By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Last week, three years after his extravagant spending on the taxpayer's dime was exposed in the Voice, former Rudy Giuliani aide Russell Harding pled guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges in Manhattan federal court. Harding admitted to stealing more than $400,000 from the housing agency he once headed, as well as to possessing a disc, imported from Belgium, filled with pornographic images of children. In his deal with prosecutors, he agreed to serve up to 63 months in prison.
Harding is the son of Ray Harding, the Liberal Party leader who served as Giuliani's political mentor and later grew wealthy lobbying City Hall. Russell Harding's appointment as president of the Housing Development Corporation was widely seen as a political favor to the father, since the younger Harding lacked any background in the area.
In a series of articles that led to the investigation, the Voice reported ("Lush Life of a Rudy Appointee," April 10-16, 2002) that Harding spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at posh resorts from San Diego to Hong Kong, and that he used an agency credit card to buy expensive presents for friends. It was "a lifestyle straight from the pages of Vanity Fair," as city investigations commissioner Rose Gill Hearn said last week.
Harding wasn't actually in court last Tuesday. He appeared via a closed-circuit TV hookup that broke down repeatedly, only to settle into a ghoulish green freeze-frame of a downcast Harding reading his plea agreement. Before the breakdown, Harding could be seen seated in a narrow gray room at a table beside one of his attorneys, Henry Mazurek. Wearing a brown shirt, Harding sat glumly with his chin cupped in his hands as Judge Lewis Kaplan read the charges.
Harding has been held at the federal prison hospital in Butner, North Carolina, since November 2003, when he threatened suicide on the eve of his trial. Later he claimed that mental problems made him incapable of standing trial, but Judge Kaplan found him competent.
Ray Harding was absent from the courtroom for the plea, as were other members of the family. Those who know them say that the son stopped speaking to his parents last year in a bitter fallout from the scandal.
Yet as beaten down as Russell Harding appeared, he still showed flashes of the old arrogance that friends say led to his downfall. Asked by the judge about his education, he loudly answered, "Four years of college," fudging the fact that he never graduated Clark University in Massachusetts.
Moments later, he balked just as he was about to be asked to admit having bought a $38,000 SUV for former city housing commissioner Richard Roberts, who has already pled guilty to lying about the matter. Judge Kaplan allowed Harding to cease his allocution, but said he would order the probation department to quiz him on each aspect of the conspiracy.
"That statement will be made a public record," said Kaplan.