NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Tuesday, February 3, 2015, 5:00 AM
Time for a change
There’s a good chance that by the time you read this, the Democratic majority that controls the state Assembly will have rushed headlong into naming a new speaker, reneging on an earlier pledge to hold an open process and start cleaning up the thievery, secrecy and corruption that have polluted the place from top to bottom.
Rushing the process would be a huge mistake that will come back to haunt every legislator who participates in it. But give credit to Carl Heastie — the presumptive favorite to become the next speaker of the Assembly — for saying many of the right things about the need for change.
“I do not want to keep everything centrally controlled,” Heastie told the Daily News Editorial Board Monday before rushing off to Albany. “I’m not a dictator. It’s not my style.”
That’s good to hear. So is Heastie’s pledge to quit his current position as chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party and create an office of ethics and compliance within the Assembly.
“I do believe we have to discuss limiting outside income” by legislators, he said, correctly putting his finger on the area that led to the arrest of ex-Speaker Sheldon Silver for allegedly padding his pockets by steering public resources to private clients.
Heastie’s comments about change should be music to the ears of reformers and good-government groups. Unfortunately, on the other side of the ledger lie a number of conflicts and connections that will set off ethics alarms for anybody who’s been watching the sad parade of politicians marched out of Albany in handcuffs.
Start with Heastie’s home political club, the Northeast Bronx Community Democrats, which was founded and run by Larry Seabrook, a mentor and predecessor of Heastie’s who served in the Assembly, state Senate and City Council before ending up in federal prison, where he is currently serving a five-year sentence for steering millions in public funds to friends, family members and nonprofit groups that did little or no good for the Bronx.
Assembly members and the public should be asking Heastie what lessons he learned from watching Seabrook’s rise and disastrous fall upclose.
We should hear what laws, rules or public warnings a new speaker might suggest to prevent future skimming and scamming of public money.
An even more urgent question surrounds Heastie’s newer pals. As News columnist Juan Gonzalez recently noted of Heastie: “He’s surrounded himself over the years with some advisers for whom the word ‘sleazy’ would be a compliment.”
One close ally, Stanley Schlein — who Heastie says he speaks to every day — was fined $15,000 by the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board after admitting to using his position as chairman of the city’s Civil Service Commission to illegally force public employees to run parts of his private law practice.
Another crony, Howard Vargas — a Heastie staff member who doubles as the lawyer for the Bronx Democratic Party — runs a lucrative side business as a court-appointed receiver who’s supposed to take over distressed multifamily properties when landlords fall down on the job.
But as a blistering Riverdale Press editorial pointed out in 2013: “With Mr. Vargas as the receiver, five buildings have been added to the city’s list of most distressed properties . . . while Mr. Vargas collects up to 5% of their rent. Despite his troubling performance, Mr. Vargas never seems to have trouble landing more appointments.”
And why should he? Like other county Democratic bosses, Heastie largely controls who gets the party’s nod for judgeships, and those judges hand out receiverships to favored insiders like Vargas. In 2009, reporter Tom Robbins noted, the Bronx judicial convention, where candidates get selected, was run by none other than Schlein.
It could be that Heastie is an honest man who happens not to inquire too deeply into the ethics and behavior of the people around him.
But the leader of a scandal-scarred institution has to create — and enforce — a much higher standard. And members should ask questions and demand that Heastie raise the ethical bar.
They should heed the words of Joseph Lentol, the 72-year-old Brooklyn Assembly veteran in his 22nd term who hoped to become speaker, but dropped out when he realized his colleagues wouldn’t support his bid.
“I thought I was the clean candidate, but that didn’t seem to matter,” Lentol said in a rueful radio interview, reported on by The New York Observer.
It does matter. If the Assembly Dems haven’t figured that out by now, our state is in much more trouble than we think.