The Penitent

Alan Hevesi in his living room in Forest Hills.Photo: Adam Nadel

At his Forest Hills home, a mile from where he grew up, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi is lonely these days. His wife, Carol, is gone. At 64, she’s been sent to a Long Island nursing home after decades of declining health and suicide attempts—Hevesi saved her once by breaking down a door. Most of Hevesi’s political friends, accumulated over a 35-year career, have drifted away; few even bothered to show at the celebration for his reelection. It feels like a life in exile. His three kids are his main companions now, especially Andy, the 33-year-old who’s followed in dad’s footsteps. He holds the Assembly seat that was Alan Hevesi’s for 22 years.

Lots of evenings, Andy accompanies his dad home, a tidy attached Tudor filled with comfortable chairs purchased some years ago, by the looks of them. On a cabinet sits a photo, a souvenir from the cruise where he talked Carol into letting him run for state comptroller. She’d been loosened up with a glass of wine, he says. Lately, the shades are always drawn. It was Carol, his wife of 39 years, who opened them. She played the upright piano, now idle in the living room, and, until she couldn’t walk the steps, baked her special date-nut bread at Christmas—Hevesi’s a Jew; she’s Catholic.

Many evenings, Andy and his dad eat takeout, pizza or something from the neighborhood. Then they watch a ball game upstairs in the den, dad in the cozy armchair, Andy on the couch, and talk about the only topic to talk about: the tragic turn in Alan Hevesi’s career. “He cycles about it,” says Andy. “He will constantly be thinking and talking about it to the point where it’s almost too much.” Lately, he’s even had to remortgage his house to raise money to pay back the state and dip into campaign funds to pay legal bills.

These days, Hevesi is constantly apologizing. He apologizes to his staff for mishandling things, to the public, and even to Andy. It’s almost comical: His dad worries about the effect on Andy’s career.

“Stop apologizing,” Andy tells him. “It’s enough.” During the campaign, Andy was his father’s body man, the person who doesn’t leave the candidate’s side. He still is. He tells his father, “I don’t think you’ve committed a crime,” though a grand jury is looking into it. “You’ve paid way more of a price than you should have for this … whatever you want to call it, mistake.”

Lately, Andy worries that his father seems older than his 66 years and distracted, not as sharp, which he needs to be these days. He’s sleeping okay and, luckily, not dreaming.

“I don’t think the last chapter has been written,” Andy says. He is the optimist, a self-assigned role. There’s a story he likes to recall, one that no doubt buoys his father’s spirits. Fifty years ago, a kid pushed Alan Hevesi around at P.S. 101. The next day, as Andy tells it, his father returned to the schoolyard to fight him. He promised he’d never be bullied, Andy says, as if he wants the reminder in the air, though his father never would say how the fight came out.

Thinking about this, Alan Hevesi says, “I hear you,” adding, “I’ve been fighting all my life.” And he’s going to fight on. “What’s my option?” he asks.

Andy urges him on. “With the last breath in you, you should fight back” is what Andy tells him.

“Sure,” Hevesi promises, energized.

And then, thankfully, it’s time for the game. Even the awful Knicks are a relief.

In a sense, it all went wrong for Alan Hevesi after a phone call from J. Christopher Callaghan, the perfectly pleasant Saratoga County treasurer (staff of twelve) whom the Republicans had selected to lose to Hevesi. Hevesi didn’t bother with a campaign Website or significant campaign staff, except for consultant Hank Morris, the mastermind of nearly all of Hevesi’s public career. This summer, Callaghan trailed by 40 points in the polls. The election has been canceled, Hevesi joked at the time.

Then Callaghan received an anonymous tip that Hevesi had assigned a state employee to act as his wife’s chauffeur. Callaghan didn’t have the means to investigate, so he called Hevesi’s waste hotline and talked to the press. Hevesi quickly went public. The driver assured Carol’s security and also shuttled her to doctors’ appointments. That would have been an acceptable arrangement, if Hevesi had reimbursed the state for the non-security work. “I forgot,” Hevesi said.

“I said he should pay,” Andy recalls. “I was stupid to think if you pay it will go away.” Hevesi did a rough calculation and wrote a check for $82,688.82 to cover the driver’s time over three years. It didn’t work. The attacks from the tabloids, and even the Times, were withering. Governor Pataki cut short a European vacation to grandstand on the issue, and appointed a former assistant U.S. attorney to evaluate damning allegations in a state ethics-commission report. Hevesi’s position, stated early and often, was that he’d made a mistake, a bad one. Still, for weeks he did little more than absorb the criticism. Then, during the only debate with Callaghan that he would permit, he lashed back. He talked about the difficult circumstances of his wife’s illness and reiterated his security concerns. “I’m not taking any chances with my wife,” he said.

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.)

“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.

Carol’s multiple illnesses have been a centerpiece of their life together for a long time. That Hevesi strayed while an assemblyman even an aide acknowledges. “That happens in a lot of marriages,” says the aide, perhaps particularly when a wife is so ill. But that doesn’t alter the fact that when she needed him, Hevesi, no matter how busy he was, made sure to be there for her, insists the longtime aide. “My father just absorbs it,” says Andy, referring to his mother’s condition. “He’s always there no matter how tough it is for him. I’ve never seen someone be as loyal.”

Hevesi doesn’t mind being portrayed as a worried, protective husband. Perhaps, the implication is, his lapse can then be forgiven as human. “I don’t think the people of New York are going to want him thrown out because he tried to take care of his suicidal wife” is the way one Hevesi aide puts it.

But Kelley, a prosecutor like Spitzer, isn’t in the compassion business. “Many New Yorkers face similar unfortunate circumstances,” he noted, “and they do so without the benefit of a state employee” serving, as Kelly described it, as a personal aide. Whether or not Carol’s driver provided her security—he wasn’t trained to do so and didn’t carry a gun—he was a tremendous comfort to her and to her family. Carol could no longer drive herself. She told Hevesi she wanted a driver. He provided a sense of security and comfort as well as companionship.

There are plenty of examples of public officials’ using state cars for personal reasons, and making less-than-timely reimbursements. New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson is one. In November, it was reported that he repaid the city for nonbusiness use of a driver during the previous five years. Hevesi is another. When he was city comptroller, he repaid the city $6,439 after it was made public that a driver, in fact the same driver, then a city employee, had chauffeured Carol to appointments.

Kelley’s review of the facts, however, leads him to conclude that the comptroller had no intention of repaying the state, not until the news landed in the center of a political race. Kelley points out that no one kept records of when the driver performed non-security driving, which hardly suggests a concern for repayment. That Hevesi apologized for his “mistake” only makes it worse. Kelley reported to Pataki that he found “a valid legal basis” for asking the Senate to remove the comptroller.

“If this goes badly—and there are scenarios that aren’t good,” Andy Hevesi tells his father, “there’s life after this. Whether in politics or not.”

Yet here the real complications arise. The Senate has no established removal procedure. It’s never removed a statewide official. (Hevesi could be impeached. But impeachment charges are issued by the Assembly, so the proceedings would be dominated by a longtime admirer of Hevesi’s performance as well as his character, Assembly Speaker Silver.)

For Spitzer, the matter may be more complicated than he imagines. He is under the impression that the comptroller would resign rather than face a trial in the Senate, according to one Spitzer aide. If that isn’t true, if the heated talk from Hevesi’s camp is not a bluff, then things get knotty. In the Senate, a two-thirds majority is needed to remove an official. Republicans hold a six-seat majority there. Would they want to hand Spitzer a quick victory? Perhaps Majority Leader Joseph Bruno will prefer a more deliberative process, scheduling hearings, say, and, not incidentally, stalling Spitzer’s legislative agenda.

There is a further, and perhaps fatal, problem with a removal procedure. In 1987, Republican State Senator Michael Balboni co-authored a review of impeachment and removal procedures for the Fordham Urban Law Journal. The courts, Balboni discovered, have held that “if in the intervening election” the public has received “full disclosure of the misconduct,” then the election “is viewed as an exoneration.” Hevesi’s reelection, in other words, might launder his sins. Five million New Yorkers voted. Hevesi’s infraction was certainly well publicized; nearly every voter knew something about it. Thus the comptroller could go to court to block a removal process. “And then,” says one Hevesi aide gleefully, “it could take years to get a decision.” Imagine the resulting spectacle: Hevesi auditing Spitzer’s agencies while Spitzer is trying to remove him.

The odds may, in fact, favor Hevesi’s survival. Unless, that is, the comptroller is criminally indicted. Albany County district attorney David Soares, a young prosecutor with limited experience, has called witnesses to a grand jury, including Carol Hevesi’s driver. Soares is a Democrat (Hevesi endorsed him) who won his office two years ago with a promise to attack corruption. “What better way for an ambitious young prosecutor to make his mark?” asks one political insider. Still, to make a criminal charge stick, a prosecutor must prove criminal intent. Was Hevesi consciously evading payment? It’s a high threshold. And yet some in the comptroller’s staff now recall expressing concerns about Carol’s chauffeur. The ethics-commission report quoted an employee, Diana Hoffman, who’d also been an employee in Hevesi’s city comptroller’s office, asking the comptroller, “Do we want to do this again?” He didn’t respond, she said.

Hevesi advisers like to point out that other state officials have served while under indictment—State Senator Manfred Ohrenstein served for three years after being indicted for misusing government funds (the charges were eventually dropped). Hevesi could follow suit. “If I’m indicted, I’m already smeared,” Hevesi told one aide. “I might as well fight.”

For Hevesi, more bad news is on the way. The attorney general’s office will determine the amount that Hevesi must reimburse the state. “It’ll be a big number,” says one Hevesi aide. Perhaps more than $200,000, according to one source. That, though, isn’t a lethal blow. It’s an indictment that hands Spitzer the political card he needs. Even one staunch Hevesi supporter has said, “There would be general public perception that he can’t be comptroller while under indictment.”

Publicly, Hevesi isn’t talking about an exit strategy. For the record, Hevesi says his resolve is firm. He intends, as he likes to say, to do the business he was elected to do. But even Silver is said to believe that “anybody has to be ready for a fight … until the day he resigns.”

At home in Forest Hills some evenings, before Andy and his father switch on the TV, the mood bounces up and down. Hevesi had asked the nursing home to keep the newspapers away from Carol, but it wasn’t possible to keep the scandal from her. Andy and Hevesi talk about how she feels guilty, when her mind is clear, which isn’t all the time. They talk strategy too. About how to best fight schoolyard bullies. And then occasionally, the fight seems quixotic, and less attractive. Andy senses his father’s brain turning over the possibilities. “If this goes badly and there are scenarios that aren’t good … ” Andy knows. But Andy’s the sunny one. Particularly with his dad, he does it on purpose. “There’s life after this,” Andy reminds him. “Whether in politics or not.” He’s going to have a great next couple of years. Andy ticks off opportunities. Running a company, being president of a college. “You’ve got managerial skills,” Andy says. Hevesi led a fight to recover Swiss-banking money for Holocaust victims. There might be a Jewish organization he can run.

“I can’t believe I have to be thinking about this” is Hevesi’s first gloomy reaction. “My whole life, I’ve been going in one direction,” he says. “And now I may have to change.” Hevesi loves being state comptroller, and Andy knows this new twist is difficult. His dad has been a public servant his entire professional life. He once turned down an offer to head a real-estate firm; he couldn’t see the excitement. He’s hardly poor. Between salary and pensions, he earns $300,000 a year, but Andy, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing him make some real money.

And so, as the evening wears on and Andy continues to talk about life after politics, Hevesi contemplates the possibilities. He turns analytical, which is his training, his strength. He considers other prospects, other futures. Then Hevesi tells his loving son, “You’re right. This could work out.”

The Penitent