Friday, April 17, 2009

Former state Liberal Party boss' downfall

Authorities placed Ray Harding, 74, ex-boss of the now-defunct state Liberal Party, in a double-set of handcuffs before walking him past the cameras to his arraignment.

This image of a once-potent player brought low startled New York's electoral world this week as Harding became the latest figure charged in the "pay-to-play" pension cases brought by state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo charges that Harding was rewarded for years of political service to former Democratic Comptroller Alan Hevesi with hundreds of thousands of dollars in "placement" fees from investment firms seeking business from the state pension fund that Hevesi controlled.

Rudy Giuliani - whose mayoralty had been Harding's best known political meal ticket - gave a brief reaction as he departed a state GOP dinner on Wednesday. He said he didn't know the merits of the allegations and urged a prayer for Harding's family. Harding's lawyers deny the charges.

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But what political insiders found more stunning was that years before Harding emerged as Giuliani's top political guru, he was a sometime-ally of former Gov. Mario Cuomo - and his son and adviser Andrew Cuomo.

Their on-and-off contacts of the past drive all kinds of armchair speculation over who's doing what to whom. "It's like a le Carré novel," a longtime acquaintance of all the players involved said sadly Thursday. "Unfortunately, I know the characters - and it's not a novel."

As it happened, it was in the Sheraton New York - the same hotel where on Wednesday he heard Republican icon Newt Gingrich encourage him to run for governor - that Giuliani stood up at Harding's Liberal Party dinner, with Gov. Cuomo, their clasped hands held high, 14 years ago.

"Governor Cuomo and Mayor Giuliani, I'm really happy to see you here tonight - together," Harding said.

The audience cheered. Days later, Republican George Pataki unseated Cuomo.

Despite that outcome, Harding, who ultimately won out in the party's factional warfare of the 1980s, seemed to thrive. His city-based law firm grew in stature. Associates enjoyed access to city agencies. Liberal Party members and Harding relatives got big and small city jobs.

But things fell apart. In 2001, Ray Harding backed Hevesi as Giuliani's successor for mayor. This was supposed to help position the then-city comptroller in the Democratic primary. Hevesi lost the primary, but it was too late to remove his name from the general-election ballot. He drew the Liberals a pathetic 1 percent of votes cast.

The following year, as Hevesi ran successfully for state comptroller, Harding also backed Andrew Cuomo for governor. But Cuomo by Election Day had ceded the Democratic primary to H. Carl McCall, so his draw on the Liberal line fell short of the 50,000 needed to sustain its automatic place on the ballot.

For Harding, the party was over in more ways than one. His son Russell was convicted of embezzlement and possessing child pornography and was sentenced to federal prison. The elder Harding allegedly pursued investment-placement fees to defray Russell's legal costs - leading him to hook up with Nassau-raised Hank Morris, a longtime Hevesi adviser and fellow "pay-to-play" defendant, who allegedly manipulated access for investment officials.

Prosecutors said Harding helped Hevesi arrange the vacancy of a Queens Assembly seat occupied by Democrat Michael Cohen for his son Andrew Hevesi. Cohen reportedly got a $150,000 job with the Health Insurance Plan of New York, and Andrew Hevesi, who is not charged with wrongdoing, got a quick special election that he won.

Many wonder whether these criminal cases will stick. For the moment, only their status as a political bombshell has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

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