More that three decades after he began his rise in the Democratic Party, State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi is scheduled to walk into an Albany County courthouse this morning to plead guilty to a felony crime and offer his resignation from his powerful post.
The comptroller's expected resignation would defer prosecution of the case against him by Albany County District Attorney David Soares over Hevesi's directing state workers to provide chauffeur and other services for his wife without reimbursing the state. Under the plea deal, Hevesi will avoid jail, officials said Thursday.
Lawyers for Hevesi and Soares still were negotiating Thursday evening, and so there were opportunities for the plea deal to still fall apart or for it to be knocked down to something below a felony plea, officials said.
Rachel McEneny, a spokeswoman for Soares, insisted through the day there was still "no deal" with Hevesi. Hevesi, who has few allies left in the state Democratic Party, previously insisted he would not resign because voters in November, knowing of the chauffeur scandal, still re-elected him.
While officials close to Soares and Hevesi remained tight-lipped, the jockeying already was under way to fill the post of the state's top fiscal watchdog. The appointment will be resolved by a vote of the 212-member State Legislature in early January.
Democrats will control the appointment because they have a clear majority -- 136 members -- between the two houses. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, will be the point man in a process seen as the first true test of his relationship with Gov.-elect Eliot L. Spitzer.
The precise timing of when Hevesi's resignation would take effect was a major sticking point throughout the day Thursday, as prosecutors sought to determine how to word a plea deal involving an office whose term does not start until Jan. 1.
>Timing in question
Hevesi was just re-elected to a second term, and there were concerns that even if he resigns as part of the plea, he still might have to be officially sworn in Jan. 1 and then immediately resign. Other Democrats taking office that day would not look forward to sharing the day with the embattled comptroller.
Hevesi's fall from political grace began with a tip to the comptroller's fraud hot line back in September from J. Christopher Callaghan, his Republican opponent in the fall campaign. It would end a political career that saw the Queens Democrat rise from a state assemblyman to the state's chief fiscal watchdog and sole overseer of a government pension system worth more than $140 billion.
"Not a moment too soon," Callaghan said Thursday of Hevesi's looming resignation. Asked how he felt to be the instrument that helped end Hevesi's political career, Callaghan said, "It's good to be useful."
Hevesi, 66, used four state workers for varying periods of time to take care of the personal needs of his ailing wife, including serving as her driver and even helping her with leg exercises after a knee surgery. Hevesi sought the driver as security for her following what he said were threats against him, though he failed to reimburse the state until after the Callaghan tip.
He recently agreed with Spitzer's office to repay the state a total of $206,000; he apologized and said the lapsed payments were an oversight.
The state Ethics Commission earlier said Hevesi's actions were a violation of state law and Gov. George E. Pataki later appointed a special counsel to look into offering evidence to the State Senate for possible removal proceedings; that action was put on hold while Soares did his criminal investigation.
>A host of hopefuls
But politically, Silver cannot afford to avoid consulting -- or, more likely, negotiating -- about the Hevesi replacement with Spitzer, now the head of the Democratic Party and set to take over the governor's mansion in just over a week.
The Legislature has appointed one of its own to fill statewide vacancies in the past, but there could be forces working against such a pick this time.
For starters, a host of Democratic lawmakers from the Assembly have shown an interest in Hevesi's job, including Thomas DiNapoli of Nassau, Richard Brodsky of Westchester, Michael Gianaris of Queens, Felix Ortiz of Brooklyn and Joseph Morelle of Rochester. But picking one of those could create problems for Silver, who would still have to serve with the remaining three who he passed over for the job, two lawmakers said.
Then there's the perception problem of taking someone from the Legislature to replace the scandal-plagued Hevesi as the chief protector of the state's finances. A dozen lawmakers in the past few years have been caught up in a host of scandals -- some have gone to jail -- and just this week Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, the Legislature's top Republican, said he is facing an FBI inquiry of his outside business dealings.
Silver, who stood by Hevesi through the scandal, declined to comment.
A source close to Spitzer said the incoming governor will try to ensure that the next comptroller is "independent and with specific experience" relating to the job of comptroller, who runs an office of 2,400 workers, monitors state spending and runs one of the world's biggest pension systems.
>O'Donnell being pushed
Such criteria about independence would rule out state legislators, party insiders say. It also might pose problems for William Mulrow, a Westchester County businessman also said to be interested in the post. Mulrow ran against Hevesi in a 2002 primary. But he has a couple of factors working against him: He and Spitzer are not as close as they once were, and the business executive is also part of a group trying to win the rights to run three major thoroughbred racetracks in the state, a matter Spitzer will decide on next year.
A number of Democrats are pushing Denise O'Donnell, the former U.S. attorney from Buffalo during the Clinton administration and now a lawyer in private practice. She won points with Spitzer when she bowed out of the race for attorney general to make way for Andrew Cuomo and thereby help ensure party peace. O'Donnell's upstate roots "might make her a fair compromise candidate," said one party insider.
O'Donnell declined comment Thursday.
With all the incoming statewide officeholders coming from downstate, party leaders should use the Hevesi vacancy as a way to give a nod to upstate, some party officials said. "I think upstate should be in the mix here," said Leonard R. Lenihan, Erie County Democratic Party chairman.