The Favors Candidate
An irate Alan Hevesi vowed two weeks ago to answer every question from reporters about the "despicable lie" that he had taken a $6000 bribe in 1997 from an old friend and major campaign contributor.
But the quietly seething Hevesi, while blasting Mayor Giuliani for continuing to raise the issue, has become dramatically less interested in answering specific questions about his dealings with electronics importer Maurice Lowinger, and his office's handling of inquiries from a lawyer representing two of Lowinger's estranged grandchildren.
Few took the bribe charge seriously. For one thing, regardless of his personal integrity, a smart and surefooted politician like Hevesi, who saw friends destroy themselves amid the payoff scandals of the 1980s, would never be so clumsy and indiscreet as to take a cash-filled envelope in front of witnesses, as was described by a former Lowinger employee in a statement submitted to the court in a civil case.
Far more troubling was the two-term comptroller and Democratic mayoral candidate's casual, business-as-usual explanation for why he had agreed to help Lowinger get a sales meeting with the region's telecommunications colossus, then known as Bell Atlantic, to pitch telephone equipment.
Hevesi described Lowinger's request at the February 1997 lunch at the electronic importer's new Madison Avenue offices this way: "He simply wanted a phone number of someone at Bell Atlantic that he could to talk to, because he had a product he wanted to sell."
The explanation seemed disingenuous, at best. Lowinger, who died earlier this year, was a pioneer in the importation of electronic units from the Far East. His North American Foreign Trading Corporation is one of the country's largest importers of personal electronics equipment. In 1990, another Lowinger firm, U.S. Electronics, won a multimillion-dollar exclusive contract to distribute telephones for BellSouth, a telecommunications equipment giant. In a profile of the Lowinger family in New York magazine last December, writer Robert Kolker estimated that just one of Lowinger's firms, North American, did $400 million in business in 1997.
Would a marketer of that caliber need to ask an outsider whom to call at one of the nation's biggest telecommunications firms? Or was Lowinger hoping the comptroller's backing might make Bell Atlantic a little more receptive to his sales pitch? There is no question that a serious request from Hevesi to Bell Atlantic to consider his friend's company would get a serious response.
The comptroller serves as "custodian and delegated investment adviser" for the city's pension funds, which own $550 million worth of shares in the firm now known as Verizon. While the city isn't the company's biggest shareholder by a long shot, that still makes the city, with Hevesi as the point man, an investor to be reckoned with when shareholder resolutions come up, as they did five times in 1997. More directly, the city does over $100 million in business each year with the telephone company, not including the vast 911 emergency system.
Lowinger's request for help ended up with Steve Newman, then the first deputy comptroller. Newman then called an old friend in the public relations department at the phone company. That person, who asked not to be identified, was not likely to be a deciding voice in a potential multimillion-dollar deal. The PR officer made what he called a "courtesy visit" to the Lowingers' office, where Maurice and one of his sons explained that they wanted to sell Bell Atlantic caller-ID boxes. The PR man explained that they would first have to become a certified Bell Atlantic vendor. Lowinger apparently followed up, but no deal was ever made.
All told, Hevesi appears to have gone through the motions on behalf of an important ally rather than actually muscling a major city vendor.
The man singled out as the villain at Hevesi's press conference was attorney R. Scott Greathead, once first assistant to former attorney general Robert Abrams and a longtime human rights advocate. Hevesi's mayoral campaign spokesman, Josh Isay, told the New York Post that Greathead had tried "to improperly persuade Mr. Hevesi to intercede in the litigation in exchange for not going public with the charges [about the bribe]."
Greathead openly acknowledges having brought the account of the alleged bribe to the comptroller's attention and asking him to verify that a meeting with Lowinger had taken place. But he insisted he never asked Hevesi or his aides to speak to the Lowingers.
"Absolutely not," said Greathead. "Shawn Bullock [the witness] was the only witness I had, and her information about the Lowinger's financial dealings was very important to my case. I knew I'd have to put it in the record. That's my job."
Pressed for details about what Greathead did that smacked of a shakedown, Hevesi aides refused to respond, except to cite prior statements. But several of those accounts were flat-out wrong, according to Greathead.
At the press conference, Hevesi special counsel and inspector general Robert Brackman asserted that "the first any of us heard about this" was a call to him from Greathead.
But by Greathead's account, Brackman was the third person in the office he spoke with, having initially called a friend from the attorney general's office who worked for Hevesi, telling her that he had the alarming witness account. Soon afterward, Greathead says he got a call from Hevesi's top intergovernmental adviser, Jack Chartier, who had also been present at the Lowinger lunch. According to Greathead, Chartier called the cash payoff story "total bullshit" and said Hevesi would sue Bullock if it came out. But the aide also talked about how Lowinger family members were frequent callers to the office, and were often seeking favors.
The following day, Brackman called Greathead, telling him, "Alan would prefer this all not be made public." Greathead told him he wouldn't have a choice and that the statement would have to go into the public court file. Brackman responded, "You have to do what you have to do," according to Greathead.
It wasn't until Greathead sent Brackman a new affidavit he had prepared for the case that he received a letter from Brackman accusing him of threatening Hevesi with exposing the bribe allegation in exchange for help with his lawsuit against the Lowingers.
The description of Greathead as a would-be extortionist is startling to those who know him through his human rights activities, which include a 20-year battle to bring to justice those who murdered four American nuns in El Salvador in 1980, as well as those who killed a half dozen Jesuit missionaries there a decade later.
"Everything I am aware of about him is that he is a man of honor and integrity," said John Feerick, dean of Fordham Law School.
Hevesi presented his relationship with Maurice Lowinger as a hallowed tie dating to the pre-Holocaust days in Hungary, where their families were friends. But the postwar relationship is more complicated than that. Not only did Lowinger family members give more than $60,000 to Hevesi's campaigns, but they also gave $6000 to Hevesi's protégé and ally, Melinda Katz, in a 1998 congressional race and another $750 to campaigns by Hevesi's son Dan.
There were other favors as well. Without providing specifics, the comptroller's office acknowledged that Chartier "reached out to a friend in the private sector" to help Lowinger's son Louis, who had twice flunked out of medical school, win a medical internship.
Louis, whose wife and children are suing the family for support, was picked up twice by police after charges were filed against him by two Latina women he met while serving as a medical resident at St. Barnabus Hospital in the Bronx. One said she was abducted; another claimed he raped her. The criminal disposition of the cases is unclear, but the charges were alarming enough that this March the state's Office of Professional Medical Conduct revoked Lowinger's medical license, citing his moral unfitness to practice and patient abuse.
Lowinger's attorney was away and could not be reached for comment.