Ethics Commission Says Hevesi Violated State Law
10/23/2006 11:50 AM
The State Ethics Commission ruled Monday that State Comptroller Alan Hevesi violated New York law by failing to reimburse the state for using a staffer as his ailing wife's chauffeur.
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Hevesi could be fined, suspended or even removed from office. His fate is up to the state legislature, where the majority of members are, like Hevesi, Democrats. Hevesi spent 22 years representing his Queens district in the legislature.
"This ruling today calls into question his ability to effectively serve as comptroller," said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union.
State officials told the Democrat he could have security drive his very ill wife for free, but only if an independent analysis showed she needed it. The comptroller never did that. In fact, an investigator says a top Hevesi aide wanted law-enforcement officials to sign off on the chauffeur, even though police determined there was no major threat to Carol Hevesi.
"They were looking for a letter that validated their security concerns for Mrs. Hevesi, which is at odds with normal procedure to do a threat assessment," Ethics Committee member Ihor Stadnyk said during his testimony Monday.
The worker drove Mrs. Hevesi around as often as five days a week, to her Upstate home, and doctor appointments. Her driver was not a police officer, and not even trained in security, nor was he ever told Carol Hevesi required protection. If he needed help, he'd said he'd call 911.
The report says: "There is no question that Mrs. Hevesi suffers from debilitating illnesses, and that those closest to her have genuine concerns for her welfare. But State employees may not use public resources to care for their loved ones."
The driver was given a merit award and, at Hevesi's own directive, the title "confidential aide." Hevesi also never told the commission that he ran into similar problems with his use of the chauffeur as city comptroller.
In their report, the commission concluded "there is reasonable cause to believe that Mr. Hevesi knowingly and intentionally used his position as New York state comptroller to secure unwarranted privileges for himself and his wife."
The scandal came to light when Republican challenger Chris Callaghan went public with the issue. Hevesi has since apologized and paid back more than $82,000, but the commission isn't sure if that amount is enough.
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer says his office will try to tabulate and recoup the correct amount. In addition, Hevesi is being investigated by the Albany district attorney and could face criminal charges. The comptroller's office has not yet commented on the report.
Hevesi is seeking re-election as the state's chief financial officer and an aide says he is not resigning. It's still too early to see what this ruling will do to his re-election bid, but a recent poll showed Hevesi with a huge lead over Callaghan.
One local expert says Hevesi's chances for re-election are still strong. Dean David Birdsell, of Baruch College's School of Public Affairs, says the comptroller has a larger network of support and enjoys more name recognition than his challenger.
“This is obviously a very serious charge, a very serious problem. The only reason why it's not going to make more of a difference in the election is the vast distance in this case between the Republican and Democratic candidates for state-wide office,” said Birdsell.
Birdsell expects Hevesi to stay in the race. He says the Assembly's likely to wait until after the election before considering removing Hevesi from office. That way, the governor gets to choose the replacement and if Eliot Spitzer wins he's likely to pick another Democrat.
But, Birdsell admits the scandal casts a pall over the Democrats "in a season in which they expect to be able to make a strong argument about ethics."
In an ironic twist, Hevesi's career was launched by his focus on ethics. When he ran for city comptroller in 1993, he made propriety a central issue that led to his victory.
The commission has five members, all appointed by the governor, but one nominated each by the comptroller and the state attorney general.