HARLEM — A day after a key fundraiser for City Comptroller John Liu was indicted for fraud, the embattled pol tried to pivot away from his own bad news and hitch himself to a feel-good story — the meteoric rise of Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin.
In his State of the City speech — the first by a City Comptroller in recent memory — Liu, who is widely expected to run for mayor despite being the subject of a federal investigation, jumped on the "Lin-sanity" bandwagon.
“What a guy,” gushed Liu. “He’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And, wow, the guy gets great headlines in the New York Post. Gotta get some tips from him,” said Liu, whose own press clippings have focused on investigations into his fundraising.
One of his top bundlers, Xing Wu Pan, was indicted Wednesday on charges that he used illegal straw donors to funnel money into Liu's campaign.
The Lin lovefest was scaled back a bit compared to an earlier draft of the speech. Liu had planned to say how he was inspired by Lin’s life story and that, had he been “several inches taller,” perhaps he “would have become one of the first Asian-Americans to play for the Knicks, instead of the first Asian-American to serve as New York City Comptroller."
When Liu got down to business, he focused on his office’s efforts to stamp out fraud and wasteful spending, including the beleaguered CityTime project, an initiative he said was “hemorrhaging” money before his office intervened.
To help crack down on other boondoggles, Liu announced a new “waste hotline,” 212-NO-WASTE, and a companion website where city employees, contractors and members of the public will be encouraged to report wasteful spending and fraud.
He also called for new rules that would force contractors to be responsible for the performance of any sub-contractors they hire, and announced his office will launch a new version of its website, which aims to track every dollar the city spends.
“Our goal is to make New York City the most financially transparent government in the United States,” he said. “When the public can track government spending, government will be that much more judicious with how they spend the public’s money.”
Liu pointed to the European debt crisis as “the single most significant risk to the city’s economy this year,” and said that even a mild European recession would be bruising, since European banks have more than a trillion in assets in New York City offices and employ approximately 45,000 people here.
To help spur jobs, he called on City Hall to boost its spending on capital projects, such as building new schools and borrowing more money now, while interests rates are low. He also proposed a new Mayor’s Office of Colleges & Universities, which would market the city to educational institutions that might want to set up shop here or partner with CUNY schools.
Liu also proposed a lower sales tax and endorsed Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s push for a middle-class tax cut, which he said could lower income tax rates for “99 percent” of residents.
Liu’s speech elicited rave reviews from many of his deeply loyal backers, who have continued to donate money to support his expected mayoral campaign.
Community Board 2 member and psychotherapist Edward Ma said he was blown away by the speech, which was delivered at City College.
"I said, 'John… your speech really [sounded like] a mayor’s speech'," said Ma, who said it "covered every problem, every agenda.”
“It’s far beyond my expectations,” he said.
Ma also dismissed the investigation into Liu’s fundraising and said it hasn't shaken his support one bit.
“I think that’s a routine,” he said, blaming the problems on error and not malicious intent.
Lilian Roberts, who heads DC37, the city’s largest municipal union, said Liu's speech “had a lot of innovative ideas” and left her "very impressed."
She, too, said the investigation was much ado about nothing.
“After every election you have these things,” she said, comparing Pan’s indictment to the mayor’s troubles with John Haggerty, who was recently found guilty of pocketing nearly $1 million from the mayor's 2009 campaign.
"I don’t regard it," she said of the indictment. "It has nothing to do with [Liu]... Our people have not paid any attention to it because it's not him."
City Councilman Leroy Comrie, meanwhile, called the speech "excellent,” and said he hoped the ideas he raised would turn the conversation away from Liu’s troubles.
"I don't think [Liu's] been concerned about it," he said.
"He's been concerned about being an effective controller," he said, adding that the speech "was a great way to demonstrate that."
Stringer, the only other presumptive mayoral candidate who attended the speech, also praised Liu.
"I thought he laid out a very, very well-crafted address about the state of the economy,” he said, applauding Liu’s support for the middle class tax cut.
But asked whether he though Liu might endorse him if he doesn’t run for mayor, Stringer gave a grin.
"2013 is way down the line," he said.