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Heastie’s serious ethical lapses show he is not fit to lead the Assembly

This is who members of the State Assembly wanted as their leader? A member who plays fast and loose with his campaign account, who cheats a not-for-profit agency out of money his family swindled from it, who makes himself a flashing red target for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara? Are they kidding?

New York’s state legislators have to be the most insular, unteachable group of nihilists in the country. In policing, they call it suicide by cop: Come at an officer with a weapon drawn and it will all soon be over.

In the Assembly, the weapon being brandished is yet another unsuited speaker, Carl E. Heastie, and the cop members are taunting is Bharara, the federal prosecutor whose efforts this year led to felony criminal charges against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Bharara should set his sights on Heastie, if he hasn’t already.

The evidence suggesting Heastie’s unsuitability to lead a powerful legislative chamber is significant and was reported this week by the New York Times and published in The Buffalo News. For example:

• Heastie spent $30,000 from his campaign funds for repairs to his car, currently a black BMW 328i. Over nine years of spending, that averages out at around $3,300 a year. Those charges were incurred about every 10 weeks. It would be interesting to know why.

• At the same time, Heastie billed taxpayers for $51,200 in mileage reimbursements. That money is supposed to cover repairs and other costs from trips to and from Albany. Is he double-dipping?

• The night before his 39th birthday, the Bronx Democrat charged his campaign for $270 in “food” at a Manhattan nightclub that did not sell food, but did offer caged go-go dancers.

• Twice he used campaign funds to pay his girlfriends. In 2002, his campaign paid Charsleissa King $550 for the “design of campaign literature.” This, even though he was unopposed in the primary and even though records show no spending on the printing of literature the rest of that year. In 2011, the campaign paid $2,500 to Alvita Robertson, with whom Heastie has a daughter, to design a campaign website. The New York Post has reported that Robertson used some of the money to hire a Web designer and kept the rest.

A spokesman said Heastie obeyed all relevant laws and that all of the spending in question was for legitimate political purposes. Heastie has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

The problems with this pattern of conduct are at least ethical and potentially legal. State law prohibits using campaign funds for personal expenses, and double-billing for his vehicle can also create problems with the law.

But forget, for the moment, any legal issues. Just as a matter of ethics, these matters should have set off alarms among Assembly members, at least those with an interest in improving the chamber’s dismal record on ethics.

Almost certainly, though, members voted for Heastie without knowing the specifics of his uses of campaign money. They should have known. To vote blindly for a new leader only days after his predecessor was charged with felonies represents a willful ignorance, one whose principal victims are New York taxpayers, also known as voters.

And, of course, that isn’t all. As the Times previously reported, Heastie failed to comply with a judge’s order to reimburse his mother’s employer, a nonprofit from which she stole $200,000. Instead, he sold the apartment she purchased with some of that money, made a profit of nearly $200,000 and used the proceeds to buy a nicer home for himself.

The question practically shouts itself: By what tortured explanation is this man fit to serve as the leader of the New York State Assembly? It is possible, and maybe even likely, that Heastie was only following the lead of others in the Legislature – cutting corners, abusing donors, cheating taxpayers – but that doesn’t require New Yorkers’ tolerance.

Heastie promised, upon taking that leadership post, that he would lead the chamber into a new era of ethical standards. It’s the most immediate and serious problem in Albany, and he cannot do it. It’s like asking the owner of a brothel to write new laws on prostitution.

His continuation in the speaker’s chair is a problem for New Yorkers and an invitation to Bharara.