Reeling Hevesi in Collision With Steely Spitzer

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When Eliot Spitzer said at a debate late in the race for Governor that Alan Hevesi was a “stupendous public servant,” it was at odds with what he was saying privately.

Behind closed doors, according to an elected official who talked to Mr. Spitzer shortly after the debate, the attorney general was conveying a different message, wondering aloud how Mr. Hevesi could have been so “sloppy” about doing something when he “knew it was wrong.”

The antipathy apparently went both ways.

Another elected official recalled having a conversation with Mr. Hevesi shortly before Election Day in which the comptroller said of Mr. Spitzer, “I have no idea why he’s doing what he’s doing.”

Either way, this most uncomfortable situation between two of the top Democrats in the state will have to be resolved, to the obvious dissatisfaction of one of the parties, soon.

Mr. Hevesi, hit hard by a scandal involving the use of a public employee to chauffeur his wife, is desperately trying to stave off the end of his career. At the same time, Mr. Spitzer has already committed himself to removing Mr. Hevesi from office at all costs—before the circumstances can cast a shadow over the beginning of his term in January.

“He’s trying to kill him,” said a Democratic office holder who has worked closely with Mr. Spitzer. “It kind of developed during the campaign where Spitzer felt the need to take an aggressive position because he was trying to come in with this claim that he was going to be a big reformer and things were going to change.”

At the moment, things look grim for Mr. Hevesi. He’s the subject of a vigorous criminal investigation by the Albany County District Attorney’s office. The office of departing Governor George Pataki is conducting its own independent investigation, led by the former federal attorney who tried Martha Stewart for insider trading. And the New York State Ethics Commission, which is conducting a third investigation, has already said there is reason to believe Mr. Hevesi broke the law by not keeping adequate records of the time two state employees spent driving Mr. Hevesi’s wife on personal errands.

One possible outcome at this point is that Mr. Hevesi gives up and resigns, at which point both houses of the legislature—read: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver—would pick his replacement.

Another possibility is that the Governor asks the Republican-controlled State Senate to recall Mr. Hevesi, in which case a trial and vote would be held by the 62 Senators. If two-thirds vote to remove Mr. Hevesi, the Governor would pick the new comptroller.

That has effectively turned most of the state’s lawmakers into potential jurors on a trial pitting the governor and comptroller against each other.

Mr. Spitzer, who withdrew his official endorsement of Mr. Hevesi late in the campaign, has repeatedly declined to comment on the specific actions he plans to pursue until after he takes office. Of the private conversations in which he was critical of Mr. Hevesi, Mr. Spitzer’s spokeswoman Christine Anderson said, in an e-mail, “I’ve never heard him say that.”

Mr. Hevesi’s spokesman David Neustadt wrote, of the phone call in which the comptroller discussed Mr. Spitzer, “I have no knowledge of his private conversations.”

The new Democratic Minority Leader in the State Senate, Malcolm Smith, declined to say anything about whether a conclusion has been reached on the question of removing Mr. Hevesi, saying through a spokesman that “given that members of the Senate would be part of that impartial jury, it remains inappropriate for us to comment on the proceedings until they have run their proper and due course.”

But Mr. Hevesi, who served in the Legislature for 22 years before another eight years as City Comptroller, is not without friends.

Democratic legislators have quietly expressed shock at how Mr. Spitzer turned on Mr. Hevesi, who helped craft some of Mr. Spitzer’s financial proposals on the campaign trail. Mr. Silver has been supportive of Mr. Hevesi, as have many of the state’s labor unions.

“We’re proud of our effort to help re-elect Alan Hevesi,” state A.F.L.-C.I.O. spokesman Mario Cilento said on Tuesday afternoon. “Everything else is out of our hands.”

Mr. Hevesi’s position as comptroller—which comes with the power to audit any state agency and veto virtually any state contract—continues to give him political leverage.

And Mr. Hevesi’s victory with more than 56 percent of the vote, which he achieved despite exhaustive coverage of “chauffeurgate,” is now Mr. Hevesi’s greatest rhetorical asset.

In a statement e-mailed by his spokesman, Mr. Hevesi said, “Honest concern for my wife caused me to make a mistake for which I have apologized. Millions of New Yorkers weighed the facts and my record of service and decided to elect me by an overwhelming percentage to another four-year term as Comptroller. It is my responsibility to do the job to which they elected me, which I intend to do every day for the next four years.”

No matter what Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Hevesi say publicly, and privately, the ongoing investigations are a factor that neither man can control.

Governor Pataki hired former federal prosecutor David Kelley, a Democrat, to investigate Mr. Hevesi. Mr. Pataki signed an executive order this week to give Mr. Kelley subpoena power and “full and unrestricted access” to investigate.

In a preliminary report, Mr. Kelley said he was unable to recommend removing Mr. Hevesi because the actual process was without precedent.

Then there’s the criminal investigation by Albany County District Attorney David Soares, which continues to keep all the players in this unattractive scenario on edge about what they’ll end up doing.

According to one source with knowledge of the criminal investigation, Mr. Soares’ office has impaneled a grand jury and sent out as many as 25 subpoenas to possible witnesses. The investigation is not expected to be completed until mid-December, according to the source.

Although they’re far from resolved, the investigations sparked by Mr. Hevesi have already begun to change Albany in much the way that Mr. Spitzer has promised.

Correction: Nov. 22, 2006

A number of quotes in the original version of this story were incorrectly attributed to consultant and former Democratic operative Ken Sunshine. The comments were actually made by former City Council member Ken Fisher. The Observer regrets the error.

Reeling Hevesi in Collision With Steely Spitzer