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Hevesi admits guilt, then resigns His plea deal to a felony count of defrauding the government allows him to avoid prison term

Alan Hevesi resigned as state comptroller Friday to avoid prison after admitting in court he stole public funds. It was a bitterly ironic end for an official who saw his own political capital rise over the years by uncovering fiscal abuse in state and local agencies across New York.

Officials said Hevesi is the first statewide official forced from office in disgrace in nearly 100 years.

"I plead guilty, sir," Hevesi told Albany County Judge Stephen Herrick in a deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to a lesser felony charge of defrauding the government.

He agreed to resign immediately Friday morning -- and to resign again Jan. 1 when he is sworn in for winning re-election in November -- in exchange for not serving any of up to four years in prison the felony crime carries.

A few hours later, his two-paragraph formal letter of resignation was sent -- via e-mail -- to the leaders of the Assembly and State Senate.

The Queens Democrat was slapped with a $5,000 fine on top of the $206,000 he recently repaid the state for three years' worth of pay for state workers who became personal aides to his wife. They served as her chauffeur to places like Bloomingdale's and performed such tasks as watering her plants, taking out the garbage and helping with leg exercises after her knee surgery.

Hevesi, 66, loses his $151,500 salary. But the felony plea will, by law, have no impact on the two government pensions -- worth $166,467 a year -- he already collects from his years as a professor at Queens College and two decades in the Assembly and state and New York City comptroller jobs.

The extraordinarily quick fall from grace for a politician with immense power but whose office kept him largely out of the public's eye ended 35 years of public service for Hevesi. It also kick-started what could be a bruising battle to replace him.

>Intrigue begins

Before Hevesi posed for a police mug shot Friday morning, replacement candidates were furiously working to gather support.

There was already intrigue, though, as Gov. George E. Pataki raised concerns about the fiscal office operating without a comptroller until the Legislature sometime early next year chooses a replacement to fill Hevesi's four-year term. The office is a 2,400-employee agency that approves all state spending, performs audits and runs a $140 billion pension system for government workers.

State officials said the governor was considering whether to try to appoint an interim comptroller. There also may be a small window of opportunity for Gov.-elect Eliot L. Spitzer to appoint a replacement if he acts in the two days after he takes office Jan. 1 before the Legislature reconvenes. Spitzer said Friday, though, he wants to work with the Legislature to choose Hevesi's replacement.

Hevesi's departure put Thomas Sanzillo, the first deputy comptroller, in charge until a replacement is selected. He has all the powers of the comptroller, according to an agency spokesman, to sign paychecks, approve contracts and make decisions about the giant state and local government employees pension fund.

But the Pataki administration believes there may be a section in law allowing Pataki, who leaves office in a week, to name an interim comptroller who could keep office until Jan. 25, or 20 days after the 2007 legislative session begins. If that happens, it could set up a constitutional showdown with the Legislature. The law says a governor can temporarily fill a vacant comptroller's post only if the Legislature is not in session; the Legislature claims it is always in session.

The Legislature, under the constitution, picks a successor. That means Democrats, who hold the most seats in the two houses, control the process. Already, several lawmakers privately expressed tensions with Spitzer, who does not have a formal vote in the process but, as incoming governor and head of the Democratic Party, could hold great sway over the decision.

Spitzer has angered some lawmakers by sending signals that he does not believe any of the half-dozen legislators showing interest in Hevesi's job should get the post. Spitzer allies have said it would not look good to replace Hevesi with someone from the State Legislature, considering a dozen lawmakers the past couple of years have faced various ethical and criminal run-ins.

>O'Donnell a long shot

A slew of names have already emerged as possible replacements.

Denise O'Donnell, a former U.S. attorney from Buffalo and one of the names mentioned, is said to be a long shot, as is William Mulrow, a 2002 comptroller candidate from Westchester County. No Buffalo area lawmakers are being eyed so far, though Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, a Rochester Democrat, is pushing hard for the post.

Spitzer, in a statement, said Hevesi's replacement should have "significant experience in financial matters" and be a person of "unquestioned integrity who will act independently in the interests of taxpayers." He said he would work "in partnership" with legislators who he said should "act in a way that helps restore people's faith in state government."

The Legislature's top Democrat, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, a Hevesi friend, said the Legislature will work "in partnership" with Spitzer in selecting a replacement.

At the Capitol, the operative word of the day by Republicans and Democrats alike -- from Pataki and Spitzer to Albany County District Attorney David Soares -- was "sad."

Silver, who stuck by Hevesi until the end, said he hoped Hevesi's "lengthy and praiseworthy career will be judged as a whole and not on one series of events."

"It was a tragic end to what once was a distinguished career," said Soares, whose office prosecuted the case and was preparing to seek an indictment against Hevesi Friday if the guilty plea had not come.

>Hevesi admits guilt

In his 40-minute court appearance, Hevesi stood in front of the judge with his two lawyers at his side, occasionally rocking back on his heels as he gave brief answers to a series of legal questions about his rights. For the first time, Hevesi publicly acknowledged that he never intended to repay the state; until Friday, he always said he simply forgot to pay.

About to resign as the state's chief fiscal watchdog, Hevesi listened as the judge told him he would have to pay the state $50 for the DNA sample it took from his mouth -- a requirement in felony cases -- and was giving up all rights to appeal or later change his mind about the guilty plea.

Mobbed by reporters and cameras outside the courthouse, Hevesi took no questions. "I want to apologize to the people of New York State who have given me the opportunity to serve them,'' Hevesi said.

Besides maintaining his innocence until Friday morning, Hevesi had insisted he would not resign because voters -- knowing about the scandal -- had re-elected him by a comfortable margin last month.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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