Can't Anyone Here Learn to Drive?
One of the state employees who provided key evidence to prosecutors from the state attorney general's office and the Albany County district attorney in building their fraud case against former comptroller Alan Hevesi was a 51-year-old state worker named David Burke.
Hired in 1998 by the state comptroller's office as a $30,000-a-year chauffeur, Burke was later promoted to the title of confidential aide at $59,000, although his duties still primarily consist of serving as a driver. Burke confirmed to investigators that in early 2003 he had frequently driven Carol Hevesi, the comptroller's ailing wife. Another driver, Nicholas
Acquafredda, later took over those chores, but Burke's role in the affair was cited in public reports by the attorney general and the state ethics commission. Burke also appeared as a witness before the grand jury that considered criminal charges against Hevesi, who later pled guilty to a felony and resigned from office.
According to people familiar with his testimony, Burke also told probers that he was later assigned to drive Hevesi's chief of staff, Jack Chartier, and that he had often driven Chartier's friend, actress Peggy Lipton, to chemotherapy sessions. That probe is reportedly ongoing, although prosecutors declined to comment on it.
But Burke had other potentially troubling information to report as well. He said that he had frequently driven the wife of Hevesi's predecessor as comptroller, Carl McCall, transporting her on weekend trips from New York City to a vacation home upstate.
According to the sources, Burke said that "several times" on Friday evenings he had picked up Dr. Joyce Brown, McCall's wife, at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she serves as president, and driven her four hours north to a condominium the family owned in Saratoga Springs. Burke said he had then returned to the city, only to turn around and drive the 200 miles back to pick her up again on Sundays and return with her to the city.
The chauffeur told authorities that in 2000, when the McCalls bought a new country home in Dutchess County, he continued to provide round-trip weekend transportation for her. The trips continued on and off throughout the four-year period he worked for McCall, the driver alleged. Although Burke didn't qualify for overtime, he told probers that all of the trips he made were on state time and while driving a state-owned vehicle. If so, it would have been the same type of rules violation attributed to Hevesi.
In one aspect, the alleged travel abuse was even more flagrant since Hevesi's wife was only ferried about during the normal work week, according to the attorney general's report, while much of the alleged chauffering of McCall's wife occurred during weekends.
Burke, reached at the comptroller's office, declined to talk about his testimony. "I have absolutely no comment on that," he said.
Burke's attorney, Bradley Simon, also declined to discuss specifics. But when asked, Simon confirmed that his client had "provided information to investigators about driving Mr. McCall's wife on numerous occasions as well as Mr. Hevesi's wife."
McCall, however, insisted that the trips never occurred.
"I can tell you categorically, it never happened," McCall told the Voice last week. "That wasn't my pattern. The way I went to Saratoga, I would go up there on Fridays myself. There was no reason for me to have her driven up there. And Joyce had her own driver from FIT for local driving."
Asked why his former state driver would have concocted such a story, McCall said he didn't know. "I think David was very nervous and upset about this thing and he just blabbed out some stuff. Maybe it had to do with his memory."
McCall said that he had looked for records to confirm his claim but hadn't found any. "There were no records. There really weren't any," he said.
A spokesman for the state comptroller's office said a search turned up no records of McCall's car usage. The spokesman said there was also no indication that McCall had ever reimbursed the agency for personal errands run by his driver.
In a statement issued by her office, Joyce Brown also denied the charges. "Allegations that the driver assigned to Carl McCall while he was New York State comptroller transported Dr. Joyce Brown for any personal endeavors are untrue. As his spouse, Dr. Brown accompanied Mr. McCall to many official events, yet arrangements were never made to have a state employee transport her exclusively." Whether the charges are true or not, investigators don't appear to have pursued themat least not so far. McCall said he had never received any official inquiries about the matter. "I never heard from anyone who took it seriously," the former comptroller said. He said that the only person to have asked him about the matter previously was a WNBC-TV reporter, to whom he said he had given the same denials. "They didn't go with it. That should tell you something," he said.
A spokesman for Albany District Attorney David Soares declined comment, as did the office of the state attorney generalnow headed by Andrew Cuomo.
But prosecutors didn't ignore the allegations altogether: Law enforcement officials, who would not speak for attribution, said that the allegations about McCall's alleged driving problems had been referred to the state's ethics commission.
The ethics panel refuses to discuss pending investigations, but one agency source said the chargesif sent their waywould be dead on arrival. "Even if we got a sworn statement from the driver we couldn't pursue it," the source said. While a new law lets the panel go after former state employees, the source said, it does not cover those, like McCall, who worked for the state before the law was revised.
What makes the McCall allegations even more curious, however, is that after Burke's allegations were received, McCall, who now heads a private financial firm, was named by incoming governor (and fellow Democrat) Eliot Spitzer to a special panel of three former state and city comptrollers to recommend candidates to replace Hevesi.
When the Hevesi inquiry began, Spitzer was still serving as attorney general and he quickly recused himself from the matter, citing his prior endorsement of the former comptroller for re-election. In his absence, the inquiry was overseen by Spitzer's former top deputy, Michele Hirshman.
A spokesman for Spitzer said that the governor was never told of the McCall allegations. "The governor was fully recused from the investigation and he would not have been told anything about it," said Paul Larrabee.
Hevesi, who repaid $200,000 pursuant to an agreement with the attorney general's office, pleaded guilty on December 22 to a Class E felony for defrauding the government, stating that he had never intended to repay the government for the free trips for his wife. Last week the ex-comptroller was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.
According to law enforcement officials, the publicity around the Hevesi case prompted "an avalanche"as one put itof allegations concerning similar abuses involving state-paid drivers by other state officials. "Whatever McCall did or didn't do may turn out to be one more of those that no one ever gets to," the official said.
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