Betrayal of the Public Trust

Election Day is 34 days away, and people are slowly beginning to pay attention to the contests. We do not endorse candidates or predict the outcome of elections. We do make observations as to what is happening.

The lead story in today's Times, "Hevese Is Poised to Plead Guilty in Pension Case," indicates a possible conclusion to an investigation which has been under way for over three years. We believe Hevesi is guilty of much of what he has been accused of, even though it is unclear just what crimes, if any, he has admitted. However, we do find the timing of the proposed plea bargain to be less than perfect.

On the one hand, the Attorney General could be wrapping up matters, clearing the docket before he leaves office in December. On the other hand, as the Times reported this morning on page 1:

The deal comes as Mr. Cuomo, the Democratic nominee for governor, is seeking to burnish his credentials as a reformer who can clean up state government, and his office has been in plea negotiations with Mr. Hevesi's lawyer.

It is true that some damaging evidence came to light relatively late in the protracted investigation. The Times' story gets to the heart of this change in its sixth paragraph:

Last December, a California money manager, Elliott Broidy, admitted paying nearly $1 million in gifts in exchange for a $250 million investment from the pension fund. Mr. Broidy, according to the attorney general's office, paid at least $75,000 to send a "very high-ranking" official in the comptroller's office and the official's relatives on five trips to Israel, including first-class airfare, luxury hotel accommodations and a security detail. The high-ranking official was Mr. Hevesi, people with knowledge of the investigation have said.

Another troubling fact is that this information came to public attention, not in an announcement of the agreement, but in a leak, presumably from a law enforcement agency, since Mr. Hevesi and his lawyers are highly unlikely to be the sources. It may be that there were difficulties in reaching the agreement, and the calculated leak was intended as a way to increase the pressure on the defendant to settle the matter. This was the Spitzer technique of shaming individuals and corporations.

A powerful inducement for Mr. Hevesi to plead guilty is revealed in the tenth and eleventh paragraphs of the story. We quote:

But the activities of Mr. Hevesi's sons have also drawn scrutiny: investigators have questioned why an obscure firm operated by Daniel Hevesi was paid more than $1 million in fees for deals with pension funds in New York City and New Mexico, and whether any legitimate work was done for the payments.

Andrew Hevesi had more limited exposure in the case: prosecutors say a former Liberal Party boss in the state, Raymond B. Harding, maneuvered to force a vacancy in an Assembly seat in Queens so that Andrew Hevesi could assume the position. Mr. Harding pleadead guilty last year after accepting more than $800,000 for doing political favors, prosecutors said, including a private job for Andrew Hevesi's Assembly predecessor, Michael Cohen.

It is a well-known tool prosecutorial tool to threaten to bring cases against a defendant's family members in order to induce a plea bargain. It usually only works if the family members have themselves committed crimes. In this case, although Daniel Hevesi received substantial sums, there is no evidence that he did legitimate work to earn them. He is vulnerable.

Andrew Hevesi is not accused of wrongdoing. It is not a crime to run for a vacant Assembly seat, and it is not a crime for someone to create a vacancy, unless he shoots or threatens the incumbent. Finding a man another job is conventional political behavior, not noble but not criminal.

If the $800,000 fees that Harding received were the direct result of Harding's finding a job for Cohen, that would be a problem. I do not know if that linkage can be proven, but my guess is the fee was the result of a number of actions that Harding took, over a period of years, which were favorable to Hevesi.

One such action was the decision in 2001 by Harding, who controlled the Liberal Party at the time, to support then-City Comptroller Hevesi for Mayor, rejecting the candidacy of Michael Bloomberg, the Republican candidate. The Liberals were allied with Republican Rudy Giuliani in three previous mayoral races, 1989 (when he lost) and 1993 and 1997 (when he won). Bloomberg was the logical person to support, if only because he was certain to be on the ballot in November. Hevesi was one of the four major candidates in the Democratic primary (the others were Mark Green, who won, Fernando Ferrer, and Peter Vallone, Sr.).

Hevesi did not, place, or show. He ran fourth in the primary, with only 12 per cent of the vote. A rough look at the results showed Green strong in Manhattan and with left-wingers (progressives) in other boroughs. Ferrer carried the Bronx and won Latino votes elsewhere. Queens supplied two middle-class candidates (Vallone and Hevesi), who divided the more conservative vote, Vallone winning Staten Island. Hevesi did not carry any of the five boroughs.

After the primary, Hevesi remained on the Liberal Party line. We do not know what arrangement was made between Harding and Hank Morris, who was Hevesi's political adviser, but the custom had been that the loser in a Democratic primary would campaign on the Liberal line. John Lindsey, who lost the Republican mayoral primary in 1969, was reelected that year on the Liberal Party line. Mario Cuomo also continued on the Liberal line in 1977 after he lost to Ed Koch in the Democratic runoff, and he won 41 per cent of the vote in the general election, an excellent showing for a third party candidate.

Mario Cuomo received more votes (587,913), losing on the Liberal line 33 years ago than Michael Bloomberg did in winning in 2009. Running on the Republican and Independence lines, he received 585,466 votes. The cost of his campaign was $109.2 million, setting a record for a self-funded state or local campaign.

That record lasted just one year. As of September 2010, Meg Whitman, Republican candidate for governor of California, had spent $119 million from the fortune she received as president of eBay, and the campaign is far from over. Well, records are made to be broken. If one examines expenditures per capita, however, California has nearly 37 million residents and New York City 8.3 million.

Although Mario Cuomo kept his word to the Liberal Party, Alan Hevesi apparently did not. He not only pulled out of the race and endorsed the Democrat, Mark Green, but he made robocalls on Green's behalf, telling voters that he was not really the Liberal candidate, and they should not vote for him. As a result, he received only 8,027 votes on the Liberal line (and 2,034 votes on the ineffectual Better Schools line) while the Liberal candidate for City Comptroller, Councilman Herb Berman, won 63,343 votes, almost eight times as many as Hevesi got on the Liberal line.

When he was embarrassed, and eventually pleaded guilty to a felony count, for using a state car to transport his ailing wife and a state employee to care for her, we defended Hevesi, saying those misdeeds did not justify his removal from office, but if further wrongdoing were to be proven, he should forfeit his position. Now we know that he was guilty of serious wrongdoing, far beyond his misuse of the car and driver.

Alan Hevesi is a very intelligent man, a Ph.D, a college professor, the beneficiary of multiple pensions (from the Legislature and the City University) while he was earning an unduly modest $150,000 state salary as Comptroller. He was also respected in Jewish and community circles. He claimed to be a descendant of the chief rabbi of Hungary, but was in fact just related to the chief Reform rabbi, which is a relatively tiny portion of Hungarian Jews.

Since his downfall, other stories about him have emerged, which we will not repeat. Rule 18-S: "Don't spread the stain."

It is remarkable, but not unprecedented, that a person of such ability and political astuteness should turn out to be so unethical. It was different with Donald Manes, the late Queens Borough President, who always seemed to be a rascal, although he was not known as a thief. Hevesi is the man who first won the City Comptroller's office in 1993, in a campaign run by Hank Morris, who ran television commercials denouncing Elizabeth Holtzman's ethics over accepting a bank loan which was later repaid.

If those who are considered in the top tier of politicians turn out to be crooks, what does that indicate about the rest of them? That is one reason for the loss of confidence in government, and the rise of demagogues who feed on the low regard for public officials that many New Yorkers feel, with some degree of justification.

Oliver Goldsmith, in his poem, The Deserted Village (1770), wrote:

"Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay"

Two hundred forty years later, Goldsmith's words make sense.