, legislative process and seeing that as a means to ends, not only on behalf of the general public but individual sectors or groups that have a problem.” The Organization of Counsel and Assistant Counsel to the Governor, Fein said, offers older alumni “an opportunity to reminisce and pretend we are 28 again.” It provides younger veterans with an opportunity to network. And, Fein said, it tends to bring the history and importance of the office back into its proper perspective. “At times, it seems just like a job, a very good job, but a job,” Fein said. “You can forget that you are the fabric of an institution. People from the outside perceive this maelstrom of forces that come together and produce legislation. In the midst of all this is this insular part of the Governor’s Office that provides an assurance that fundamental legal requirements are met.”

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