Twisted Spitzer

Note to good-guy governor-elect: 10 reasons to stay Hevesi’s execution

The Spitzer reign in Albany is apparently set to debut with a human sacrifice designed to demonstrate just how tough the "sheriff of Wall Street" will be in his new title. The steel-jawed governor-elect plans to impanel a compromised senate to sit in judgment of the re-elected Alan Hevesi.

An administration poised to challenge the culture of the capital will begin, on Day 1, by negating the judgment of 2 million fully informed voters and handpicking a fellow insider to audit its own performance.

A leader who told us he would take on a dysfunctional legislature has decided to instead empower it to impeach, and potentially replace, the state's second-most-powerful executive.

A revolutionary dispatched to Albany with an extraordinary electoral mandate is ostensibly ready to inaugurate his term by putting on trial a man who shared most of it—or driving him to resign.

We can be certain of one thing, as unwilling as the new governor will be to admit it: It's not simply because Hevesi failed to reimburse the state for a driver who carted his dying wife on medical and other missions.

Eliot Spitzer is protecting his brand. He's invested millions in his advertising definition. He's spent years in the attorney general's office inventing it. His consultant-created profile underwrote record wins and could conceivably carry him to even higher office. In this universe of commercial calculus, dumping the comptroller is like recalling a Firestone that blew up. It is a cost-of-doing-business price that must be paid to maintain the message.

But Spitzer still has plausible exit strategies that could spare the bloodshed and leave both his image and ethic intact. He could say now that he will await the result of the ongoing grand jury probe by Albany District Attorney David Soares and be bound by it; if no criminal charges are brought, he could conclude that no further action would be necessary. He could point to Hevesi's 17-point re-election, with polls indicating that 92 percent of voters knew all about the banner-headlined charges, and acknowledge that the people decided that the comptroller's positives greatly outweighed his mistakes. He could cite the initial report by David Kelley, the former United States Attorney appointed by Governor Pataki, who found that "the statutory provisions that the Comptroller is alleged to have violated are not criminal." He could ask the legislature to pass a motion censuring Hevesi and, if it were limited to the factual findings against him, Hevesi would probably not oppose it.

If facts and fairness matter, there are at least 10 reasons why neither of the planned Spitzer shows—a senate trial or a dragooned resignation—should go on:

1. Hevesi is not a recidivist abuser. His critics, including Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, have attempted to portray Hevesi as a repeat self-serving offender by claiming that he'd previously violated city regulations about the use of drivers. In fact, in September 1998, Hevesi, who was then city comptroller, obtained a letter from Michael Hess, the Giuliani-appointed corporation counsel, that unequivocally authorized his wife to use a driver "for health-related appointments." Certainly no ally of Hevesi's, Hess, who is currently a top manager at Giuliani Partners, approved an occasional driver "recognizing [his] wife's serious health problems," contributing to the notion that her grave spinal illness partially justified public transport. Hevesi concedes he turned the "occasional" authorization he got from Hess into frequent use, stretching it, but not violating it.

When Hevesi was running for mayor in 2001, the New York Post filed an information request seeking data on the cost of driving Mrs. Hevesi, and he decided to reimburse the city for it simply to ward off campaign criticism. The Post ran a 450-word story and tough editorial about it that May. None of Hevesi's three opponents ever mentioned it, and no other news media reported it or editorialized about it. Even the Post dropped it after the one-day critique.

Since she was driven by precisely the same driver for precisely the same reasons, the difference between Hevesi's alleged abuse in 2001, which evoked yawns, and his conduct in 2006, which has led to "off with his head" howls, is merely one of degree. He reimbursed the city $6,439 five years ago and the state $82,688 a couple of months ago. Both payments probably fell short of what he owed. Bizarrely, several of the news outlets condemning him now endorsed him either for mayor in 2001 or state comptroller in 2002 after his use of a city driver was revealed. In fact, so did Eliot Spitzer, in 2002 and again, for a while, in 2006.

2. Hevesi cannot be removed based on speculation about his intent. There's no doubt that Hevesi's three-year refusal to segregate approved security-related uses of a state driver from unapproved non-security uses was his w orst error. The State Ethics Commission's original letter about the appropriateness of a driver, written in 2003, required Hevesi to reimburse the state "in those circumstances when legitimate security concerns are not found to be present." Its pre-election report this year, which provoked a media storm and remains the legal basis for any action Spitzer might take, concluded that Hevesi's "failure to keep any record that would allow for proper reimbursement suggests that Mr. Hevesi did not intend to reimburse the State."

Next Page »