It’s Good to Be Housing President

A friend, reading about how public servant Russell Harding charged taxpayers for his morning bagel along with occasional trips to exciting locales, etc., dropped me an e-mail lamenting that he had chosen the wrong profession. This was a bit of a surprise: I didn’t even know they had e-mail capability in Sing Sing.

Oh, I jest. I assume they do have e-mail in Sing Sing. But my friend is not, in fact, a guest of the state. He reviews books for a living, which, let it be said, is probably the next best thing to taking money that doesn’t belong to you.

Mr. Harding, as you may have read, is under investigation for his interesting habit of paying for as little as possible while serving as Rudolph Giuliani’s highly qualified, amazingly able and thoroughly nonpolitical president of the New York City Housing Development Corporation. Mr. Harding charged a quarter-million dollars’ worth of expenses for trips, hotels, meals and other of life’s necessities.

While serving as the housing corporation’s president, Mr. Harding also held the position of son of Liberal Party boss and Table No. 1 macher Raymond Harding. Russell Harding was appointed to the latter position upon his birth and did quite well, accepting as much work as Mr. Giuliani was willing to give him, despite his ample lack of qualifications.

Table No. 1 Harding gave Mr. Giuliani the Liberal Party line in 1989, to no avail, and again in 1993, to much avail. Republican Mayoral candidates who do not have more than $60 million of their own money generally require a second endorsement so that kneejerk Democrats can be persuaded to vote against one of their own without having to pull a dastardly Republican lever. Mr. Harding gave Mr. Giuliani that which he required, and Mr. Harding’s two sons went to work for Mr. Giuliani. This is an honorable political tradition, sullied only when politicians deny that it exists. It may not surprise you to learn that Mr. Giuliani did, in fact, deny that politics had nothing to do with his employment of the Harding boys.

About 18 months ago, Russell Harding learned that The Village Voice ‘s Tom Robbins was mighty interested in obtaining his expense records. Mr. Robbins got a few, then asked for more. He was told that he couldn’t have them-and besides, they couldn’t be found.

This suggests the following axiom: When politicians deny documents to the public, it is generally because the documents contain evidence of embarrassing, if not criminal, behavior. It is the former rather than the latter concern that has no doubt inspired President George W. Bush to keep some of the papers belonging to his father and Ronald Reagan away from the prying eyes of historians.

Here’s another axiom: If you want to keep your embarrassing documents from prying eyes, you’d better keep high political office all in the family. Because, as is well known, you can’t trust anybody else.

Like, for example, Michael Bloomberg. He may have been Mr. Giuliani’s designated successor (albeit by default; Mr. Giuliani would have recommended the election of Warren “No Relation” Harding if the only other choice was Mark Green), but Mr. Bloomberg isn’t family. And it was the new administration that searched hither and yon to cooperate with Mr. Robbins. Amazingly, the expense records were found, and we now know that Russell Harding wouldn’t even put down a buck and change for his morning bagel. The perks of public office, he said. He now says that he has paid back $52,000 and is willing to pay back more, if needed.

Sad to say, Russell Harding’s attitude is not particularly unique. Anyone who has spent quality time with two-bit politicians knows that many are convinced they are worth a good deal more than their piddling government salaries. They become especially upset with their measly financial status when they’re invited to spend time with the corporate titans, big-time lobbyists and outright thieves who require their services. Often this envy sends politicians on the road to incarceration. More often, though, it inspires yes-but-it’s-legal shenanigans. Such as: campaign funds that pay for a mayor’s vacation, or a congressman’s meals, or a senator’s dry cleaning, or an alderman’s mistress’ birthday roses.

It’s all recorded (except perhaps for the roses), and it’s all available for public inspection, assuming that you care enough to look. Most of us don’t, having lives to live.

Mr. Harding’s case is quite a bit different because, as Joyce Purnick pointed out in The New York Times the other day, the $1,000 meals he charged, the all-expenses-paid trips he took to Hong Kong, Las Vegas and San Diego, and, yes, the damn bagel he ate every morning-all of it could have been spent for some public benefit, as opposed to money spent from a campaign treasury that is of no use to the taxpayer.

But, hey, what’s the point of public service if you don’t get a few perks?