“Our audits have saved $2.1 billion for the taxpayers,” Hevesi says. He speaks emphatically, as if from bullet points, itemizing the problems with a bond issue that Pataki had tried to force through—a “gimmick,” he says, that would have mortgaged the state’s future—and how he’d blocked it. He tells me how his office uncovered deception at the MTA. “We went in, and we found they lied about their books,” he says.
State comptroller is an extraordinarily powerful job, and its prerogatives are centralized in one person. Hevesi has power to veto every state contract. He is the sole trustee for the state pension funds (and has increased the fund by almost 60 percent during his tenure). He is also the state’s watchdog, deciding which agencies to audit. (California, by contrast, divides Hevesi’s powers among three agencies.)
“There was no reason for the door to be locked,” Hevesi says. “I called to her and I heard the water running and I wasn’t taking the chance. I kicked the door down.”
As Hevesi talks about his power and the way he’s used it, the nature of his tragedy comes into focus. In Hevesi’s view, he has deployed his vast power in the service of reform. He is, as he sees it, a good-government crusader in the mold of Eliot Spitzer. “Hevesi has exposed a lot of corruption,” says Carl McCall, Hevesi’s predecessor. “He’s had some very good audits pointing out lack of accountability, and in some cases incompetence.”
Spitzer, Hevesi notes, used to know this, too. Before he un-endorsed Hevesi, Spitzer liked to say that the comptroller had verified the numbers in his proposals.
And so Hevesi’s banishment is particularly excruciating. “It’s horrible,” says Hevesi’s son Andy. “This is a Democratic sweep, a landslide, something a Democratic pol who’s been in the game for 35 years has been waiting for forever. And now he’s on the outside.” His impressive career has been reduced to a single unseemly question: Did he get away with something? As one county official said, “It’s like he didn’t exist in the press until the scandal.”
Now, unavoidably, his continuing work—his office pumps out near-daily audits—is colored by the scandal: As a Daily News headline said, COMPTROLLER WHO SPENT 180G IN STATE CASH ON WIFE CHIDES HEALTH DEPT. OVER FUNDING. I ask Hevesi if his authority as public watchdog has been compromised.
“The answer is no,” Hevesi insists, “because of the credibility of our work product.” He pauses. He seems exasperated. “I’ve now paid, and I’ll end up paying much more than I would have paid,” he says. “That’s bad for any public official. It’s bad for a comptroller. That’s my mistake … If you put that in a context of what we have done, forget my 35 years, what we have done in the four years here, it’s a small thing.” Hevesi’s fake-mahogany desk gleams. You can almost see the dull reflection of that camera-ready grin. “When Eliot used that term ‘stupendous,’ he wasn’t overstating it,” says Hevesi.
Of course, Hevesi’s misstep isn’t merely Alan Hevesi’s problem. Consider the visual. January 3, two days after the inauguration, Governor Spitzer delivers his State of the State address. Spitzer proposes that we judge him by the moral tone he sets. That, he repeatedly emphasizes, depends on the “appearance” as much as the fact of probity. And yet a couple of days after Spitzer’s inaugural celebration (to which Hevesi is not invited), there on the ceremonial platform, over the shoulder of the new governor, will sit Hevesi, practically begging to be photographed. His presence will serve as not only a tonal embarrassment but also an early hint that the new sheriff’s zeal may not match his power.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a longtime friend of Hevesi’s and, as he tells it, an admirer of the governor-elect, says bluntly, “Spitzer doesn’t control the situation.”
Silver, who was recently seen at a Rangers game with Spitzer (explaining the rules), believes the Hevesi situation, among others, will help educate the governor-elect. “He’s dealt with assistant attorneys general whom he appointed,” he says. “He’s dealing in a different league, a different climate, a different dynamic now. He’s dealing with individually elected officials. He never had to do that before.”
Meanwhile, Hevesi’s camp claims it’s gearing up for battle. “The full story hasn’t been told,” Hevesi says. In 2003, it was Hevesi who contacted the ethics commission. “I approached them,” he says with irritation. The commission said he could assign his wife a driver if there was a security threat; the state police concluded Carol faced a “low” threat. Pataki’s prosecutor, David Kelley, dismisses the security concerns as pretext. Hevesi, he reports, was anxious, but the anxiety related to his wife’s health.
Carol Hevesi’s health is awful. “Ever since I can remember, Mom’s health has been an issue,” says Andy. The trouble began with physical ailments—leg, heart, spine—but by 1994, it was pain that nearly killed her. That was the year she slit her wrists in a bathroom of their Forest Hills home. Hevesi had just returned from an errand. “There was no reason for the door to be locked,” Hevesi says. “I called to her and I heard the water running and I wasn’t taking the chance. I kicked the door down.” She tried to kill herself two more times.