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Silver, Spitzer put to test Hevesi done in by his own recklessness; successor must be chosen for ability

Alan Hevesi, a man who liked to get things done, was fond of observing that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission. If he'd asked permission this time, he would still be state comptroller and he wouldn't be a convicted felon.

It's a shame it came to this for Hevesi, but arrogance has its price, especially when it leads you into temptation.Hevesi's was to take money from taxpayers to provide a chauffeur and other services for his wife, who is ailing but unelected and unentitled to taxpayers' largess.

Why a man who makes more than $300,000 a year, counting pensions, couldn't have paid for that assistance himself is one of the maddening mysteries of a case that has unfortunately -- but entirely appropriately -- deprived New Yorkers of a comptroller who was, in other aspects, a valuable public servant. This time, forgiveness wasn't possible.

Hevesi pleaded guilty Friday to a Class E felony of defrauding the government, and resigned the post he has held for four years and to which he was re-elected only last month. Now state leaders must choose a replacement and, under the rules, the new comptroller will be named by Democrats, because they hold the greater number of seats in both houses of the Legislature.

Jockeying has already begun, but Democrats, under the influence of Gov.-elect Eliot Spitzer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, must avoid an overtly political choice. One of the primary reasons Hevesi could no longer do this job is that the position, more than most, requires not only political independence, but the appearance of it. For the comptroller to be useful, New Yorkers must have faith in his impartiality.

For that reason, Spitzer and Silver would be well advised to choose someone not currently or recently serving in either legislative chamber. Because power politics have become the coin of the realm in both the Senate and Assembly, and because so many scandals have shaken New Yorkers' faith in state government, the choice should come from outside that framework.

That still leaves the leaders with many strong possibilities, including Denise O'Donnell, the former U.S. attorney in Buffalo during the Clinton administration. She is well respected and capable, and her appointment would accord upstate a strong voice in Albany, giving it one of the three positions chosen statewide.

That choice is expected to be made next month, but it's helpful that the Hevesi matter was wrapped up in 2006, before Spitzer and the new Legislature are sworn in. To have had the Hevesi matter carry into 2007 would have marred the fresh start that New Yorkers want.

That new beginning now comes with an early test. It will be important for Spitzer's reformist nature to prevail over Silver's political one as Albany moves into this new era.

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