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Pataki Press Conference [12 minutes]
Calling it a "sad day for New Yorkers," Governor George Pataki announced Friday afternoon that he has asked a former federal prosecutor to determine if the case against embattled Comptroller Alan Hevesi is sufficient to remove him from office.
Hevesi is embroiled in a scandal involving his use of a staffer as his ailing wife's chauffeur between 2003 and mid-2006. The State Ethiccs Commission ruled Monday that Hevesi violated New York law by failing to reimburse the state for the services.
Pataki had to return early from a diplomatic trip to Hungary to address the scandal that has erupted just weeks before the general election.
The governor announced that before proceeding to a Senate trial, he has decided to appoint former U.S. attorney David Kelley to conduct a thorough review of the lengthy findings by the Ethics Commission. Kelley will then determine whether there is a strong enough legal case to remove Hevesi from office.
Pataki said he hopes Kelly will be able to get back to him within a week.
"This is a sad day for New Yorkers and we have to have confidence not just in our electoral process, but also in our elected officials and I will do everything in my powers to make sure that that continues to be the case for the people of New York," said Pataki.
Even if the results lead to the calling of a Senate trial, a conclusion would not come in time for elections. Two-thirds of the Republican controlled state Senate must approve any decision.
Legally, the governor could have recommended impeachment of Hevesi, but experts say Pataki could be attempting to offer the state comptroller a chance to step down voluntarily.
But shortly after Pataki's announcement, Hevesi once again indicated that he intends to stick to his guns, saying:
"As a result of this decision, five million New Yorkers will decide who will be the next comptroller."
An Albany County grand jury is also opening a criminal investigation into Hevesi's use of a state chauffeur for personal reasons. It's still unclear if he will face any criminal charges.
Hevesi has already apologized and says he paid $82,000 in restitution, but it's unclear whether that covers the cost of the chauffeur. Hevesi's Republican challenger, Christopher Callaghan, argued in Wednesday's debate on NY1 that Hevesi should pay back as much as $300,000.
On Thursday, Hevesi lost the support of Democratic candidate for Governor Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer said the recent ethics investigation compromises Hevesi's ability to fulfill his responsibilities.
Hevesi has said all along the final decision should be left up to the voters.
"I have the highest respect for Eliot Spitzer,” said Hevesi. “I think he'll be a terrific governor. But I think the 5 million people who are preparing to come out to vote of November 7 should decide who should be the next comptroller of the state of New York."
At least one of the state's top Democrats is standing by Hevesi. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says Hevesi has not had a fair hearing.
Meanwhile, readers woke up to some surprises on the editorial pages of the city's papers Friday.
The Daily News, which has been extremely critical of Hevesi, endorsed him despite his recent scandal. The paper says, "he has served ably as comptroller, and most importantly, he has functioned with a high degree of professionalism."
On Wednesday, the Daily News editorial page asked if Hevesi was “nuts.” In explaining its decision Friday, it says Callaghan seems like a nice, decent man, but is absolutely unprepared to take custody of the retirement accounts of almost a million public workers.
Meanwhile, the New York Times, which might have been expected to endorse Hevesi, is picking Callaghan. While acknowledging that the former Saratoga County treasurer has a far less impressive background, they say the ethical issues haunting Hevesi are enough to tip the scales against him. The paper says there must be consequences for bad behavior.
Callaghan also picked up an endorsement Thursday from Newsday. In an editorial Friday, the paper calls for Hevesi's resignation.
The New York Post, which endorsed Callaghan earlier this week, is also calling for Hevesi's immediate resignation.
Hevesi's situation may force Pataki to navigate through the un-chartered waters.
Removing Hevesi from office would require that the State Senate convene a trial that would be followed by a vote. Removal would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which means at least seven Democrats would have to vote to remove Hevesi. If he were removed before the end of the year, the governor could appoint someone to serve out the remainder of Hevesi's current term, which expires on December 31.
However, Hevesi could decide to resign before the end of the year. In that case, the office would be declared vacant and the State Assembly and State Senate would vote together to select a replacement. One thing all of these scenarios have in common is that no special election would be held, meaning any replacement would serve through 2010. All of this would be moot, of course, if Hevesi's challenger, Christoper Callaghan wins on November 7.
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