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filled with cash, which had been withdrawn from a bank earlier that same day on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