- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The day before he was elected speaker of the New York Assembly, Carl Heastie met with several lawmakers calling themselves the reform caucus because of their interest in ending Albany’s legacy of secrecy and backroom dealing.

It was a closed-door meeting, but somebody locked the door to be sure. It was a small but telling sign of just how entrenched Albany’s insider culture is and how difficult it will be for Heastie to make good on his promises of reform.

The Bronx Democrat succeeds longtime speaker Sheldon Silver, who resigned the leadership post he held for 21 years after he was charged with accepting nearly $4 million in kickbacks and payoffs. Heastie has promised to overhaul the ethics rules for lawmakers to require disclosure of outside income and address the rules governing per diems, the reimbursements lawmakers receive for their travel and stays in Albany.

“All the things that the public questions and worries about, we want to take a look at to give the public more trust,” Heastie said.

Heastie’s own record and background reflect the system he now vows to change. He received more than $23,000 in travel and accommodation reimbursements for legislative business - the third-highest amount in the Assembly in 2014.

His campaign filings show tens of thousands of dollars in credit card payments for unspecified expenses and several thousand more that Heastie pocketed as reimbursements. His campaign spent more than $22,000 at a mechanic in the Bronx.

Heastie did not participate in 173 votes last year, one of 18 members of the 150-member Assembly to miss more than 150 votes, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Heastie has said he has claimed more reimbursements because he typically travels to Albany the night before a session week begins. A spokesman said the missed votes came on two days in which he was working as an adjunct professor and a third when he attended a school event for his daughter. All three were busy days in the last weeks of the session.

Government watchdog groups note that lawmakers’ financial disclosures or voting records commonly raise concerns. Heastie, though, will have to lead by example if he hopes to address Albany’s reputation for secrecy and loose ethics rules.

“Few legislators have no questions about them,” said Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey, who added that the new speaker “will need to demonstrate a break from the past.”

Heastie, 47, was chairman of the Assembly Labor Committee for the past two years. First elected in 2000, he is a self-professed numbers guy who worked as a budget analyst for the New York City comptroller’s office. He has a degree in math from the State University at Stony Brook and an MBA from Baruch College.

He served as the chairman of the Bronx Democratic County Committee, a post he said he will leave after being elected speaker.

Heastie makes $79,500 as a lawmaker - plus an additional $14,000 for being a committee chairman - and makes a small amount as an adjunct professor at Monroe College.

As his proudest accomplishments in public service, Heastie lists legislation increasing the penalties for employers who steal staff wages and his work to increase the minimum wage, which is currently $8.75 an hour, rising to $9 next year.

Heastie was one of five Democratic lawmakers who stepped forward to run for speaker after the Democratic conference concluded that Silver had to go. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, has said he expects to be exonerated and plans to keep his Assembly seat. He has called Heastie “a good man.”

Democrats initially planned to wait two weeks to pick Silver’s successor - a delay meant to encourage a careful and deliberative selection. But lawmakers quickly changed their minds and unanimously picked Heastie as their nominee Monday before Silver’s resignation even took effect.

“People are very comfortable and very confident that he will lead with distinction,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle of Rochester, who has called Heastie “one of the most honorable people” in Albany.

Veteran Assemblyman Keith Wright, a Harlem Democrat who, like Morelle, briefly vied for speaker, said Heastie’s “steady hand and proven leadership will help our conference turn the page” on the recent scandal involving Silver.

So far, Heastie has continued his predecessor’s tradition of avoiding the press. His first press conference - arranged by Heastie’s staff - lasted two minutes before an aide abruptly ended it. After reporters complained, Heastie returned to the microphone several minutes later to field a few more questions.

One involved the reasons Democratic lawmakers needed to hold several closed-door meetings in the days leading up to Heastie’s election, using Assembly guards to keep reporters and the public away.

“We have to remember this is a representative democracy and sometimes members of the press forget that,” Heastie said. “The voting is supposed to be in public. But conference discussions should stay within the conference.”

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