THE BLOG
10/08/2010 02:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jail to the Thief

There was little surprise in Alan Hevesi's confession that he was a corrupt Comptroller. News of the Attorney General's investigation had leaked over the years, and the guilty pleas of his co-conspirators made it clear that his office was a cesspool of favoritism obtained through bribery.

For a person in such high office to betray it so completely is shocking, even to those of us who are accustomed to reporting on political corruption. It is one thing for a Vito Lopez, Pedro Espada and Larry Seabrook to turn their anti-poverty organizations into automatic teller machines for themselves, their mistresses, their unemployed children, their campaign managers, and the friends and relatives (kith and kin) of any of the above insiders. Their conduct is highly offensive and, if convicted of the allegations against them, they should go directly to prison. Efrain Gonzalez, another state senator from the Bronx, was sentenced to 7 years in a Federal prison for similar crimes.

But for Alan Hevesi, a reasonably affluent, well-educated intelligent and articulate elected official, descendant of rabbis, state legislator for 23 years, two-term Comptroller of the City of New York, Professor of Political Science at Queens College, recipient of a Ph.D. degree from Columbia University in 1971, after having written his thesis analyzing the leadership of the state legislature, to turn out to be have repeatedly betrayed the public trust -- that is difficult to accept.

Since Hevesi has turned out to be a crook, what politician can we believe to be honest? We assume that most of them are, but we know there are some who are dishonest, even if we do not know their names. We are familiar with those who have been convicted in recent years. Former Senate majority leader Joseph Bruno heads the list, with Senators Guy Velella and Hiram Monserrate, Assemblymembers Diane Gordon, Roger Green, Brian McLaughlin, Clarence Norman, Anthony Seminerio, and Councilmembers Angel Rodriguez and Miguel Martinez. Governor Eliot Spitzer and Congressman Vito Fossella were not tried for criminal behavior, but were disgraced when their extra-curricular activities became known to the public. Councilman Dennis Gallagher was convicted of criminal harassment. Spitzer and Gallagher resigned, Fossella finished out his term, but did not seek re-election. For appointed public officials, one can start with former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, now in a Federal prison in Maryland.

If we have omitted any convicted public officials, please let us know and their names will be added to the list.

The question arises: what is an appropriate punishment for a high official who betrays his trust? He is responsible not only for the money he took for himself and his family, but the depredations of Hank Morris, who was his political manager. Morris appears to have enriched himself far more than Hevesi, but we do not really know where the money extorted from people who wanted to deal with the pension fund ended up.

In China, such a person would be executed, but that is not the American way. Hevesi was born on January 31, 1940, and is now 70 years old. A prison sentence is required, but should the length be calibrated with his life expectancy? One obvious penalty is to forfeit the pensions he now receives from the City University and the State Legislature. He certainly did not provide honest services to the public while holding high elective office. Restitution to the state for his ill-gotten gains should be part of any plea arrangement.

It is likely that when a person demonstrates such a basic character flaw as we have in this case that there are all kinds of other situations in which he behaved improperly. Without going into rumors, we will not go into rumors.

We have not so far mentioned Governors John Rowland of Connecticut or James McGreevey of New Jersey, who resigned in the face of allegations of misconduct, financial and sexual. Since Governor Spitzer was forced to resign to avoid impeachment by the state legislature which hated him, none of the three governors in the tri-state area was able to complete his term in office. That is highly unusual, and thoroughly shameful.

Back to Hevesi, whom we defended in 2006 because we felt using a state car for a sick wife was not a felony. We would send him to state prison for at least five years, forfeit his pension and require restitution of any money or benefits he received through his misconduct. He should also be asked (he cannot be compelled) to write a book about his crimes and their punishment, to be distributed to all newly-elected public officials as required reading. That is unusual, but in the circumstances it does not appear to be cruel. See the Constitution, Eighth Amendment.

This is a terribly sad case: for the former Comptroller, for his family, for the people he victimized, for his community and for those who admired him. I am reminded of the kid who met "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a star outfielder on the 1919 White Sox who took bribes from gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. "Say it ain't so, Joe," the youngster said to his hero, or so the legend goes. 

Sadly, it was so. The eight guilty athletes were banned from baseball for life. Jackson and pitcher Eddie Cicotte confessed their participation to a Chicago grand jury, but the players were acquitted.

The reputation of the national pastime was so scarred by what was dubbed the "Black Sox Scandal" that the owners named Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to be the first Commissioner of Baseball. Kennesaw Mountain was the site of a major battle in General Sherman's march on Atlanta in 1864. Judge Landis was born in 1866 in Millville, Ohio.

Landis served from 1920 to his death in 1944. During that time, his word was considered law in baseball. Since then, there have been a series of commissioners appointed by the owners and generally serving their interests. 

INFORMATIVE LINKS

In the wonderful world we live in, documents relating to legal proceedings are often available immediately.

To read Hevesi's allocution, click here.
To read the charges against Hevesi, click here.