Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cohen Talks About His Seat Scandal by Joseph Orovic - Queens tribune

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Michael Cohen asserts that his hands are clean.

The City Council candidate said he was unaware of any nefarious machinations that may have helped him attain his current six-figure job, leaving his seat open for then-Comptroller Alan Hevesi’s son Andrew to be rushed into his vacated Assembly seat.

“Nothing occurred to me that anything untoward, suspicious or illegal had gone on to in order for me to be interviewed by my current employer,” Cohen said in an interview with the Queens Tribune.

A criminal complaint from Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office claims a political operative gained $800,000 from the State’s pension fund in exchange for political favors, which included helping Cohen find his current job. Another unnamed official in the Comptroller’s office then pulled the strings ultimately leading to Andrew Hevesi’s win in a special election for the vacated seat.

The Attorney General’s complaint does not draw a direct line between the payouts and Cohen’s ability to get a $150,000-a-year job with insurance giant HIP. Cohen said by the time a meeting with HIP was arranged, he had already decided to vacate his seat due to a family illness that demanded he spend more time at home.

“My thinking of leaving was known with my colleagues in the Assembly; and then I was approached,” he said.

Cohen defended his current employment, saying he met HIP’s need for someone with strong ties to labor unions, and he currently retains this same position with the company.

While Cohen said he had a three-decades-long working relationship with the operative, thought by many to be Hevesi’s No. 2, Jack Chartier, they were never close friends. Still, he did not suspect any foul play when the job opportunity appeared.

He didn’t know “what motivated people or why they were doing it. I just accepted it as someone who was trying to help,” he said.

The operative, former head of the New York State Liberal Party Raymond Harding, was charged with securities fraud for receiving the state pension funds though he was not certified to be handling them as a placement agent.

Cuomo’s complaint states Cohen was approached by Alan Hevesi in 2003, asking to be notified should Cohen ever consider leaving office. When asked if the election of the younger Hevesi raised his suspicions, Cohen said, “Only because there are other people in the comptroller’s office I’ve known for some time. But you’re asking the million-dollar question. I can’t comment.”

But he quickly added he played no part in Andrew Hevesi’s election.

“It wasn’t a concern of mine who would succeed me. I wasn’t asked to help anybody to be my replacement. It was not my concern.”

Cohen said he has had “extensive conversations” with the Attorney General, and has not sought legal counsel regarding the investigation into Hevesi’s office.

The complaint’s revelations have changed the landscape of the 29th Council District race.

None of Cohen’s opponents demanded he bow out of the race to replace Melinda Katz, and most doubted any wrongdoing on Cohen’s part.

“I hope it all works out for him. I really hope the investigation does not reveal any improprieties,” said Heidi Chain, echoing the tone of other candidates that commented.

They all also said the decision to bow out of the race was purely his own to make - not theirs to demand.

Cohen acknowledged he now faces a cynical crowd of voters.

“I do expect the public to have a great deal of skepticism,” he said. “I know I’m going to have to deal with that. There are going to be a lot of people who are going to draw the worst possible conclusion about a situation. I personally have received no negative feedback.”

The case has also led elected officials in the State and City to call for a reform to the handling of pension funds. State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and City Comptroller Bill Thompson both moved to ban the use of placement agents in the dispersal of pension funds, a direct nod to the system that allowed Harding’s alleged wrongdoing, as well as the indictments of others close to Hevesi.