By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
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By Alison Flowers
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Two weeks later, the duo was off to Las Vegas for the Comdex computer technology show, considered one of the nation's largest and wildest. They stayed at the posh Bellagio and spent a total of $7030.
They squeezed in one last trip in 2001, returning in early December to San Diego and the palatial Hotel del Coronado. Airfare ran a staggering $4000 apiece. Another $7000 was consumed in lodging, dining, and car rental.
Back home, in between the four-star hotels and resorts, Harding and Cusack continued to live large, the records reveal. When in New York, they regularly dined at the city's most expensive restaurants. Their tastes ranged from the chic and trendyMetrazur, Da Nico, Craft, L'Orto, Etoile, and Union Pacificto the dependable: Ben Benson's, the Palm, 14 Wall Street. There were more than 300 such meals recorded. In a one-week stretch in April 2000, Harding managed to dine out six times, spending a total of $880 at restaurants including L'Orto, Estiatorio Milos, Fresco, and Fireman's, one of his favorite haunts around the corner from his East 62nd Street apartment. On June 1, 2001, Cusack charged a $1000 meal at the Four Seasons, the city's swankest restaurant.
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On January 11, Harding had lunch at the new Water Street steakhouse, Marc Joseph, for $230. Then he dined at Café des Artistes for $198.
All of the meals were recorded simply as "business" occasions, with no indication of the purpose or the companions. Based on his expense statements, Harding was a man who rarely rested from his work. On July 4, 2000, a national day of relaxation, Harding charged a $23 "business lunch" at Vinci's, a pizza parlor near his home.
Even on the harrowing afternoon of September 11, Harding wasn't too shaken to talk business over lunch. He billed the agency $36 for burgers at Jackson Hole, also around the corner from where he lives. That one time he listed a dining companion: his driver.
No item was too small to be charged to the agency. Petty cash logs show that Harding regularly reimbursed himself for the bagel he bought in the morning. He submitted receipts for individual 69-cent sodas, bought at the drugstore next door to his office. A heavy smoker, Harding daily dispatched his driver to buy his cigarettes, always at least two packs at a time. They were recorded on petty cash chits as "incidentals" or "office supplies." Smoking, of course, is an increasingly expensive habit. And the records show that in a two-year stretch from December 1999 to December 2001, more than $2500 was charged this way.
Harding was also generous with his friends in spending agency funds. When a friend he met in an AOL chat room for movie buffs told him he was watching TV on an old 13-inch Emerson, Harding ordered a new Sony 20-inch combination TV-VCR for him. A couple of months later he had a new DVD player sent as well.
"Don't worry about the price," he typed in a message on September 9, 2000, to his online pal, Fred Sawyers of Indianapolis, "i can put them both on an expense report at work. i do it all the time with shit like that . . . just one of the perks of being president." He added a sideways cyber smile, :), then continued, "besides that is how i paid for the tv i got you."
Sawyers, 33, said these and other comments made him suspicious about what Harding was doing and he decided to file away copies of their online chats. "I was worried I might get in trouble," he said. "I didn't know what he was doing and my tendency is to save everything anyways. I'm a pack rat." He also saved the packaging receipts, which he gave to the Voice. They show that both items were sent to him by Harding from his home address via online vendors. The DVD receipt from Crutchfield.com indicates it cost $359.90 and that Harding paid for it with his Diners Club card.
Agency expense records show that Harding submitted the Crutchfield charge, along with the rest of his Diners Club expenses, to HDC for payment. The purchase was marked "MIS [management information systems] equipment."
Similarly, Harding sent Sawyers, by way of Amazon.com, a DVD of Billy Wilder's Sabrina last June 21. On the same date, expense records show, Harding charged $72.94 to Amazon using his Diners Club. He listed the expenses as "president's publications."
On one occasion, Sawyers said Harding sent him an unsolicited $500 by FedEx to help Sawyerswhom he has never metpay some bills. After the package arrived, Harding ordered him to destroy the packing slip. "I don't want anything in your house with my name and number on it . . . you understand???" typed Harding. Sawyers agreed, but held on to the slip. The FedEx air bill shows Harding's name and address, in his characteristic left-slanted handwriting.
During their online chats, Harding often bragged about billing other personal expenses to his agency. In one exchange on November 15, 2000, Harding told Sawyers he was writing on his laptop from his hotel room in Las Vegas. He was having a great time, Harding typed. "I've been playing the tables some . . . lost a few thou :( . . . but it's cool . . . I can just work anything I lose back into my expenses that I turn in for the trip."