John Liu Can Only Plead Ignorance for So Long

By
43rd Comptroller of New York City John C. Liu attends a welcome party for new columnists at The Chelsea Room on May 18, 2011 in New York City.
Photo: Desiree Navarro/WireImage

Political campaigns are messy things. Many candidates barely know where they’ll be appearing from one hour to the next, let alone the moral character of the people they’re posing for pictures with or the details of where their campaign cash is coming from. So it’s possible John Liu knew nothing about alleged violations of fund-raising law during his successful 2009 run for city comptroller. That was Liu’s defense in November, when Xing Wu Pan was arrested on charges of wire fraud for attempting to circumvent contribution limits. We’ll see if Liu uses the same explanation today, after this morning’s arrest of his campaign treasurer, Jia "Jenny" Hou, on fraud and obstruction of justice charges.

Yet even if Liu is being entirely truthful he’s in deepening political trouble. The latest arrest is a loud indication that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara continues digging through Liu’s campaign filings —  where they exist, that is: A series of tough Times stories exposed the fact that Liu had failed to identify the bundlers who pulled together donations on his behalf.

Today Bharara accused Hou of being responsible for those omissions, as well as funneling money through phony donors. Worse for Liu is that pleading ignorance becomes more damaging as the investigation works its way up the campaign’s organizational chart, especially since his job is monitoring the city’s money — why didn’t Liu know what was going on, or run a tighter ship?

Liu has bravely insisted he’s still running for mayor in 2013, but that prospect will get even dimmer with the latest round of accusatory headlines; the biggest beneficiaries from Liu’s decline are former comptroller Bill Thompson and current public advocate Bill de Blasio, both of whom would have tangled with Liu for labor union endorsements. If Liu runs for re-election as comptroller, he’s increasingly likely to draw a Democratic primary challenger. But the next campaign is the least of Liu’s worries. It’s the last one that’s haunting him.