Hard Time for Harding


The defendant shall now rise, said the judge. Russell Harding stood up.
He wore a loose orange smock turned inside out to hide the prison initials printed on the back. His rumpled tan pants were prison issue as well. No one had brought him a suit to wear for the occasion. In all likelihood, his parents would have done so. But he’d told them not to come.

Ray Harding and his wife, Liz, haven’t spoken with their younger son in over a year, according to friends. He stopped speaking to them sometime after he was locked up on their complaint when he threatened suicide on the eve of his November 2003 trial. In the meantime, Russell Harding passed his 40th and 41st birthdays in federal prison. There, he concluded that it was all their fault anyway. He had embezzled more than $400,000 while serving as president of the city’s Housing Development Corporation because he was severely depressed, he argued in legal papers. He had frittered the money away on lavish resorts, fancy restaurants, and electronic gizmos, all in an effort to escape his own demons, dark thoughts that had plagued him since the “emotional trauma” he’d suffered in his youth at his parents’ hands.

Even his old job, the one Rudy Giuliani had inexplicably handed him in June 1998, was his father’s fault. Given his psychological problems, he was “not prepared to handle” the post, he stated in a written appeal to the judge for leniency. Ray Harding, then the leader of the powerful Liberal Party and Giuliani’s political mentor, had been more interested in obtaining an impressive title for his son than in his mental or emotional condition, the appeal stated.

Three different doctors hired by the defense told the court that Harding suffered from mental ailments including a bipolar disorder. But when a government psychiatrist sought to question him, Harding took the Fifth Amendment rather than answer, an “extraordinary step,” as Judge Lewis Kaplan later described it. A neuropsychologist who evaluated Harding at a Minnesota prison also found something the other shrinks had somehow missed: Despite previous denials, Harding was “a chronic abuser of cocaine,” prosecutors stated.

In March, three years after the Voice first reported his spending binges, and two years after his arrest for embezzlement and possession of child pornography, Harding appeared via a video transmission from a prison hospital in North Carolina to change his plea to guilty.

As at earlier hearings, he sat hunched over beside his lawyers, silent, sullen, and morose, his face pasty, his dark hair now flecked with gray. But in the interim he had apparently stored up a lot that he wanted to say, and when he appeared for sentencing last Thursday before Judge Kaplan in Manhattan Federal Court, the words spilled out for more than 40 minutes.

With the self-assurance of one of his father’s candidates, Harding strode to the lectern. Punching and slicing the air with the gestures of a practiced politician, he spoke in complete sentences, ignoring his own handwritten notes. Bizarrely, however, his subject wasn’t his failures, but his successes.

“I want to talk about my accomplishments at the Housing Development Corporation,” he told Kaplan. He’d been heavily courted in the spring of 1998 to take the job, he said with pride. “I had developed a reputation as a manager.”

At HDC, he had found a “moribund” agency, its employees working in “a firetrap,” without modern computers or direct phone lines. He’d addressed those needs, he said, and reorganized its services. Rolling out housing vernacular, he said he’d “vastly expanded” development programs, and reclaimed derelict buildings. The government’s prosecutors had shortchanged his legacy by “insultingly” claiming he’d spent his time taking trips and “picking out fabric swatches” for the new offices.

In fact, that is the recollection of most people at the corporation, a small but prosperous agency tucked away in the city’s bureaucracy. Harding, they recalled, confined his interactions to a small handful of friends he hired. When not jetting to resorts on the agency’s credit cards, he’d be alone in his office, smoking cigarettes and huddled over his computer.

Prodded by the judge to address topics “a little more relevant” to the proceedings, Harding paused. “OK,” he said in a hurt-sounding voice. “I didn’t realize I had taken so long.” He then moved on to the 10 pornographic photos of prepubescent children found on his computer. “It’s not an easy subject,” he said. He had suffered from a “lifelong problem of repressed sexuality” in which porn was his main outlet.

“You start out with general, or established, pornography,” he said. “Then you need more and more to get the same fulfillment. It’s like reading westerns,” he suggested, in an original comparison. “You can’t read the same Zane Grey over and over.”

Another 1,500 adult pornographic photos were also on his computer, the defendant noted. By comparison, the child porn was insignificant. “Ten out of 1,500—it’s a rounding error. It’s less than 1 percent,” he said.

Yet the search also retrieved several hundred Internet chats he’d filed away. The files showed he had often discussed the logistics of “hooking up” with children, both in direct chats with underage boys, as well as with their fathers. “In content and number,” prosecutors Deborah Landis and Daniel Braun wrote in a letter to the judge, the chats were “shocking and disturbing.” Many had taken place in a chat room called “Bidads,” prosecutors wrote. In one instance, Harding had allegedly broken off a chat with “Jockstrapbidad” when he learned the father didn’t have custody of his 15-year-old son.

Harding’s attorneys countered that there was no evidence of any direct contact between their client and young boys. In the courtroom, Harding tried to persuade the judge the law was simply out of date. “This is where technology comes into conflict with the courts,” he said. “Cyber means cyber,” not action, he said. It was just talk, he insisted, nothing more. “At some points, I was having 20 chats at the same time,” he said.

Failed by family and friends, he told Kaplan, he had nothing left. “I am destitute, loveless, and homeless,” he said. “My future is zero, I came to terms with that. I will never lead an organization again.”

When he was done, there was more back-and-forth between the lawyers, and then the judge voiced his own findings. Harding “raised as many doubts as he satisfied with his remarks this morning,” Kaplan said. The defense’s psychiatric claims, he said, were “excuses for conduct for which the defendant is fully responsible.”

The judge then told Harding to stand up.

“You have clearly betrayed the trust of the people of this great city, not to mention everyone who ever cared about you,” he said. “All the more shocking and surprising, it is clear to me now for the first time how smart, talented, and articulate you are. You betray yourself as well as everyone else. It is in fact tragic.”

The episode, Kaplan said, “proves to me once more a lesson I’ve learned in 11 years as a judge. No person is good or evil; all are good and evil.” Yet these were “very serious” crimes deserving of “serious punishment.” Harding, he said, should serve the maximum sentence, 63 months. He would have to repay $367,000 stolen from the city. Marshals led the prisoner to a side door. He never turned to look at the gallery. There was no one to say goodbye to.