The New York Sun today is endorsing Christopher Callaghan for comptroller of New York State. Yesterday the state ethics commission concluded that the state comptroller, Alan Hevesi, a Democrat, had violated the law by using a state employee for three years as a chauffeur for his sick wife. We don't mind saying that the two developments ó the ethics charges involving Mr. Hevesi's use of the driver, and our endorsement of Mr. Hevesi's opponent ó are not entirely related. But they aren't entirely unrelated, either.
They are unrelated because we've long been skeptical of "ethics" as practiced in Washington, or, for that matter, Albany. Rather than criminalizing politics or imposing a set of arcane rules on politicians, better to get the facts out and let the voters decide. The money wasted on ethics-policing apparatuses such as the state ethics commission and limits on what lobbyists can do is as wasteful in spirit as that money siphoned off by crooked politicians. The best ethics-policing practice is a free and fair election, and the opportunity of the voters to judge whether to place a priority on honesty by their politicians or on other competing virtues.
In Mr. Hevesi's case, we start from a position of sympathy. His wife by all accounts is genuinely, chronically ailing. The taxpayers demand an extraordinary schedule of political leaders. The Hevesi camp has also spoken, if vaguely, of security concerns, and we don't take those lightly, either. In pressing a campaign of divestment from Iran and of investment in Israel, Mr. Hevesi, a former president of the Jewish group Bnai Zion, is risking the wrath of the jihadists, and he and his wife get more than the benefit of the doubt from us on that front.
Also, we're prepared to stipulate that at times Mr. Hevesi has been constructive in his role as state comptroller ó in warning, for example, of the soaring levels of state debt and of the extent to which public authorities operate without accountability and off the state's books. His catch of Medicaid paying for Viagra for Level Three sex offenders, which are the most dangerous, was a classic of comptrolling.
On balance, though, Mr. Hevesi's performance as comptroller has been more than a disappointment; it has been a scandal. As these columns have documented, he directed a $330 million legal fee to law firms whose personnel supported his campaign for comptroller with financial donations. One of the trial lawyers' firms even had a campaign fundraiser for Mr. Hevesi in its Philadelphia law office. Mr. Hevesi has been busy investing the state's pension fund in firms managed by his campaign contributors. Their returns were 14.59%, not bad, but all the greater the tragedy.
When the state legislature went on a spending binge this spring, Mr. Hevesi was absent from the field as Governor Pataki tried to protect the taxpayers. It is hard to recall a default by a comptroller as abject. Mr. Hevesi's refusal to debate his Republican opponent is a sign of arrogance and disrespect for the voters and for democracy itself. Even Senator Clinton debated her opponent, John Spencer, twice.
The Republican candidate, Mr. Callaghan, has decades of experience in government finance and most recently served 9 years as treasurer of Saratoga County, which boasts that it is "New York's lowest-taxed county per capita." He also gets the credit for discovering and reporting Mr. Hevesi's use of the state driver for his wife.
With a Democratic-controlled legislature and a Democratic-controlled governor's mansion a likelihood ó not an inevitability but a likelihood ó in Albany, a Republican comptroller will be more needed than ever. The Republican candidate for governor, John Faso, whom we endorsed earlier, warned yesterday that his opponent, Attorney General Spitzer, "is attempting to let this situation slide through the election, allowing Mr. Hevesi to resign afterwards so Mr. Spitzer and Speaker Silver can put someone in that job of their choosing, thereby thwarting the public's ability to select an honest Comptroller on November 7."
A vote for Mr. Callaghan would ensure that the comptroller is not a hand-picked ally of the assembly speaker or the governor or of tort law firms but rather an independent financial watchdog with a mandate from the voters. There's a lot of rhetoric this election season about changing the way business is done in Albany. One way for voters to signal support for change is to pull the switch marked Callaghan for comptroller.