ALBANY, N.Y. – Jeanine Pirro's admission she is under federal investigation for planning to secretly record her husband's conversations is another crippling blow to her campaign for state attorney general but may end up rallying some to her defense.
A defiant Pirro said she is determined to stay in the race and will seek a federal investigation into the leak of sealed court documents regarding her discussions with disgraced former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik about taping her husband Albert Pirro to get information about an affair she suspected he was having.
"Ladies and gentlemen, that is a felony. That is the only felony that has occurred in this situation — the leaking of sealed court documents," Pirro told the New York Hispanic Clergy Association in New York City.
Pirro said she would contact U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez requesting that a special prosecutor be assigned to find the leak and to handle her case. And she said she would seek to have Assistant U.S. Attorney Elliott Jacobson removed from the case. Jacobson successfully prosecuted her husband on tax evasion charges seven years ago and Pirro has called the taping investigation a partisan witch hunt.
In a letter to Gonzalez, Pirro said Jacobson and her Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo, had served together in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office in 1984 and 1985.
Cuomo's campaign spokeswoman Wendy Katz said that the former federal housing secretary had "never heard of" Jacobson before Wednesday.
"Ms. Pirro can refer any questions to the Republican Westchester District Attorney, the Republican U.S. attorney and the Republican head of the FBI investigating this matter," Katz said.
Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said they had not yet received any correspondence from Pirro.
According to records supplied by the Westchester County Board of Elections, there is only one Elliott Jacobson registered in Scarsdale. He registered as a Democrat. The U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York declined comment.
There was some immediate fallout that cast doubt on her continued viability as a candidate. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani canceled plans for an Oct. 3 fundraiser to help Pirro.
Opinion was split — largely along party lines — on what impact the incident would have on Pirro's campaign.
"I don't think it will be damaging at all," said a former Republican congressman, Guy Molinari of Staten Island. "In a perverse way it's going to help her. The question is will people throughout the state feel as I do, that they are after her? It could boomerang and give her a lot of exposure to voters who may not have heard about her."
Asked if she thought Cuomo, her Democratic opponent, was involved in the leak, Pirro said, "What I can tell you is this: We're going to find out."
State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long said that while the incident may cause Pirro some problems, it could also cast her in the same sympathetic light as Sen. Hillary Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
"Clearly Jeanine is a victim like Hillary was," Long said. "It appears she is a victim of her husband's infidelities. Voters rallied to Hillary Clinton not because of her philosophy" but because they sympathized with her.
"Very much she's still a viable candidate," he said. "This is a bump in the road."
Marcia Pappas, president of the New York state chapter of the National Organization for Women, said her group supports Pirro "completely for fighting back on this intrusion."
"It's absolutely horrendous the government would intrude on anyone's life in this way," she said. "They are targeting her because she is a woman. If anyone believes in the right to privacy, they should be enraged by the behavior by our government."
Ryan Moses, executive director of the state Republican Party, said there are no plans to try to replace Pirro on the ticket. There are limits to how a candidate for statewide office can get off the ballot at this late date — death, moving out of state or accepting a nomination for another office such as a state judgeship.
However, Lee Miringoff, head of Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion, said the incident could be the last blow to a campaign that has already had a number of missteps.
"It's a criminal investigation and she's running for attorney general," the independent pollster said. "Given there have been a lot of clouds around her candidacy already, I can't imagine this will be beneficial."
Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic consultant, said he also failed to see any bright side for Pirro.
"It doesn't make sense that the chief law enforcement officer of New York would be under investigation by the FBI," Sheinkopf said. "New York voters are going to have a very difficult time pulling the lever."
Asked during a stop in Yonkers if Pirro should quit the attorney general race or if his support for her was wavering, Republican Gov. George Pataki said, "No, not at all. This is a dispute between a husband and wife."
Pataki called Pirro "the best qualified candidate" for the post, but declined to say if the latest developments damaged her as a candidate. "I'll leave that to the political consultants," Pataki said.