When Rudy Giuliani appointed Russell Harding—son of Ray Harding, the then mayor’s political mentor—to take charge of a multi-million-dollar housing agency in the spring of 1998, the new official brought with him all the math skills of a seventh grader, according to doctors who have examined him.
The younger Harding also brought a penchant for excessive spending that began as a teenager, a history of extreme mood swings marked by manic highs and suicidal lows, and a behavior that is “grandiose, arrogant, self-indulgent and hedonistic,” medical authorities hired by his attorneys wrote.
All of those traits—poor arithmetic ability, trouble coping with everyday society, a swollen sense of self-importance—are the hallmarks of someone suffering from a malady known as Bipolar II Disorder, a condition complicated by a “nonverbal learning disability,” stated the team of two psychiatrists and a neuropsychologist who subjected Harding to a battery of tests. This is a toxic cocktail of mental ailments, the doctors said, which rendered the former Giuliani aide unable to tell right from wrong when he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds on high living while serving as president of the city’s Housing Development Corporation from 1998 to 2002.
The bipolar disorder, wrote one doctor, “accounts for much, perhaps all, of his financial wrongdoing.” That was the argument made Monday in Manhattan federal district court before Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is scheduled to try Harding this fall on four charges of fraud and conspiracy relating to his expense account and other scams and two counts of possessing child pornography.
Invoking the diagnosis of the medical professionals, Harding’s attorney, Gerald Shargel, told Kaplan that Harding should be allowed to claim mental incapacity as a defense. “Very simply, Mr. Harding thought he was allowed to do what he was doing,” Shargel told the judge. “And the reason he thought he was allowed to do it was because of the mental defect.”
Harding, looking pale and unfocused, sat listlessly at the defense table, writing an occasional note to his lawyers. In their evaluations, the three doctors said they have already spent more than 100 hours examining him. In addition, they subjected him to 25 separate tests, ranging from Rorschach inkblots to card sorting to “memory malingering” probes. The results and the medical diagnoses of his afflictions were filed last month by Shargel with the court as part of his motion to allow the doctors’ testimony to be presented to jurors at trial. When a reporter asked to see the records, Shargel quickly moved to place them under seal. Judge Kaplan denied that request. The records provide a delicate, if detailed, description of a long and anguished history of psychiatric problems.
As early as elementary school, wrote Dr. Mark Mills, a Washington, D.C.-based specialist, Harding was aware of feeling “odd, special, different and isolated.” Harding told another of his psychiatrists, Dr. Allen Collins, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital, that he recalled in the sixth grade being “depressed for most of the entire academic year, precipitated by a falling out with a friend.”
As a junior and senior at Bronx High School of Science, he bounced back and forth between feeling “socially isolated” and engaging in “excessive partying,” when he cut classes to snort cocaine with friends and did so little class work that he needed to attend summer school in order to graduate.
There were brief periods of euphoria, the doctors reported, marked by “hyperactivity” and “increased goal-directed behavior,” when, for example, he slimmed down his sometimes bulky frame. These were inevitably followed by a depression familiar to millions of Americans: He would stay in bed all day watching TV, bingeing on food and gaining 20 to 30 pounds at a time.
At the darkest moments, there was talk of suicide. Harding gave “serious consideration . . . to attempting to take his own life on several occasions,” Collins said in his report.
He did well his first two years at Clark University, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts, the doctors stated, only to fall back into his downbeat ways again, leading to “deteriorating academic performance, depression and social/interpersonal withdrawal.” Harding dropped out his senior year, just four courses short of a degree. The same mood swings followed him into jobs his influential father helped him obtain, first with the Washington office of then U.S. senator Alfonse D’Amato, later with a Manhattan public relations firm, and finally with Giuliani’s administration.
Even in 1993, the year when Ray Harding piloted Rudy Giuliani into a triumphant mayoral win and when Russell Harding was working as a paid staffer on the campaign and poised for important things in the new administration, he reported that he was again beset by deep depression. He embarked on another round of “excessive spending”—no details are provided—and was so disturbed that he sought out the same psychiatrist he had seen as a teenager. That doctor prescribed the mood elevator Prozac. “He did not respond well to that medication,” wrote Dr. Mills. A few years later, in 1999, after he had been named president of HDC by Giuliani, a still troubled Harding switched to a new doctor who tried a variety of powerful antidepressant medications, including Wellbutrin and Effexor.
These were also apparently ineffective. The earlier doctors “failed to appreciate the full extent of his mood disorders,” wrote Mills. Had the proper medication been applied at the time, the doctor wrote, “it is significantly more probable than not that he never would have engaged in the kinds of illegal conduct in which he did at HDC.”
All three doctors who submitted evaluations for the defense appear to have taken Harding at his word that he was never aware that his exorbitant spending was improper. Harding told Dr. Wilfred van Gorp, a prominent neuropsychologist at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, that “he did not realize at the time that the behavior he has been accused of was illegal or inappropriate.” Harding told the doctor that he “did not make any attempt to conceal his behavior until he became the subject of a series of news articles which questioned his behavior.”
At that time, van Gorp continued, “Mr. Harding reported that he understood this journalistic investigation as ‘a P.R. problem’ but not as a potential legal difficulty.”
The journalistic investigation in question was that of the Voice, which sought Harding’s expense records under the state’s Freedom of Information Law from the fall of 2000 until early 2002, when, after Harding resigned from the agency, they were finally obtained.
In the government’s response at the hearing on Monday, assistant United States attorney Daniel Braun pointed out that none of the doctors who examined Harding appeared to have been aware that the defendant had worked hard to destroy the records of his lavish expenditures, ordering his alleged co-conspirator, Luke Cusack—who has already pled guilty—to hide them and office technicians to wipe all evidence from his office computer.
Even after he left the agency, Braun said, Harding sent e-mails to HDC’s travel agent, urging him not to comply with agency requests for copies of his travel expenses and itineraries.
The doctors give similar credence to Harding’s account of his sexuality and his dealings with Internet chat companions, particularly Fred Sawyers of Indianapolis, who provided evidence to investigators. Harding provided a tortured and painful description of a young man coping with his sexual identity. While he said he had been aware of his homosexuality since childhood, he said he purposely kept it a secret from family and most friends until the scandal broke.
His sexuality was so repressed, he told the doctors, that he didn’t have gay sex until he was 25. Furthermore, Harding insisted that he had never sought out “boyish men” or behaved as a “chicken hawk” searching out young boys. Harding also asserted that he had never encountered child porn until Sawyers sent it to him over the Internet. (Sawyers has told investigators the opposite.) He now looks back on his cyber-connection with Sawyers, which lasted for several years, “with shame, embarrassment, and horror,” he told doctors.
Once his conduct became known, Mills wrote, Harding expressed “concerns for the embarrassment he was causing his family and his friends in the Giuliani administration.” Such concern and openness, Mills said, “is highly unusual” for most people accused of wrongdoing. In contrast, said Mills, Harding “is more self-honest, more aware, and more genuine in his concerns for the difficulties he has caused others.” Dr. Collins too was impressed with Harding’s candid admissions and described him as possessing an “unvarnished honesty.”
The records themselves raise questions about Harding’s account. Dr. Mills said he was asked to consider two Internet chats that took place on April 29 and May 1, 2002, the day before federal agents seized Harding’s personal computer from his East Side apartment. The chats, Mills write, indicate that Harding may have been in the process of trying to find a young boy for sex. The chats “raised the issue,” wrote Mills, “of whether [Harding] intended to act out his fantasies.” Harding “vigorously denied that he has ever attempted to implement those fantasies” or that the chats reflected “an attempt to identify a boy with whom he could have sexual relations,” said Mills.
The doctor believed him, writing that it was more likely that the chats represented not an actual search, but rather “an embellishment of fantasies.” To buttress that claim, the records show, Harding took a lie detector test. The results were not provided, but Mills said they confirmed that “he neither acted out such pedophilic fantasies nor that he has attempted to implement such fantasies.”
Mills was the first expert consulted on Harding’s behalf, brought into the case early last year, initially to help provide emergency analysis and later to help influence the outcome of efforts by Harding to reach a plea bargain with prosecutors. In a letter written last October, Mills wrote that he hoped “an appropriate plea and sentence” could be reached. Toward that end, Mills wrote that while there is a continued concern about “the potential for suicide,” he believed that the threat would diminish once Harding was imprisoned. “[H]e will then have decided that he can tolerate the time in custody that the government imposes.”
Harding, however, apparently had no such intention. Although plea discussions went on for months, they ultimately fell apart, reportedly after Harding himself refused to go along with them. His trial, originally set for July, was moved to September, and on Monday changed again to November 17 to accommodate a possible battle between psychiatric experts introduced by the two sides. Shargel said in court that Harding spent 12 hours last Friday being examined by the government’s psychiatric expert and is scheduled for another examination later this week. It must be a draining process. Sitting slumped in his chair at the defense table, Harding appeared already weary of the effort to prove his incapacity.