Ticket to Ride

Free-Spending Rudy Aide Bought Plane Tickets for City Hall Pal

On one of his many cross-country jaunts at city expense, former city Housing Development Corporation president Russell Harding bought airline tickets for a friend, top City Hall aide Vincent Lapadula, records show.

In July 2000, Harding billed his agency a total of $1410 for two Delta Air Lines tickets in Lapadula's name for round-trip flights from New York to Portland, Oregon, according to billing statements for Harding's corporate Diners Club charge card.

Harding made the same trip, records reveal, leaving a few days before Lapadula and charging $2357 for his own airfare, an amount that would have covered the cost of first-class tickets. He listed the purpose of his visit as a meeting of a national organization of leaders of state housing finance agencies. Lapadula's airfare was marked "[Business] travel for City Hall."

It is not clear what business Lapadula was conducting. At the time, he was working in then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani's administration as chief of staff to then-deputy mayor Joe Lhota, a post that paid him a salary of $122,000 a year. Longtime friends, Lapadula and Harding worked together briefly at the city's Economic Development Corporation. Lapadula later joined Michael Bloomberg's campaign and currently serves as senior adviser to the mayor. He did not respond to several messages.

It's also unclear why two tickets were bought in Lapadula's name—and why $312 of that amount was later credited to Harding's account for the trip. But the travel expense records show that it was a summer visit to one of the nation's most scenic areas. Harding stayed first at a rustic but posh conference center on the Columbia River Gorge in Skamania, Washington, where his tab ran to $2270. He then booked himself into the historic Heathman Hotel in downtown Portland, spending an additional $2400, plus another $444 for a car rental. Gas and meal chits submitted for the trip show that he toured the area, lunching at Calamity Jane's, a restaurant at the base of Mount Hood, about 30 miles outside Portland.

Harding and Lapadula had other ties as well. Harding hired Lapadula's brother John last year as a "marketing assistant" for the housing corporation, at a salary of $70,000. It is unclear what John Lapadula's duties were, however, because the agency—which refused to answer questions about the hiring—reportedly never compiled a job description for him.

John Lapadula was fired last month by Harding's successor, HDC president Charles Brass. Reached at his Staten Island home, John Lapadula was abrupt when asked about his former job: "There are people from DOI [the city's Department of Investigation] who have asked me all those questions already," he said before hanging up.

The Washington-Oregon trip was just one of more than 30 that Harding—son of Liberal Party chief and Giuliani political mentor Ray Harding—took at city expense during a three-and-a-half-year tour at the helm of the small but powerful housing agency. The Voicerevealed last week that Harding and his friend and top aide at the agency, Luke Cusack, spent more than $250,000 on travel as far afield as Hong Kong and dining at the city's chicest restaurants. The expenses are currently under scrutiny by the city's Department of Investigation.

The probe was launched after the Voicewon an 18-month-long freedom of information battle to view the expense records, which were released only after Harding resigned on February 1. Harding has since repaid $52,000 for improper spending, but refused to identify the specific expenses for which he has reimbursed the city. In a statement released last week through his public relations adviser, George Arzt, Harding said, "I am prepared to repay any additional amounts that are required. I am extremely sorry for my conduct for many reasons, including my belief that I helped make HDC better and more productive."

But current and former employees at the 110-person agency said that Harding's leadership was minimal and that he was often absent for weeks at a time. When present, however, Harding demanded royal treatment.

One of his former city-paid drivers said that when Harding was in town, his orders were to be outside Harding's East 62nd Street apartment—ready and waiting—for whenever the boss emerged.

"I was supposed to be there at 7:30 [a.m.], those were his instructions," said Elias Garcia, 29, who worked for Harding for a seven-month period from July 2000 to January 2001. "I would wait there until he came out. Sometimes it would be late as 10:30, sometimes 11:30. Sometimes it got to the point where I would have to call upstairs to see if he was all right," said Garcia. "Then he'd be really angry I woke him up."

Things had to be just so in the waiting limousine, either a Grand Marquis or a sports utility vehicle purchased by the agency for Harding's use. "There had to be two packs of Parliament Lights in the glove compartment. I would have to pay for them out of my pocket, then get reimbursed," said Garcia. "And I would have to have all the newspapers, the Times, the Post, Newsday, the News, on the backseat waiting for him."

Harding ordered his cars equipped with expensive computer mapping devices, flashing lights and sirens, but tolerated no mistakes, Garcia said. "He would throw temper tantrums. He would order me to throw on the police siren if there was the slightest bit of traffic, even on the way home. God forbid I made a wrong turn."

Many of Harding's chauffeured trips were purely personal in nature, Garcia said. "Shopping, errands, picking up his friends at the airport. To me it wasn't business." In October 2000, on weekend overtime, Garcia twice took Harding and a group of friends—some of whom he had first picked up at the airport—to the Mets-Yankees World Series games. Garcia was ordered to wait outside until the games were over and then take the group to dinner afterwards, finishing work in the wee hours of the morning. "They were old friends, school or childhood pals as near as I could tell," said Garcia, who was fired in January 2001 without explanation after he told Harding that his new baby would make it impossible for him to be available as much on weekends.

Garcia's description of the baseball outings jibes with Harding's excited online chat that month with a man in Indianapolis with whom he had struck up a cyber-friendship.

"Did I tell you I'm going to the game tomorrow?" typed Harding to his pal, Fred Sawyers, on October 10, 2000, the day before Game 2 of the Yankees-Seattle Mariners playoffs. "I got six tickets for me and some friends . . . not great seats but they are very hard to get . . . but i was able to get some through the office with some connections i have with the mayor..and the best part is i won't have to pay a cent for them[;] the city will pick up the whole bill," wrote Harding, adding a sideways cyber-smile, ":)".

Giuliani's office had access to many playoffs and series seats, it was reported at the time. The Parks Department had a block of seats, although City Hall kept hush-hush about who received them. Newsdayreported that Giuliani's political committee, Solutions America, was also able to buy series tickets at face value. Harding didn't say precisely where his playoff tickets came from, but he made clear the mayor's office, where his friend Lapadula was working, was key.

"Yup, I never have to pay for things like that . . . especially Yankee tickets . . . just one of the perks I get with my job . . . and knowing the Mayor doesn't hurt either," he added.

Sawyers, who relayed Harding's chats to the Voicein January, said he was visited in Indianapolis this week by DOI investigators.


Related Stories by Tom Robbins:

"The Lush Life of a Rudy Appointee: How a Politically Tied Aide Spent a Quarter of a Million Dollars on Food, Fun, and Travel"

"Party Harding"

"Bonuses, Bargains, and Strip Clubs at the Housing Development Corporation"

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