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Follow the Pension Money

Rumpled political consultant Hank Morris had the bright idea of leveraging his connections to sell access to the state’s retirement funds. The scheme made himalong with an all-star cast of powerful New Yorkersa lot of money. But it also may have made him a felon.

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For once, Hank Morris wasn’t wearing a crewneck sweater. The shapeless garment had become the Democratic political consultant’s uniform, no matter the season or occasion, whether at an Election Night victory party or at the funeral of a close friend. One day in 2004, however, Morris was in the gym. He spotted a longtime acquaintance, the hedge-fund manager Orin Kramer, whom he knew from Kramer’s years of big-money fund-raising and donating to Democratic candidates. Kramer also oversees pension-fund investments for the State of New Jersey, and at the time he was battling to create the most stringent regulations in the country for the Garden State’s retirement money. Kramer had focused on restricting the ability of investment managers to contribute money to politicians. Morris scoffed.

Those rules are really stupid, he told Kramer. Under your rules, which are the most restrictive in the country, I could actually still be doing business and they wouldn’t apply to me, because I never wrote a political check.

Kramer walked away thinking that Morris was, unfortunately, probably correct; no one could ever construct a perfectly corruptionproof regulation. He had no idea why Morris, long one of New York’s premier political strategists, cared about the arcana of state pension-fund regulations.

The next time Kramer saw Morris wearing something other than a crewneck sweater was March 2009. Suddenly, the gym conversation made awful sense. Morris was in a dark suit and a white dress shirt. His hands were cuffed behind his back. He had just been indicted on 123 counts of shaking down investment firms that wanted a piece of New York State’s $150 billion pension fund.

I realized years ago that I didn’t know how to write rules that included someone’s closest fraternity brothers or members of his fishing party, Kramer says sadly. It also didn’t occur to me to say the rules would apply to the political consultant to any major officeholder.

Hank Morris was big. He had a hand in most major New York Democratic political campaigns, and many others around the country, for nearly 25 years. He gave the state and the world Senator Chuck Schumer. His clients and protégés, from Christine Quinn to Josh Isay, are plentiful in the upper ranks of New York politics. That’s part of the reason Morris’s indictment and arrest have had such far-reaching ripples. His story is full of characters who don’t just cross paths but whose grudges and debts and favors double and triple back. Feuds begun in obscure intramural party maneuvers find their echo in federal court more than 30 years later. This thing is like Madoff, says one politically connected New York financier. It touches everyone we know.

But the sheer number of friends and acquaintances involved is only one reason why, to New York’s political class, Morris’s fall has felt like a death in the family. Calling the saga Shakespearean is a reach, but it is a tale of not just money and power but also fathers and sons and morality. Morris, 55, has pleaded not guilty, and some of his friends see him as the victim of a politically motivated attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, who is generating headlines by criminalizing a commonly accepted practice. This is the way business was done, a Morris friend says. Not just here.

Yet Morris’s choice to capitalize, on a grand scale, on his intimacy with former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi and the state pension fund is ethically dubious, at best. Look, when you’re a consultant at Hank’s level, all kinds of opportunities come to you, a political rival says. People want things from you. And you’ve gotta say yes or no. The shock Morris’s friends and enemies have experienced over the past months is often coupled with another reaction: empathy. They too live in a world where trust is currency, the ability to bend the truth and navigate gray areas an art form, and rationalization a survival skill. Did one of their tribe, enamored of his own cleverness, cross the line?

He grew up in Westbury, Long Island, the middle-class son of a business executive at ABC-TV and a community-college librarian. In 1974, as a 21-year-old Columbia student with a taste for politics, Morris worked for Denis Dillon, the underdog Democratic candidate for Nassau County district attorney. Morris talked so well that he was soon running the campaignand Dillon’s upset win over the Republican incumbent launched Morris’s reputation as a wunderkind strategist.

There was something besides Morris’s youth that made him distinctive in that era. When we were younger, there was an idealism to our political activism, says a Long Island Democrat who grew up with Morris. Being involved was important; working in politics wasn’t. I remember Hank, in 1977, calling several of us to offer us jobs on the David Peirez campaign for Nassau County executive. I said to him, What’s going on?’ He said, I can get you great money for this!’ With Hank, there was always that preoccupation with money. It wasn’t evil. It was just this fixation.


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