CAROL DeMARE Staff writer
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Friday, September 15, 2000

Sol Greenberg, one of the longest tenured district attorneys in the state and a political institution in Albany for decades, told his staff Thursday that he would step down from the post he has held for more than 25 years. He will retire effective Tuesday. The announcement of Greenberg's retirement came in a memo distributed to his staff. It's been rumored for several months that Greenberg would vacate the office, and as recently as last week when he called a staff meeting there was speculation he might inform his employees.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Lawrence P. Wiest will serve as acting district attorney until Gov. George Pataki decides whether to fill the vacancy, the memo stated.

The governor's appointee would serve only until Dec. 31. Under the Public Officers Law there has to be an election Nov. 7 for a full four-year term for district attorney. The new district attorney will be sworn in Jan. 1, 2001.

The timing of Greenberg's announcement avoids a potentially messy primary with hopefuls battling each other for the job. Instead, key decisions are in the hands of the Democratic and Republican organizations. Democrats have the edge in Albany County by a 2-to-1 ratio.

By making his resignation effective at 6 p.m. Sept. 19 -- Greenberg said he already hand-delivered the resignation letter to the governor's office -- it provides for an election Nov. 7. Had Greenberg resigned a day later, on Sept. 20, there would be no election until November 2001.

Greenberg's term expires Dec. 31, 2001. The 78-year-old Democrat took office on Jan. 1, 1975. The four-year term pays $131,400 annually.

The announcement touched off immediate speculation about his replacement. Several assistant prosecutors have eyed the post for years, including Paul A. Clyne, who earlier this year formed a fund-raising committee. If the governor chooses to fill the vacancy, it would come from within the district attorney's office, sources said. Greenberg said it wouldn't be appropriate to recommend a successor.

Greenberg and Robert Morgenthau, the 81-year-old Manhattan district attorney, took office at the same time, making them the longest tenured district attorneys in the state.

``You have mixed feelings,'' Greenberg said, referring to his decision. ``But as far as that goes, there comes a time when you have to make a decision. Both my wife and I enjoy relatively good health, and we want to spend more time with our children and grandchildren.''

``It's been a quick 25 years on a fantastic road,'' he said.

In the memo, he called his staff ``a loyal and talented group'' and had kind words for the assistant prosecutors, investigators and secretaries.

``This office has over many years been the stellar office in Northeastern New York and continues as such -- close support and cooperation is the reason,'' he said. He suggested there would be a smooth transition.

Greenberg, who will turn 79 on Nov. 6, made his final decision on Monday to retire. He said he has no job offers. ``I haven't decided what I want to do -- whether go into the private sector or public sector. But it would be a job with less pressure and stress and part-time.''

His long tenure has been filled with accolades including high-profile precedent-setting cases. But critics charge Greenberg of shying away from the prosecution of white-collar and state government-related cases and going easy on police officers. Greenberg claimed he had to work with the police so it would be a conflict to prosecute them, something better left to special prosecutors.

But Greenberg defends his record.

``From day one through August 2000, we have disposed of 14,277 felony cases,'' Greenberg said. There were thousands more in the misdemeanor city and town courts. He started in January 1975 with 16 full-time assistants and now has 32.

A case that stands out was the prosecution of serial killer Lemuel Smith, one of the most infamous murderers in state history.

His office also prosecuted the hostage-taker at the University at Albany in 1993 and George Wesley, who was convicted in 1992 of raping and killing a 79-year-old woman, a landmark case. It was the first time in the nation that DNA fingerprinting had been approved by a judge for use in trial. The decision by the late Albany County Judge Joseph Harris was upheld throughout the appeals process.

He was instrumental in getting a rape crisis unit started in Albany County, the second in the country, fulfilling a campaign promise. He formed a sex offense unit in his office and beefed up prosecutions of repeat drunken drivers.

But his record has been less impressive when it comes to going after trickier public corruption and other white collar cases, critics say.

``I think the significant question for any potential candidate for DA this November is do they intend to follow the policies and procedures of Sol Greenberg and refuse to look into allegations of white collar crimes, to refuse to look into allegations of political corruption, to refuse to look at allegations of improper lobbying practices; there are potentially millions of dollars being illegally spent in the capital of the state of New York,'' said political activist and Albany attorney Tom Keefe, chairman of the Robert F. Kennedy Democratic Club.

Keefe also expressed concern that the candidate could receive GOP endorsement and would be indebted to state Republicans.

The road to Greenberg's retirement was paved three years ago when he ran for his seventh-term in November 1997. He received not only his own Democratic Party's nomination but also the endorsement of the Albany County Republican Committee.

It was widely speculated at the time that Greenberg had cut a deal with the Republicans to step down at some point, allowing for the governor to fill the vacancy. There were rumors at the time indicating Greenberg would resign after serving a year of his new term. Instead, it came with one year left to his term.

``It looks like Sol is making good on a promise,'' Albany Assemblyman Jack McEneny said Thursday. ``It certainly gives credence to rumors that were around about three years ago of a back room deal for a cross-endorsement made at 315 State St,'' a reference to State Republican headquarters.

The lawmaker has been at odds with the district attorney and the Albany Police Department since the high profile prosecution of his daughter, Rachel McEneny, on a drunken-driving charge last year. She was stopped after her father's primary victory in September 1999. She was acquitted after a trial by a City Court jury.

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, who is reported to have helped broker the Greenberg resignation, did not return a call seeking comment.

Other political insiders speculated Jennings doesn't want a primary fight next September. This way, the winner in November serves for four years.

Albany County Clerk Thomas Clingan, head of the Democratic Party's Candidate Review Committee, said his group is ready to accept resumes until Sept. 25.

Jennings is said to support the 40-year-old Clyne for district attorney.

Clyne said of his boss, ``You could never work for a better guy. The Albany County DA's office under Sol Greenberg for 25 years has been a model. Every county in the state would like to put people away the way Sol Greenberg has.''

John Dorfman, an Albany attorney also interested in the post, said, ``I wish him the best in his retirement, but I think it's good that he stepped down at this time because I believe the office is in shambles,'' Dorfman said. ``There's change that has to be made and that change cannot come from within.''

Wiest called Greenberg, ``a larger-than-life guy. He's been a great boss as far as letting you do your job and exercising your own initiative. He always gave you free rein. I loved it.''

FACTS:WHERE TO APPLY Albany County Clerk Thomas Clingan, chairman of Candidate Review Committee of the Albany County Democratic Committee, said the group is accepting resumes for nomination for district attorney for the Nov. 7 election. Resumes may be dropped off at Democratic Headquarters on Colvin Avenue until noon on Sept. 25. I will miss his input and counsel on the state district attorney's executive council. I will miss him terribly. JAMES A. MURPHY III Saratoga County district attorney Sol has been a great district attorney for many years. He's been committed to the people of Albany his whole legal career and served them well. KENNETH R. BRUNO Rensselaer County district attorney For me, it's a very nostalgic moment, having watched the retirement of a man who is literally legendary. This is a public servant who defines integrity and decency. STEPHEN R. COFFEY defense attorney He is what I classify as a gentleman's gentleman and I'll miss seeing his face daily in the courthouse. JAMES L. CAMPBELL Albany County sheriff I think it's good that Sol's stepping down. That office needs a change. JOHN DORFMAN Albany lawyer, special prosecutor for Albany and Saratoga counties Sol Greenberg has had a long and distinguished career serving the people of Albany County, and we wish him the best. GOV. GEORGE PATAKI (statement through his office) This is the passing of an era. ... When I ran for district attorney in Schenectady in 1989 the district attorney's office in Albany was considered the gold standard for DA's offices in the region and I tried to do what I could to run an operation as good as Albany's. ROBERT CARNEY Schenectady County district attorney The guy has been a total supporter of law enforcement ... a tried and true supporter. Many nights when we would be working all through the night on a homicide, he would sit there patiently with no real participation, just in case we needed him. JOHN C. NIELSEN Albany police chief I'll miss him as a friend and a very good man, but I think he was wise in resigning and I think there's a lot of changes that have to be made in the district attorney's office to bring it back to the office it was when (Greenberg's longtime chief assistant) Dan Dwyer was alive. There are a lot of things that are broken that need to be fixed in the district attorney's office right now. THOMAS J. NEIDL Albany defense lawyer Sol Greenberg: Age: 78 Education: University at Albany, Albany Law School Elected: Jan. 1, 1975 Annual Salary: $131,400 Term: Four years