Hevesi’s Lame Defense Offends Common Sense

Even the dullest campaign can provide a peek into the

political underworld. In New York’s Mayoral race, that moment of tabloid truth

arrived when Alan Hevesi suddenly had to explain an unusual favor he once

performed for a major contributor-and all of his opponents except one rushed to

his defense.

The most sensational aspect of the story has become

well-known, and Mr. Hevesi hotly disputes it. From the files of an obscure

lawsuit between members of the wealthy Lowinger family, a document emerged in

which a former Lowinger employee claimed to have witnessed Mr. Hevesi accept cash

in 1997 from family patriarch Maurice Lowinger, since deceased. The former

employee recently confirmed to The

Observer that she was certain the Comptroller had pocketed an envelope

filled with cash, which had been withdrawn from a bank earlier that same day on

Lowinger’s orders.

While it is hard to imagine why this former employee would

have invented such a peculiar and damning incident, it is also hard to believe

that the Comptroller would take a cash payment,

especially in front of witnesses. In fact, there is really no reason to think

of him as corruptible at all.

No reason, that is, except for certain things Mr. Hevesi

said in his own defense.

While Mr. Hevesi denied the bribe allegation, the

Comptroller and his aides corroborated other significant aspects of the woman’s

account. They confirmed that the meeting with Lowinger had taken place. They

admitted that Mr. Hevesi discussed a favor that Lowinger wanted. And they

further admitted that Mr. Hevesi agreed to set up a business meeting between a

Lowinger firm and Bell Atlantic. He instructed one of his top aides to make the

call, and the favor was done. (Lowinger hoped to sell telephone equipment to

the phone company; they weren’t buying.)

Why did Mr. Hevesi use his office to arrange a business

meeting between two private firms? Being a wealthy businessman’s gofer has

nothing whatsoever to do with the responsibilities of the Comptroller’s office.

But by his own account, he immediately jumped to fulfill the Lowinger request.

Mr. Hevesi may have acted in part because of the friendship

between his family and the Lowingers that dated back to prewar Budapest,

as he suggested. That would have been an improper motive for official action,

although sentimentally excusable. But he also surely remembered that members of

the Lowinger family had donated more than $60,000 to his campaign treasury, a

motive that seems considerably less sentimental and more improper.

And why would Bell Atlantic executives agree to the

Comptroller’s request that they meet with a vendor whose previous overtures

they had already rejected? They consented for the same reason that Lowinger

approached Mr. Hevesi: He was and is a powerful public official wielding

authority that might directly affect the telecom company’s interests. He can

ensure that the company’s bills for services to the City of New

York are paid on time, and that any disputes over

those bills are resolved swiftly and amicably.

Of still greater interest to any big firm is Mr. Hevesi’s

role as chief overseer of the city’s public-employee pension funds. He embodies

a major institutional investor whose funds have typically held hundreds of

millions of dollars’ worth of Bell Atlantic stock in recent years. When a big

investor calls-even with a transparently ridiculous or obnoxious request-the

wise corporate manager endeavors to cooperate.

Mr. Hevesi’s conduct in this episode would appear to violate

the city’s ethics code, which prohibits him and other officials from using

their office and staff for extraneous, self-serving purposes. Both he and his

spokeswoman claimed that what the Comptroller did for Lowinger was not only

ethically acceptable, but mundane and even laudable. He said he does the same

kind of thing for others “all the time.” His spokeswoman said, “It is something

public officials do. Helping New York

companies is what public officials do.”

Actually, what public officials do-or are supposed to do-is

serve the public, not their campaign contributors. Mr. Hevesi’s claim that this

favor for Lowinger somehow served the public interest is preposterous. If he

regularly performs such peculiar services for his contributors, he doesn’t

belong in any position of public trust.

Equally disturbing was the demeaning defense offered by

Peter Vallone and Fernando Ferrer, candidates for Mayor and veterans of old

clubhouse machines where the motto is “Quid pro quo.” They sounded as if they

agreed that public officials should do the bidding of campaign contributors.

Campaign-finance reform has yet to improve the mentality of some politicians.

Only Mark Green understood the basic ethical issues in the

Lowinger matter. He was able to say that he would do no such thing and never

had. For a city government confronting corruption every day, his dissent

suggests a stark distinction between him and his rivals, and one of his most

compelling qualifications to become New York’s

next Mayor. Hevesi’s Lame Defense Offends Common Sense