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The Penitent

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Electorally, his mea culpa worked. The day before the election, 92 percent of voters said they knew of the scandal, according to a Quinnipiac poll. Yet Hevesi was reelected by a stunning seventeen-point margin. Hevesi’s relieved aides took that as a signal that the scandal should end. The voters had spoken. “I intend to do the job the people elected me to do,” Hevesi announced.

The voters, however, aren’t the problem. Hevesi’s former friend Eliot Spitzer is. Spitzer had always been an admirer of Hevesi; he thought him immensely smart, a real compliment from the governor-elect, who prides himself on the same quality. “He looked up to him,” a Spitzer staffer says. And in the 2006 race, Spitzer endorsed Hevesi, calling his career “stupendous.”

Spitzer’s views hardened after he read the ethics-commission report. Hevesi had led Spitzer to believe the scandal was a bookkeeping glitch. But the report made clear that there was a pattern and a history. Explained a Spitzer staffer, “He felt burned by Hevesi.” Spitzer seemed incensed. “Eliot makes a judgment as to right and wrong,” explained an aide. “Here it was clear that something terribly wrong had occurred.”

For Spitzer it was a fatal breach. After all, he’d campaigned on a promise to change the ethically challenged culture of state politics “on day one.” “Personal views are set aside,” explains a Spitzer aide. Spitzer believed Hevesi’s ability to serve as fiscal watchdog was compromised. He had to stand up for good government. Ten days after the election, Spitzer spoke to the Times off the record—the paper quoted “one person with knowledge of the governor’s thinking”—to the effect that the governor-elect “will almost certainly” seek Hevesi’s removal from office.

Hevesi’s closest aides thought Spitzer’s new view on Hevesi an overreaction—“criminal” and “mad dog” were terms used. The people had spoken, and now Spitzer had to prove his virtue by taking the comptroller’s scalp. “Spitzer was elected governor, not king,” fumed one aide. If Spitzer wanted a shootout, then he’d get one. A biography of Spitzer, Spoiling for a Fight, circulated among Hevesi aides. Hank Morris, who’d engineered Hevesi’s landslide in the face of the scandal, was said to be one reader. He told one person his reaction to the book: “Why doesn’t anyone ask me if I’m spoiling for a fight?”

Alan Hevesi agrees to meet me at the state comptroller’s office in New York City one frighteningly springlike November afternoon. He’s a looming presence. He’s six-three, a former basketball star at Queens College who later became a political-science professor there. He has the reassuring good looks of a TV physician, a boon to any politician. And Hevesi is, by any measure, among the state’s most successful politicians. For more than two decades, he served in the Assembly, a firebrand liberal who wrote a remarkable 108 laws, followed by two terms as New York City’s comptroller and one term—so far—as state comptroller.

“I made a terrible mistake,” Hevesi tells me, with an air of embarrassment. He pushes back in his chair. His fingers lock on his jarringly clean, state-issued desk. “I got the relief that my wife would have her protection and would be taken care of and I could do my job,” he continues, referring to her driver. “And I completely forgot, just forgot to repay. I’m human.”

Hevesi prefers not to linger on the details. If I ask a direct question on the scandal, he glances at an aide—he has two in the room. Hevesi’s deputy gives him a sign, and the comptroller gazes at me, a tight smile pinned to his face, and is silent. There is a criminal investigation under way, it’s pointed out. But also, clearly, Hevesi isn’t comfortable as a public emoter.

There are those who find Hevesi arrogant—among Pataki’s people, there are Hevesi haters who believe “he takes cheap shots.” But Hevesi has long groomed an image as a sober presence, a nonpartisan arbiter defined less by a vivid personality than by a steady “work product,” as he puts it. “One of the great strengths of the comptroller’s office,” he tells me, “is that nobody has any idea what we do!” The scandal has upset that dynamic.

We talk for two hours, his first extensive interview since the scandal. And what Hevesi mostly talks about, what he clearly likes to talk about, is his work product. “Most politicians, if you want to talk substance, you talk to their staffs,” says Howard Weitzman, comptroller of Nassau County, who worked with Hevesi to uncover fraud in the Roslyn school district. Not Hevesi. As the conversation turns to his accomplishments, the comptroller’s hesitation disappears (along with his contrition). He turns expansive, boastful. It’s like witnessing an appetite’s return. He has an almost eerie recall of facts and figures. “Idiot savant,” he calls himself. “I can name the 1950 Detroit Tigers starting lineup, for some reason.” (And he does.)


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