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Speaker’s ethical lapse raises questions about his fitness to lead reform efforts

There is no question that Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie benefited from the crime committed by his mother. Nor is there any question that he had been directed not to benefit from it. The only question remaining – the one that may determine his fitness to continue as Assembly speaker – is how he managed to retain his mother’s stolen money rather than returning it to the nonprofit agency from which she had taken it.

It would be a critical question at any time and in any state, but at this moment, when New York is struggling to leave behind a wretched history of official corruption, the matter is especially important. If New Yorkers want honest government, they cannot tolerate government leaders who bribe, cheat, steal or knowingly benefit from those who do – even their mothers.

The story is convoluted but it can only describe willful deception or incredible, unlikely coincidence. Tracked down by the New York Times and published in Tuesday’s editions of The Buffalo News, the story reveals that, contrary to a judge’s order, he did not reimburse the nonprofit that his mother swindled, but instead, later sold the apartment she purchased with that money, made a profit of nearly $200,000 and used that money to buy a nicer home for himself.

Heastie’s spokesman said the speaker did nothing wrong and, in fact, conducted himself with integrity.

The crime committed by Heastie’s mother – she embezzled more than $200,000 from her employer, including $90,000 she kept for herself – occurred before he was elected to public office. But he was already well entrenched with the Bronx Democratic Party, a tangled and far-reaching network of officials with strings to pull.

According to the Times story, Heastie was ordered to sell the apartment and return the stolen money. But his mother had died, and Heastie claims he was told that the order no longer applied. In addition, the part-time real estate agent he used was linked to the Bronx Democratic Party and, somehow, a judgment against his mother for $40,000 worth of restitution was never filed with the Bronx County clerk.

The judge in the case ordered that the district attorney’s office file it there – a routinely conducted process – but it never occurred. Without it, the ability to win a lawsuit for nonpayment of the restitution is more difficult. The county clerk at the time, Hector L. Diaz, is a former assemblyman with long ties to the local Democratic Party. He did not respond to the Times’ requests for comment.

All in all, it’s as fishy a set of circumstances as anyone could imagine. It is possible – if you stretch the imagination to painful proportions – to conjure a scenario in which coincidence piles upon coincidence and Heastie is simply a victim of circumstances over which he had no influence.

But the story – undenied by Heastie – is suspicious enough that it merits investigation, and not by anyone associated with the Bronx or its Democratic Party. Regardless of what occurs next, Heastie should voluntarily make whole the nonprofit that his mother victimized – meaning, at a minimum, the money stolen, the profit made by selling the apartment and reasonable interest accrued since then.

The speaker of the New York State Assembly – if he intends to remain in that powerful post – surely would expect no less of any of his members.