Sentence in pension fund probe scandal handed down.
Former New York state comptroller Alan Hevesi, apologizing for his acts of “shame,” was sentenced Friday to one to four years in prison for his leading role in an influence-peddling scandal at the state’s massive pension fund.
The chapter concluded a twofold downfall that stands out as a symbol of scandal even in a state that’s rifle with it. “Although it was never my intention, I know that I caused enormous damage to the integrity of my former office. I have publically disgraced myself,” Hevesi said, his voice soft but steady. “I will never forgive myself. I will live with this shame for the rest of my life.”
As he walked out of the court in handcuffs, he nodded to the roughly half-dozen relatives who accompanied him, including his sons, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi and former state Senator Daniel Hevesi, and his daughter, Laura.
Hevesi, 71, also a former state assemblyman and New York City comptroller, was the highest-ranking state official entangled in a sweeping probe of “pay-to-play” practices at the $141 billion pension fund. He pleaded guilty in October to a misconduct charge. “Alan Hevesi presided over a culture of corruption,” Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, now governor, said at the time.
Hevesi “fostered a culture of corruption that permeated the highest ranks of the comptroller’s office,” said Assistant Attorney General Ellen Biben, urging prison. “Simply put, instead of using his power to protect the pension funds, he abused his power to pad his pockets and the pockets of his friends.”
The defense asked state Supreme Court Justice Michael Obus to spare Hevesi time behind bars, pointing to his public service and saying his public fall from grace was punishment enough. Obus said he found prison time necessary.
“Even in times of great cynicism about polls and about public officials,” the public still expects its office holders to be worth of their trust, the judge said. “When a person in that situation violates that trust, the damage, although hard to quantify, is quite profound. And this is such a violation.”
Hevesi admitted that in awarding pension fund investments, he “improperly favored” a venture capitalist who paid for at least $75,000 worth of travel expenses to Israel and Italy for the comptroller, his family, and other officials. Hevesi also acknowledged roughly $900,000 in other favors the businessman did for him or others in his orbit, including a total of $500,000 in campaign contributions to Hevesi and other candidates he or his staff suggested.
A former Queens College professor with a doctorate in political science from Columbia University, Hevesi won an Assembly seat in 1971. During 22 years in the chamber, he gained a reputation as an impressive debater, wrote more than 100 laws and was known for his work on health care.
Hevesi won the New York City Comptroller’s job on his second try in 1993, came up short in a 2001 bid for the Democratic nomination for mayor and took the statewide comptroller’s election the next year.
As Alan Hevesi ran for re-election in 2006, the state ethics commission found he had violated the law by using a staffer as a driver for his seriously ill wife for three years and not paying for it until after his Republican opponent raised the issue.
Still, Hevesi was re-elected by a wide margin, saying his “mistake should not erase 35 years of public service.” But about six weeks later, he pleaded guilty to defrauding the government and resigned. He paid a $5,000 fine.
It was the end of his political career, but the beginning of his legal problems. Over the next four years, an investigation by Cuomo showed that officials and cronies got fees and favors from financiers seeking chunks of the retirement fund to manage. As comptroller, Hevesi was the fund’s sole trustee.
Eight people have pleaded guilty. More than a dozen other people and financial firms have agreed to pay a combined $170 million in civil penalties.
The probe swept up a roster of players in politics and finance, drawing guilty pleas from figures including the former head of New York’s defunct Liberal Party and civil fines from people including former “car czar” Steven Rattner, the financier who helped lead the Obama administration’s bailout and restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors.
The only other person sentenced so far in the pension fund probe, former Hevesi political advisor Henry “Hank” Morris, is serving 16 months to four years in prison. Plenty of powerful and promising figures in New York politic have seen their careers end in scandal.
Governor Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, resigned in 2008 after he was names as a client of a high-priced prostitution ring; he was never charged with any crime. Former Republican state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno was convicted of a federal charge of using his public position to enrich himself; he is appealing.
About a dozen other elected and appointed state officials have been convicted or accused of crimes in the past two years.