By Albert Samaha
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Even to those who worked with him regularly during his term as president of the city's Housing Development Corporation, Russell Harding was a remote figure.
At work, he spent much of his time in his office, alone, peering into his computer. Those who managed an occasional glance at his screen noticed he spent time checking stock prices or roaming eBay, the sales and trading site.
Computers were a crucial part of Harding's approach to his job. His biggest project at the corporation was a costly multimillion-dollar transition to a new computer system to handle the agency's massive paperwork load.
And he used his computer at home for work as well, billing the agency for the $40-a-month Internet connection. Those bills were among the least dubious of the expenses that Harding and a top aide ran up during three and a half years when they spent more than $250,000 on a whirlwind of travel and fine diningexpenses that the city's Department of Investigation began scrutinizing in March.
Last month, however, Harding's home computer was seized by a team of federal agents and city investigators who served a search warrant on the former Giuliani aide at his Upper East Side apartment.
The seizure came amid a widening investigation into Harding, 38, who has already admitted wrongfully spending more than $52,000 in city money on personal expenses.
"I will confirm that there was a search and that the Southern District of New York is investigating and will say no more about that," said Gerald Shargel, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who is representing Harding.
But the seizure is also part of what has become an embarrassing investigation into Harding's secret personal life and, according to sources familiar with the probe, his alleged use of the computer to transmit child pornographya potential federal offense.
At the same time, investigators are also looking into allegations involving questionable city transactions allegedly mentioned by Harding himself during online chats with a friend.
In one instance, Harding said in a Web chat that close ties between his father, Liberal Party leader Raymond Harding, and former mayor Rudy Giuliani, had helped his father win legal representation of a firm seeking to manage the city's airports.
On another occasion, Harding allegedly said that he "made a few extra dollars" from contractors he had helped on a Bronx renovation project funded by the housing corporation.
Shargel said those charges are untrue.
"Russell Harding vehemently denies ever taking a dime from a contractor," he said.
Instead, Shargel accused the man on the other end of those Web exchanges, a 33-year-old clerk in Indianapolis, Indiana, whom Harding met in a movie chat room, of manufacturing the accusations.
As he did last month after the Voicepublished a series of racist online comments allegedly made by Harding, Shargel attacked the credibility of Fred Sawyers, who is currently cooperating with investigators. Sawyers has provided authorities with records of expensive giftsincluding a television and a DVD playergiven to him by Harding. Expense records obtained by the Voiceshow that Harding billed the city for those items.
"Fred Sawyers is patently untrustworthy," said Shargel. "The information he is spreading around is demonstrably untrue." Shargel pointed to an inconsistency in the dates of one chat that appeared to show Harding saying derogatory things about former president Bill Clinton's renting an office in Harlem in September 2000, several months before the move occurred. Shargel labeled Sawyers's explanation, that some chats had become merged, as "preposterous." The lawyer asserted that he had other information damaging to Sawyers but declined to provide it.
"The Southern District isn't showing its cards, and neither am I," he said.
The relationship between Harding and Sawyers raises many questions. On the one hand, it is a modern, cyber-age phenomenon in which two people meet online, become friends, and share regular communications over the Internet for years without ever actually meeting face-to-face. At the same time, it is the oldest of tales, in which one friend is left feeling betrayed.
Sawyers, who suffers from leukemia, acknowledges that he went public with the chats after a bitter break between the two men last summer. The break came when Harding, who had already asked Sawyers not to visit him, became outraged that Sawyers had accepted a free trip to New York from a cancer support group.
"I should have known you would do something like this, you're sick," wrote Harding in their final chat last August. "Come to NYC and stalk me, right."
Sawyers denies he was seeking to stalk Harding. And he said he sought out a Voicereporter with his information so that Harding "wouldn't hurt anyone again."
Included in that potential for harm, said Sawyers, was Harding's alleged pursuit of sex with children.
Shargel declined to comment about the child-sex allegations concerning his client. He declined as well to respond to questions about troubling Internet postings from someone using screen names listed to Hardingpostings that had nothing to do with Sawyers.
One such listing was posted in October 1997 on a bulletin board called "nyc.personal." A person using the screen name "JockCop7@aol.com" posted a notice with the heading "Looking for Dads&Sons in NYC." The message read, "If ur a dad w/a yng son, I'm looking to hook with u. Please im [instant message] me." (Another visitor to the bulletin board responded, "You are SICK!!!!!")