Harding's Hustle

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

The good life at the city's Housing Development Corporation extended beyond the junkets and high-price dining enjoyed by its politically connected former president, Russell Harding, newly released records show.

In one instance, the chairman of Harding's board of directors spent hundreds of dollars on the agency's corporate credit card at a high-class New Orleans strip club. In another, the agency's general counsel got a bargain on a slightly used luxury sport utility vehicle that had been purchased by the agency. And Harding himself, the son of powerful Liberal Party boss Ray Harding, added bonuses of tens of thousands of dollars to his own official salary.

Harding collected the extra pay at the same time he was billing the agency for everything from his morning bagel to his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. Not that he wasn't well paid in the first place.

Temptations: a $600 city-paid fling at a New Orleans strip club by former City Housing Commissioner Richard Roberts
photo: Staci Schwartz
Temptations: a $600 city-paid fling at a New Orleans strip club by former City Housing Commissioner Richard Roberts

Newly released records reveal that Harding raised his salary from $111,000, when he was appointed to head the city's Housing Development Corporation in June 1998, to just under $163,000 when he resigned this February.

And that's just his base pay.

The records show that Harding received more than $56,000 over and above his stated salary levels. In 2000, Harding was paid more than $24,000 extra, including a onetime sweetener of $20,500 in "overtime." Last year, Harding's wages at HDC came to $189,380—a bonus of nearly $33,000 above his regular salary.

Current officials of the housing agency refused to discuss the payments, citing an ongoing probe by the city's Department of Investigation of Harding's spending. Last month, agency officials balked even at releasing Harding's salary history—records that are routinely made public—saying it was part of the investigation. The information was released only after a Freedom of Information Law request was filed.

The Voicelast month chronicled how Harding used his corporate credit card at the agency for a $250,000 jet-setting travel spree that took him and a top aide on a stream of junkets to posh resorts and hotels. Expense records obtained by the paper showed that Harding spent so casually from the housing agency's coffers that he routinely reimbursed himself for his breakfast and his Parliament Lights.

But it wasn't because he couldn't afford them.

A college dropout with no previous financial experience, Harding won his first pay hike in December 1998, less than six months after being appointed to head the agency by former mayor Giuliani, a close political ally of his father. That 12.5 percent raise was made retroactive to Harding's starting date. Within nine months, his pay was bumped up twice more, to $150,500. Last October, he got one more pay hike, to $162,780.

Although Harding's agency is technically overseen by a seven-member board of directors, chaired by the city's housing commissioner, board members said they were not informed about day-to-day operating expenses, including salaries.

At least one board member, though, enjoyed his own perks. Records show that Harding provided former board chairman Richard Roberts with a corporate credit card from the agency—one that Roberts also used for travel, dining, and entertainment.

In a period of 19 months, from December 1998 to July 2000, Roberts spent $25,000 on the agency Diners Club card. The expenses included a three-day trip to Frankfurt and Berlin that cost $5500 in airfare alone. Roberts also used the card on August 31, 1999, to charge $623 at Temptations, a so-called "gentlemen's club" in New Orleans.

The club, considered one of the French Quarter's more lavish exotic dancing emporiums, advertises "beautiful provocative women in luxurious surroundings amid the majesty of the Old South."

Roberts's credit card expenditures included a dozen trips to Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Chicago, where he said he had represented the city in housing conferences and meetings. He also used the card to pay a $640 hotel tab on a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in May 2000. In addition, he charged expensive lunches and dinners at several pricey Manhattan restaurants, including a $372 meal at Demi on upper Madison Avenue in January 1999 and a $342 dinner at Julian's on Ninth Avenue in March 2000.

Roberts's favorite restaurant, the charge card records indicate, was an Italian eatery called Cambio on John Street near the offices of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, where he worked as commissioner. Roberts used the card to charge 29 separate meals at the now closed restaurant, totaling $2900. In a two-week span in December 1999, records show, Roberts dined at Cambio four times, spending more than $1000.

Roberts, 38, is the son-in-law of Bill Clinton pal Vernon Jordan. He served as a City Hall adviser to Giuliani until his appointment as housing commissioner in 1997. The Voicereported last month ("Party Harding," April 30) that when Roberts stepped down from his housing post in July 2000, Harding threw him a $22,000 going-away party that was charged to the Housing Development Corporation. In 2001 Giuliani appointed Roberts to the unpaid post of chairman of the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation, and this year Mayor Bloomberg re-appointed him.

Roberts, who currently is an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, declined to discuss his spending.

In addition to providing no-limit corporate cards, Harding made sure he and his friends at the agency cruised the city in luxury. When the Voicefirst sought records of Harding's auto purchases in October 2000, he released only some documents on just a handful of cars in the agency's fleet.

The request was renewed last month and new agency officials released records that show Harding went on an auto-buying binge during his term at the agency, spending $213,000 on seven cars, including three Mercury Grand Marquis autos, three sport utility vehicles, and a van.

Unlike officials in other city agencies, who are obligated under city rules to buy their cars under bulk-purchase deals arranged with area dealers, Harding went shopping wherever he wanted, and paid top dollar.

All of HDC's cars came fully loaded. A 2000 Chevrolet Tahoe bought for $38,160 had custom leather trim, an electric sunroof, and nine speakers. An "onyx black" 2000 GMC Yukon purchased for $38,664 came with "pewter ultrasoft leather" seating and the "ultimate luxury package" as well as a computerized communications and map system.

The Grand Marquis were also all-leather with special dealer installations and six-disc CD changers. Harding made sure the cars were equipped with lights and sirens, which he used liberally, according to former drivers.

In signing check requisitions for the purchase of the autos, Harding stated simply, "Additional car for agency fleet." But current and former staffers said the cars weren't needed and were kept for use by Harding, Roberts, and former HDC senior vice president Luke Cusack, who was fired in March. One of the cars, the 2000 Yukon SUV, was in such limited usage that it had only 2200 miles on its odometer when Harding sold it in January, just days before his resignation. The lucky purchaser was HDC general counsel David Boccio, who paid $20,000 for the vehicle, well below the listed book value of approximately $31,000.

Since Harding's departure, new HDC president Charles Brass has shed three more of the luxury autos, recouping about $45,000 of the agency's expenditures in resales to auto dealers. Since last year, when he served as a deputy to Harding, Brass has taken an economy approach to his own business driving needs, leasing a Chevy Prizm for $239 a month.


Related Stories by Tom Robbins:

"The Lush Life of a Rudy Appointee"

"More Lush Life of a Rudy Appointee"

"Party Harding"

"Low-Class Act: Russell Harding on Blacks, the Poor, and the Clintons"

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