John E. Sweeney

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John E. Sweeney
John e sweeney.jpg
Member of the
United States House of Representatives
from New York
In office
January 3, 1999 – January 3, 2007
Preceded byGerald Solomon
Succeeded byKirsten Gillibrand
Constituency22nd district (1999–2003)
20th district (2003–2007)
Commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor
In office
January 17, 1995 – June 11, 1997
GovernorGeorge Pataki
Preceded byJohn F. Hudacs
Succeeded byJames T. Dillon
Personal details
John Edward Sweeney

(1955-08-09) August 9, 1955 (age 64)
Troy, New York, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Betty Sweeney
Gaia Sweeney
Erin Sweeney
ResidenceClifton Park, New York, U.S.
EducationSage College (BA)
Western New England School of Law (JD)

John Edward Sweeney[1] (born August 9, 1955) is an American politician from the U.S. state of New York. A Republican, he represented New York's 20th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives from January 1999 to January 2007.[2] He was dubbed "Congressman Kick-Ass" by President George W. Bush for his take-no-prisoners style. Before being defeated for reelection in November 2006 by Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, he was considered a strong candidate for statewide office.


Early life and education[edit]

Sweeney was born in Troy, New York and graduated from Lansingburgh High School in 1973. He received an associate degree from Hudson Valley Community College in 1978 and a bachelor's degree in Political Science and Criminal Justice from the Sage College of Albany in 1981. In 1991, he received a J.D. from Western New England College School of Law.

After the Bush-Gore 2000 re-count in Florida, in which Sweeney played a legendary role, Toby Eglund wrote:

"Sweeney ... embodies that embarrassment of the Left: the rightward drift of America's white working class males. The son of a shirt factory worker active in the Amalgamated Shirt Cutters Union, and a sometime resident of a housing project, Sweeney grew up in the old, gritty industrial city of Troy, New York. He put himself through law school, and toiled as a minor county bureaucrat until, one day, he was discovered by Republican State Chairman William Powers who made him executive director of the New York state GOP in 1992." [3]

Political career[edit]

Sweeney was "Rensselaer County's one-time STOP-DWI coordinator."[4]

He was the Executive Director & Chief Counsel of the New York Republican Party from 1992 to 1995, a period of tremendous success for the state GOP. During Sweeney's tenure at state Republican headquarters, Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor of New York City (the first Republican to win the mayor's office in 28 years) and George Pataki was elected governor (the first Republican to win the Governor's Mansion in 20 years) and Republicans made gains in both houses of the state legislature and at the local level. Sweeney was Governor Pataki's first Commissioner of the State Department of Labor, from 1995 to 1997, then he moved to Governor Pataki's inner-circle staff as Deputy Secretary to the Governor, from 1997 until he resigned to run for Congress.

New York State's Secretary of Labor[edit]

As Governor George Pataki's Commissioner of Labor, Sweeney was the point-man on successful efforts to reform the Empire State's Workers' Compensation laws. Before the reforms, enacted in 1996, New York's workers' comp system had long been considered one of the most costly in the nation—57 percent higher than the national average, 53 percent higher than neighboring Massachusetts, 59 percent than neighboring Connecticut and 85 percent higher than neighboring New Jersey.[5]

New York's "landmark" workers' comp reforms created the Office of Workers' Compensation Fraud, an Inspector General, and a workers' compensation fraud unit at the State Insurance Department and elevated workers' comp fraud from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by fines, restitution and incarceration.[6]

Congressional career[edit]

Election to the U.S. House of Representatives[edit]

Prior to the 1998 election, Sweeney moved from Cohoes to Speigletown, to run for the seat in the district of Republican Representative Gerald B. H. Solomon who was retiring.[7] Sweeney was born, raised and lived most of his life in Solomon's Congressional District. Solomon endorsed and campaigned for Sweeney, as did every Republican elected official and organization in the district.

Sweeney was elected to the US House in 1998, winning with 55 percent of the vote over Democratic challenger Jean Bordewich,[8] despite the fact that President Bill Clinton carried the district over U.S. Senator Bob Dole in 1996 by a 46 percent to 41 percent margin.[9]


In 2000, Sweeney defeated Democrat Kenneth McCallion, receiving 68 percent of the vote.

In 2002, he defeated Frank Stoppenbach, getting 73 percent of the vote.

In 2004, he defeated Doris F. Kelly, receiving 66 percent of the vote.

Federal Aid for New York City After 9/11[edit]

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, Sweeney and U.S. Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Syracuse) led the effort in the House of Representatives to send $20 billion in emergency federal aid to New York City and both crossed party lines to vote with Democrats on a key funding issue in the Appropriations Committee.[10]

"Is it moving along as expeditiously as we hoped? No," Sweeney told the New York Times on December 30, 2002.[11] "... I think the pressure needs to be constant from Congress. I'm not ready to say that I am absolutely frustrated, but I think the next six months are going to be rather critical."

Political positions[edit]

He opposed NAFTA and enjoyed some support from organized labor. The Civil Service Employees Union, always powerful in the suburbs surrounding Albany, the Empire State's capital, endorsed him and the Teamsters Union liked him.[3]

In 2006, Sweeney was classified as a libertarian conservative by the non-partisan group[12] But in 2006, he attempted to distance himself from his record of supporting the Bush Administration,[13] even though he voted in support of the positions of the Christian Coalition 69 percent of the time.

Sweeney opposed gun control. He voted for prayer in public schools on numerous occasions and the National Education Association gives him an 18% approval rating.[12]

Sweeney sponsored legislation that would create mandatory drug testing for all federal employees, and ban all research pertaining to legalization of drugs.[14] He consistently voted to use federal agents to arrest, prosecute, and imprison medical marijuana patients in states where voters or legislators have extended protections to patients.[15]

Sweeney supported human embryonic stem cell research and voted to allow federal funding for international abortion groups, but has also voted against similar funding at home.[16]

Sweeney voted for making it a federal crime to transport minors across state lines for an abortion. His record is 90% anti-abortion.[12]

He opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment, but supported a ban on adoptions by gays or other individuals who are not related by blood or marriage (HR 2587).

On economic matters, Sweeney supported free trade and tax cuts, as well as social security privatization.

Sweeney opposed environmental protections and was given a "D" grade by EANY for opposing GE dredging of PCB aka Polychlorinated biphenyl from the Hudson River.[12][17]

In 2001, Sweeney voted against a bill that would require increasing average fuel efficiency standards and offer incentives for alternative fuel vehicles. (Bill HR 4).

Sweeney received an "F" on the liberal Drum Major Institute's 2005 Congressional Scorecard on middle class issues.

Campaign contributions[edit]

According to EMILY's List, Sweeney has taken more campaign contributions from special interests than any other of New York's 29 Representatives[18] and was also the seventh largest recipient of contributions from lobbyists out of all 435 House representatives in the 2006 election cycle.[19]

2006 re-election campaign loss[edit]

In August 2006, Sweeney's allies filed successfully against signatures on Libertarian opponent Eric Sundwall's ballot petitions, resulting in Sundwall's name being removed from the general election ballot. However, Sweeney still lost the general election on November 7, 2006, to Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand with 47% of the vote.

Back in politics[edit]

Recently, Sweeney returned to the political process both locally and nationally as an election and compliance lawyer and strategist.

In 2012, Sweeney worked during the primary season for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign.

In 2016, Sweeney was hired in April 2016 by Donald Trump's campaign to help organize New York during the primary and do compliance work.[20] Trump's overwhelming victory in New York—the real estate mogul won 89 of the Empire State's 95 delegates to the Republican National Convention—put the upstart campaign on the path towards the GOP nomination.[21]

After Trump's election day victory, Sweeney, as the campaign's deputy counsel, led the effort on the ground in Wisconsin and Michigan to protect the campaign's advantage in those two key swing states during the recounts initiated by Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, and supported by Hillary Clinton's campaign.[22]

On December 15, 2016, it was reported that Sweeney was appointed to the executive committee on President-Elect Trump's transition team, placing the former congressman at the center of the important personnel decision-making process.[23] Sweeney's good work on the transition team was rewarded with elevation to the exclusive four-member "Tiger Team," a group tasked with conducting interviews with candidates for ambassador posts around the world and high-level positions in federal departments and agencies.[24][25]


In September 2006, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released its second annual report on members of Congress with ethics issues, titled "Beyond DeLay: The 20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress (and five to watch)". Sweeney was one of the 20. The organization said "His ethics issues stem from a ski trip to New York, the exchange of legislative assistance for campaign contributions and the hiring of his wife as a campaign fundraiser."[26]

Role in Florida recount in 2000[edit]

During the 2000 election, Sweeney allegedly helped earn his nickname from President Bush, "Congressman Kick-Ass," by organizing the so-called Brooks Brothers riot that disrupted the Florida elections commissioners.[27] He was said to have led the charge on the third recount in Miami, flying in GOP operatives and instructing them to "shut it down!" by raising a clamor and pounding on the election commission's doors.[28] Sweeney used the words "thugs" to describe the Florida officials involved in the recount. He defended his actions in connection with the incident as "completely and absolutely legitimate" and declared that his intent was only to stop the canvassing board from withdrawing its activities from public view.[29]

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, in his book "Winning Right," described Sweeney's important contribution to the Bush campaign's Florida re-count effort:

"The night before the Miami-Dade recount began, about a dozen Bush campaign operatives went to Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant in South Beach, where we were joined by the well-respected U.S. Representative John Sweeney of New York.

"Sweeney had been executive director of the New York Republican Party. He's one of the few members of Congress who is at his core a political operative himself. New York politics is not played as a finesse sport, and Sweeney is the kind of guy who could really check a player into the boards. I was glad he was there.

"I laid out a game plan for the next day. We would open up with a press conference at eight-thirty before the count commenced, putting down markers for what constituted a fair process. At around 2:00 pm we would come back out for another briefing for the cameras, providing clips for the evening news packages assessing how the process was going and how it was measuring up against the yardstick we established in the morning. At 5:30 pm we would do a recap, with the message we would want to be in the final wire wrap-up and in the morning papers. We could ratchet up from morning to afternoon and from afternoon to evening, if we needed to.

"'I know what I'm going to say tomorrow morning,' Sweeney said while we were breaking open Alaskan King Crab legs. 'I'm going to say that Joseph Stalin said, 'It doesn't matter who casts the votes, it only matters who counts the votes.' And these people are worse than Stalin.'

"Everyone loved the quotation. In a city with a population of Cuban-Americans with a great deal of passion about Fidel Castro's Stalinist dictatorship of their native island, it would be powerful, but I thought it bordered on incendiary.

"'That's a great quote, John,' I said, not wanting to dampen his enthusiasm. 'But I'm a little worried that if we open up with Stalin at eight-thirty in the morning, it's going to be hard to ratchet up at two o'clock.'

"Sweeney smiled. He has a classic, big grin like the cat that just ate the canary. 'You Bushies are a bunch of wimps,' he said (and I'm paraphrasing).

"He ended up holding the Stalin quotation until the 5:30 pm wrap-up." [30]

Wife as fundraiser[edit]

On April 11, 2003, Sweeney began paying a company called Creative Consulting for fund-raising. The company had been founded a day earlier by Gaia "Gayle" Ford. Between April 2003 and December 2003, Sweeney's campaign paid $42,570 to the firm. Sweeney proposed to Ford in September 2003[31] and married her in 2004.

Sweeney spokeswoman Melissa Carlson said the congressman considers his wife "his best representative in the district when he's fund-raising." She said Ford, who had no previous fund-raising experience, receives a 10 percent commission on whatever she raises. Between January 2005 and April 2006, Ford was paid $30,879. Sweeney also has had a fundraising consultant on monthly retainer since June 2004, who is paid $8,583 a month.

Ford also works for Powers & Company, the lobbying firm of former state GOP Chairman William Powers, Sweeney's longtime political ally and onetime boss.[32]

Ski Trips[edit]

The Winter Challenge was started in 1998 by Sweeney's House predecessor, Gerald Solomon, with the declared purpose of showcasing the Olympic facilities at Lake Placid, New York to congressmen and their staffers in hopes of getting federal funds; Sweeney has hosted the annual event since 1999.

In January 2006, Sweeney, his wife, and about 60 other people spent a four-day weekend at the facilities, competing against each other in skating, downhill skiing and bobsledding events. The group included Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX), a close friend of Sweeney[33] and his wife; and aides to U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), Representative Randy Kuhl (R-NY), and Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI).[34][35] The weekend cost the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) $27,500, plus in-kind services it provided and the costs of operating the Olympic venues for the competition (exact figures for the latter two were unavailable).[36] ORDA is a part of the New York State government.[37]

In the fall of 2005, the House ethics panel told Sweeney in a letter that he should be careful to let the Olympics groups invite guests to avoid the appearance of an endorsement by the House.[34] "Once the ORDA and the U.S. Olympic Committee — without your involvement — have issued an initial invitation to House members and staff to take part in the trip, you may send a follow-up to that invitation", the ethics panel, known formally as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, wrote to Sweeney.[37]

Invitations to the event officially come from ORDA and the U.S. Olympic Committee, a nonprofit group chartered by Congress. ORDA says the impetus for the event comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The U.S. Olympic Committee said it's really Sweeney's event.[34] Three committees of the NY State Assembly have launched investigations of the Challenge, focusing on whether public money was put to good use. ORDA President Ted Blazer, speaking at one such hearing, said Sweeney's office helped assemble lists of possible invitees to the event.[37]

Documents show that at least eight members of Congress, all Republicans, were also invited to attend the 2006 event but declined.[37]

The official invitation for the event read: "While this trip has proven itself to be an enjoyable one for delegation members in the past, it is, nevertheless, an official trip authorized by the House and Senate Ethics Committees . . . intended to provide an opportunity for Members of Congress and Congressional staff to inspect and evaluate the manner in which federal funds have been used to strengthen the area's tourism industry."[34]

Despite the House ethics rule requiring all travel paid by others to relate to members' official duties, and the ethic panel's letter that said that recreational activities must be "merely incidental to the trip", Sweeney has said that the panel said "it's perfectly appropriate for me to promote the event."[37]

The group attending the event included at least 15 registered lobbyists, including Pete Card, a former staffer of Sweeney's and the brother of former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and Lisi Kaufman, a lobbyist for United Technologies Corporation, the sister of Andrew and Pete.[34][35][38] In his request to the House ethics committee, Sweeney did not ask about lobbyists.[39] A spokesman for ORDA said he does not know why the lobbyists were invited.[35]

Seven of the lobbyists had contributed a total of $12,400 to Sweeney's campaign in 2005.[40]

Attendance at college fraternity party[edit]

In April 2006, news outlets reported that Sweeney had attended a party at Union College's Alpha Delta Phi house in Schenectady, was drinking after one o'clock in the morning, and was visibly intoxicated.[41] Sweeney's spokeswoman responded that Sweeney spoke to students for 20 to 30 minutes, posed for photos, and departed, and that he was not drinking during the event.[42]

Disputed domestic violence report[edit]

On October 31, 2006, the Albany Times Union reported that it had obtained a document stating that "[t]he wife of U.S. Rep. John Sweeney called police last December to complain her husband was allegedly 'knocking her around' during a late-night argument at the couple's home." The responding officers filed a domestic incident report. The report states that Sweeney allegedly grabbed his wife "by the neck" and pushed her around the house.[43]

On November 2, 2006, the Albany Times Union reported that on October 31, John and Gaia Sweeney said they would give the New York State Police permission to release a report about the incident. They said that the report was inaccurate but have not disputed its contents.[44] On November 17, 2006, the Times Union reported that there were two versions of the domestic violence report that had been prepared by the State Police, one that was sent to them, doctored and lacking details, and the original report.[45]

On July 22, 2007, the Albany Times Union reported that Gaia Sweeney, who was contesting a divorce action by her husband, said that he was often verbally abusive and at times physically abused her during their marriage. She also said that a statement she made on the eve of last fall's election, denying marital abuse, was "coerced". Sweeney denied that he had been abusive; he had recently obtained a judicial order of protection against his wife.[46]

According to the Times-Union (July 22, 2007):

"Sweeney's first wife, Betty Sweeney, of Schaghticoke, stood up for her former husband in a telephone interview ...

"'I've known (John) all these years and I never observed any kind of behavior like that towards me or anybody else,' said Betty Sweeney, who had three children with him." [46]

The State Police captain who wrongfully leaked the disputed Sweeney domestic violence report was demoted weeks after the November 2006 election.[47]

November 2007 DWI[edit]

Sweeney was charged with aggravated DWI (driving while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs) when he was arrested by New York State Police at 1:19 a.m. on November 11, 2007. The arrest occurred on the Adirondack Northway, a stretch of Interstate 87 that runs between Albany and Lacolle, Quebec, Canada. A law enforcement source said Sweeney's car had been swerving and that a 24-year-old woman was seated partially on his lap when spotted by a state trooper.[48] The police reported "he had a woman on his lap when he was pulled over."[4][49] Sweeney's blood alcohol content registered at .18 percent, more than double the legal limit.[49] Sweeney issued a statement later that day stating: "I regret the occurrence. I deeply apologize to my family and friends. I take full responsibility and I am hoping to work for a fair resolution."[48]

On November 14, 2007, Sweeney pleaded guilty to drunk driving after his attorney vocally and publicly denied he had even been drinking that evening. Sweeney paid a US$1,000 fine, but did not have to spend any time in jail. His license was suspended for six months and had to attend a victim impact panel for drunken drivers.[50]

April 2009 DWI[edit]

Early on the morning of April 5, 2009, Sweeney was pulled over by state police for speeding.[4] He refused a breathalyzer test ordered by the officer, and according to a newspaper report, "Sweeney allegedly told the officers he would not pass the sobriety test, adding he was in 'big trouble.'"[4] He was charged with felony DWI, since Sweeney has had a prior DWI conviction within the past 10 years.[4] On August 14, 2009, a grand jury indicted Sweeney on felony charges and he was sentenced on April 23 to 30 days of jail time.

As part of his punishment, Sweeney had to wear a device 24 hours a day, 7 days a week that detects alcohol. He performed 300 hours of community service in the form of pro bono legal work and pay a $1,000 fine, said Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne, who handled the case as a special prosecutor. Sweeney also served three years of probation.[51]

Ties to Allen Stanford[edit]

Sweeney was part of a group of lawmakers known as the Caribbean Caucus, sponsored by disgraced financier Allen Stanford. The group, formed to promote relations with Caribbean nations, took 11 trips to places like St. Croix, Montego Bay and Key Biscayne. The meetings, which included receptions with lobster, caviar and wine, were paid for by the Inter-American Economic Council, a non-profit funded by Stanford and totaled $311,307 in costs. Other members of the Caucus included convicted influence peddler Rep. Bob Ney and close Sweeney friend Rep. Pete Sessions. In 2004, Stanford hosted a wedding reception for Sweeney and wife at the Pavilion Restaurant, owned by Stanford. At the time, Sweeney told the Antigua Sun "If it wasn't for Allen, I certainly would not be here today."[52]

The Road to Recovery[edit]

In 2011, Sweeney told a reporter that he had decided to give up alcohol, and had had his last drink on April 6, 2009.[53]

"Losing a seat in Congress wasn't my biggest loss," Sweeney told the Times Union. "It was the loss of myself and the loss of everything that went with it, the harm and hurt I created for people around me who I love and love me. At the end of the day, in a very ironic way, it's what saved me. You decide to live or die. What made me want to live was my kids."[53]


For his work on Donald Trump's presidential campaign and his influence on the local political process, Sweeney was named as one of City & State's "50 Over 50" leaders making a substantial difference in politics and government.

Personal life[edit]

Sweeney has three adult children from his first marriage. He lives in Clifton Park, New York. He has two young children with his wife, Erin, and two step-children from her prior marriage.[54][55]

Sweeney's father was the leader of a shirt-cutter's union in Troy, NY.[56]

Community Service[edit]

Sweeney is on the following boards:

Vanderheyden Hall—which provides residential and community services to youth, adults and families with educational, developmental, behavioral, emotional, special needs or those suffering from abuse or neglect.

Albany Citizens Council on Alcoholism—a not-for-profit corporation committed to high quality in patient and residential treatment as well as education and prevention programming in the Capital District region.

New York State Bar Association Lawyer Assistance Program—provides educational and confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students and immediate family members who are affected by substance abuse, stress, depression or other mental health issues.

Hudson Mohawk Recovery Center—operates five New York State licensed alcohol and substance abuse treatment facilities, servicing those suffering from addiction issues.


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  28. ^ Michael Tomasky, "Pol Versus Pole" Archived June 14, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, New York Magazine, March 19, 2001
  29. ^ Timothy Noah, "Sweeney and the Siege of Miami", Slate Magazine, November 28, 2000
  30. ^ Ed Gillespie, "Winning Right," pp. 101-102
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  33. ^ "Judy Holland, On the Hill, the sound of silence: John Sweeney, still reeling from re-election loss to Kirsten Gillibrand, fails to show for votes" Archived January 9, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, Albany Times-Union, December 10, 2006
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  56. ^ James Dao, " Pataki Picks New Labor and Utility Chiefs", New York Times, January 7, 1995

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Gerald B. H. Solomon
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 22nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Maurice D. Hinchey
Preceded by
Benjamin A. Gilman
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from New York's 20th congressional district

Succeeded by
Kirsten Gillibrand