By Alexander Dworkowitz
State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, known as a respected and low-key political figure, has taken on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in a high-profile battle to bring the powerful state agency under closer scrutiny.
Hevesi, who has stepped into the limelight in his public skirmishes with the MTA over recent fare hikes on subway, buses, the Long Island Rail Road and MetroNorth, described himself as a “fairly dispassionate” person.
But in recent weeks, the longtime Forest Hills resident has appeared anything but dispassionate.
In an April 23 news conference in Manhattan, Hevesi and City Comptroller William Thompson said their audits found the MTA had maintained two sets of books to give the appearance the agency needed more money and that a 50-cent fare public transit hike was necessary.
Using words such as “outrage,” “shameful” and “deceit,” Hevesi called for reform of the agency, whose members are appointed by Republican Gov. George Pataki. He and Thompson are both Democrats.
“You can write off that language, not to emotion and not to exaggeration but to accuracy,” Hevesi said in a recent interview with the TimesLedger.
“Am I passionate? I am very angry about the MTA. I am passionate about the need for reform, and we’re pursuing it.”
The MTA’s finances and the fare hikes have dominated local news in recent weeks, and Hevesi has taken center stage in the state’s politics.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority oversees the city transit system and the two commuter railroads as well as bridges and tunnels leading out of the city.
Last week, the Straphangers Campaign, an arm of the non-profit New York Public Interest Research Group, filed a lawsuit against the MTA in an attempt to block the subway and bus hike, which took effect as planned Sunday. A State Supreme Court judge scheduled a hearing on NYPIRG’s request for a restraining order Friday.
Almost immediately after winning the state comptroller’s seat in November, Hevesi, who had lost his bid to become New York City mayor the year before, began investigating the MTA when the agency proposed a fare hike. The MTA did not make the proposal until after Pataki was re-elected governor without any mention of a possible increase in public transit fares.
At first, the comptroller struggled to obtain the information necessary for an audit.
“They were not forthcoming,” Hevesi explained.
He issued subpoenas to the MTA and eventually received the necessary documents.
Those documents revealed the MTA had hidden $512 million to make it seem like the agency was broke and a fare hike was unavoidable, Hevesi said.
MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow has defended his agency’s finances, saying its financial records have been certified by independent accounting firms.
Kalikow has also accused Hevesi of using his public office for political gain as a Democrat in a Republican administration who is criticizing the governor’s appointees to the MTA.
Hevesi, however, gave little credence to the charge, comparing it to a lawyer’s adage.
“If you have the law, argue the law. If you don’t have the law, argue the facts. If you don’t have either, pound the table. This is pounding the table,” he said.
Hevesi, however, said Kalikow may have become aware of his agency’s deception only in the last few weeks.
“It’s conceivable that Kalikow didn’t know and the governor didn’t know,” Hevesi said. “I think some information was denied to (Kalikow).”
Hevesi is no stranger to audits of government agencies. He served as New York City comptroller for eight years after more than two decades in the state Assembly. In that time, he performed hundreds of audits and occasionally had city agencies that withheld information.
But Hevesi said there is a “huge difference” between monitoring city and state agencies.
“As a result of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, there’s a whole monitoring community that makes sure that city agencies tell the truth,” he said. “No such monitoring exists for the MTA, no such oversight, no such rules.”
Hevesi said instituting such rules was crucial and recommended putting the state attorney general in charge of appointing an inspector general to the MTA.
Hevesi also suggested a law mandating that the comptroller’s office must certify that the MTA’s books are accurate before any fare increases.
“I think we have a shot at (reform),” Hevesi said. “The climate is clear. The public is very angry. And the MTA has no credibility.”
Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300 Ext. 141.