Refuge of Scoundrels


When Rudy Giuliani ran for re-election in 1997, he got a boost from Charles Hughes. A Democrat and an African American, Hughes headed one of the largest union locals of public employees. He not only endorsed the Republican mayor but made a TV ad showing him giving Giuliani a hearty embrace.

It was only later, after Hughes was indicted in 1999 for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from his union, which represented low-wage school aides, that his doctors and lawyers asserted that the labor official suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental affliction that distorted his judgment, causing him to not comprehend the meaning of his actions.

Hughes, who built himself a mansion in Georgia with his union’s funds and larded his payroll with neighbors and relatives, suffered from “grandiosity and delusional thinking,” wrote one of his doctors to the court.

Another Giuliani ally, Russell Harding, has also claimed he didn’t know what he was doing while serving in Giuliani’s administration. Harding has been charged with similar financial crimes and is asserting the same bipolar mental disorder as Hughes. Harding, who is also charged with possession of sexually explicit photos of young children, is the son of Ray Harding, Giuliani’s onetime key political adviser. His alleged embezzling took place while he was serving as president of the city’s Housing Development Corporation, a post in which Giuliani installed him shortly after the former mayor won re-election.

Harding is represented by criminal defense attorney Gerald Shargel, who was also Hughes’s lawyer. The two defendants were also diagnosed by some of the same doctors, including Dr. Mark Mills, a psychiatry professor at New York Medical College, and Dr. Wilfred van Gorp, a well-known neuropsychologist at Columbia University Medical School.

In Hughes’s case, van Gorp told the court in a written evaluation in 2000, there was no reason to suspect malingering on the union official’s part because the treatment for his ailment was so severe that it was worse than prison. “No rational human being would trade a reduced sentence, or even no sentence, for the devastating clinical course that awaits Mr. Hughes,” wrote the doctor.

Shortly thereafter, New York State Supreme Court Justice William Leibovitz ruled that Hughes’s mental condition was immaterial to his alleged crimes and could not be presented at trial. And a few weeks after the ruling, Hughes pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to three to nine years.

Last week, looking pallid and morose, Harding appeared at his own hearing before Federal District Judge Lewis Kaplan. Standing beside his client, Shargel argued that it was mental illness that drove Harding to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish trips and restaurants.

Shargel asked Kaplan to allow Mills, van Gorp, and another doctor to tell the jury about their clinical findings regarding Harding’s ailment. Prosecutors argued that the doctors’ analyses are faulty, pointing out that Harding went to great lengths to disguise his expenditures and to hide them from a Voice Freedom of Information request.

The judge is expected to rule shortly.

In Dr. van Gorp’s case, it isn’t the first time his analyses have been challenged. In 1997, he was a key witness for the defense in the racketeering trial in Brooklyn federal court of Genovese crime family boss Vincent “Chin” Gigante, whose bathrobe-wearing saunters in Greenwich Village and constant mumbling and drooling were, his family and lawyers insisted, indications of extreme mental incompetence. Van Gorp agreed. As he has done with Harding, the doctor administered a battery of tests, including several aimed at rooting out malingerers. “Mr. Gigante has moderate to severe dementia which reflects significant underlying central nervous system dysfunction,” van Gorp stated.

Even after Gigante’s conviction—the federal judge overruled the defense’s motions—van Gorp went on 60 Minutes to confirm his diagnosis. “I have worked with dementia patients for many years; he is exactly the kind of patient we see in a dementia clinic,” the doctor told Ed Bradley.

This April, however, Gigante pled guilty to a new indictment and admitted that he had “knowingly, intentionally” misled his doctors for years. The New York Times later asked van Gorp what had gone wrong with the analysis. “It should make all of us humble that we can indeed be had,” said the doctor, adding, “We don’t get inside somebody’s brain.”

Whatever Gigante may have done has nothing to do with Harding, said Shargel in an interview. “I understand that a lot of people have been dismissive of this defense, but bipolar disorder is a real disease which a whole lot of people suffer from, and it deeply impacts on a person’s thinking process.”

Indeed, there is nothing illusory about the kind of malady Harding claims to suffer from. Some 2 million Americans are afflicted with it. Many report a constant and terrifying battle with an internal monster: raging fits of anger, steady self-loathing, promiscuity, paranoid delusions, a roller coaster of mood swings, spending binges, even bloody and inexplicable self-mutilation along with suicide attempts and repeated hospitalizations.

But some of those who have known Harding over the years are skeptical that his own demons are so bad that they took over his behavior. Instead, they assert, he may be giving a bad name to legitimately crazy people.

On a website chat room for members of Harding’s class of 1982 at Bronx High School of Science, several former classmates posted notes ridiculing his claims. “Have you guys heard that our favorite crook . . . is now trying to claim that he’s innocent due to mental defect?” wrote one former student. “I have to agree on one level. He was manic when he had our tax dollars.”

Another said, “I don’t think that depression . . . or other claims that his lawyers are making on his behalf are making any psychological sense or even legal sense. I pray,” the writer added, “on behalf of the truly depressed,” that Harding’s claims are rejected.

Michael Gelman, who was Harding’s roommate during their freshman year at Clark University in Massachusetts, said he did remember Harding exhibiting “vicious mood swings” during his college years, but never thought him out of control. “We thought he was eccentric,” said Gelman, who called the Voice after reading about Harding. “He could be a manipulator, a little sociopathic. Sometimes he would lie and contradict himself. But to say he didn’t know right from wrong? I find that a dubious argument. I would have to say I disagree.”

Harding was a big spender in those days, too, Gelman recalled. He often “picked up the tab when we went out,” Gelman said. “He liked to look like a generous person, but he always put himself first.”

His former roommate was “meticulous” in his attire, Gelman said. Unlike most of the rest of the college crowd, Harding “always dressed immaculately. His clothes were pressed and dry-cleaned.” Twice a month, Harding would travel to New York to get his hair cut, Gelman said.

The roommates lost touch for a while after college. Gelman said he didn’t learn until later that Harding had dropped out in his final semester. But they ran into each other again in the early 1990s in Washington, D.C., where Gelman lived and where Harding had gotten a job through his father working for then senator Alfonse D’Amato. They went to a few nightclubs and dined together, and then, Gelman said, he had to make an emergency trip to Europe, where his mother had fallen ill. “I had this old Toyota, and I left it with Russ. He said he’d take care of it while I was away. But when I got back, I found out he had left it in non-running order, illegally parked in his neighborhood. I had to have it towed to a garage.”

Gelman said he tried to reach Harding about the car. “I couldn’t find him. He just wouldn’t return my calls.”