How much would you pay to be a state appointee to the New York Racing Association?
Oh, that's right -- you're not supposed to pay anything. You're not supposed to be asked to pay anything.
Not legally, not ethically.
Well, here's an unpleasant peek into the real world.
This morning Jim Heffernan, the vice chairman of the New York Racing Association, and I were panelists at a seminar sponsored by the Saratoga Institute on Racing and Gaming Law. It's part of Albany Law School's program of continuing education for lawyers, and it also serves as a forum for non-lawyers interested in racing-related issues.
Our hour-long panel had to do with NYRA, its financial situation and its relations with the horsemen and the media. The questions were mostly softballs, and the answers explanatory as opposed to controversial. -- until Heffernan volunteered to tell the story about how he got to be on the NYRA board.
I think it was his intention to show how you didn't have to be politically connected or a racing blueblood to be on the board.
But he inadvertently revealed a dirty secret. He explained how he had taken the initiative to apply to the governor's office for a NYRA seat, believing his affinity for horse racing and his track record as a successful businessman with a specialty in restructuring would make him an asset to the board. I think he is right.
Anyway, eventually he moved up the ranks of applicants to the point where someone representing then-Gov. George Pataki told him Pataki would like to appoint him -- and that it would cost him a $100,000 donation to the Pataki campaign.
He said he told the man that was $99,000 too much, alluding to a fund-raiser to which he’d already contributed.
He didn’t cough up any money, and he got the appointment anyway. He did only one thing wrong: Not exposing the pay-to-play directive.
As Heffernan told the story, it took all my self-control to not grab the mike to start questioning him, which wasn’t my role on the panel. Besides, a man in the back of the room did it for me.
What the politician asked you to do was illegal, the man said. Did you report it? Why not?
Heffernan conceded that he did not report it, and didn’t really have an explanation for letting it slide.
Here’s my guess: A pay-to-play “request” is shrugged off as political business, and after rejecting the request he saw no reason to rock the boat and get knocked off the NYRA short list. He was “asked” to make a donation, he refused, and he got the appointment anyway. My impression, and the conventional wisdom, is that Heffernan is doing a heck of a job in this volunteer board position.
Besides, nothing was in writing or tape-recorded. His complaint could have been reduced to a he said/she said dispute. He did say the man is no longer in government, for whatever that’s worth, which is not much.
The end results: A good person is serving the public well. But the system never changes when flagrant violations of the law, not to mention ethics, are waved off as politics as usual.