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Return from the dark side; Imprisoned former comptroller Hevesi finally acknowledges pay-to-play guilt

Sometimes, it takes a beating to admit that you messed up big time. Former New York State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi messed up big time and went to prison because of it.

But it took more than a year behind bars for him to acknowledge that taking gifts and campaign contributions in return for access to the state's lucrative pension fund was wrong and, in fact, a crime. Once he did – and after serving 19 months of a four-year sentence – parole officials granted him early release. Hevesi, 72, is expected to be out of prison by Dec. 19 and on parole until April 2015.

It gets better than that for Hevesi, because the wellspring of his salvation was his three adult children, who visited him in prison shortly after his first bid for parole was denied. They cared enough about him to speak bluntly to their father.

"They are loving, they are loyal, supported me, stood by me all the way through this and then beat me up, verbally beat me up, because I was in denial about what really occurred," Hevesi told a parole board panel, according to a newly released transcript of the hearing.

Because of their intervention, he said, he came to understand that his actions as comptroller – the state's chief fiscal officer – were criminal. That fact was obvious to most New Yorkers years ago, but sometimes it takes a beating.

As comptroller, and rubbing elbows with billionaires, Hevesi said, he came to believe he was "entitled" to perks that weren't his. Thus, as sole trustee of the state pension fund, Hevesi took what amounted to about $1 million in bribes from a Los Angeles venture capitalist, which included free travel to Europe, Israel and California, as well as campaign donations. In return, the pension fund invested $250 million in a firm run by the venture capitalist, Elliott Broidy. It was classic Albany pay-to-play.

Albany has been overrun with crooks over the past several years, but in some ways, Hevesi's crime stood out. He had sole control over the state pension fund and he abused that authority. Even then, he said, he never personally profited from his wrongdoing. While there were campaign contributions, they were spent on his re-election.

There are lessons to be learned from the Hevesi scandal. One is that the state comptroller should be forbidden from taking gifts or donations from anyone who might want to benefit from the wealth of this office. That's not just because some comptrollers might be similarly tempted to go over to the dark side, but because the appearance is simply wrong. Better still, the state should vest authority over the pension fund with a committee led by the comptroller, rather than just the comptroller, himself.

And all government leaders – all Homo sapiens, really – should take note of the revelation to which Hevesi's children awakened him. "All of a sudden, I am a big shot in my own head … I allowed it to happen, and that is why I am in prison, and that is why I didn't challenge it because – you know what? – I am guilty."