Posted: March 20, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Even the judge seemed to get the sniffles when he handed down the sentence to send Michael E. Harkins away.

The courtroom felt like a funeral home, a bit too strained, a bit too formal, people holding back tears as much as they could as the prosecutor and the defense attorney laid out Harkins' life like the rough draft of an obituary.

It got to people. There was a reason for it. They knew why they were there. For a long time now, the reason was an elephant in the room, a hard truth to be tiptoed around.

Harkins had blown it.

He told the court he had entered public life as something worthy of George Washington, but those days had faded away. He was leaving it like George Washington Plunkitt, the Tammany Hall political machine's sage, who said, "When a man works in politics, he should get something out of it."

This ending never had to be, even though it was more disappointing than it was surprising. What everybody knew about Harkins was he never could get enough of a good thing.

The Delaware River & Bay Authority had been a very good thing. It was the Shangri-La of politics at the point Harkins was hired as the executive director in 1992, although his 10 years there forced a change.

Half Delaware and half New Jersey, the authority fell through the cracks of both, so it had little supervision, fun landmarks to run in the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, money to burn and wonderful perks like travel, travel, travel.

Everybody knew it was a playground for the political insiders who had the connections to get there, and it was where Harkins went, the reward he gave himself after he served as the secretary of state, another of politics' choicest posts, under Gov. Michael N. Castle, now Delaware's lone congressman.

There is a saying in politics, It is all right to be a pig, you just can't be a hog. Even at a known trough like the authority, where everybody had winked at the excesses for years, Harkins wanted more.

Federal officials estimated he ran up about $90,000 in personal expenses, most of it by commandeering flights aboard an authority-leased plane, a show-off entertaining himself and others at premier basketball games, prestigious golf courses and even a college reunion.

Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. For his high-flying joy rides, Harkins obscured what he was.

Now 63, Harkins burst into Republican politics as a boy wonder in his 20s, working on the campaigns of U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. and others, and then to prove how good he was, he got himself elected to a single term as a state representative in 1970.

Harkins was a master strategist and deal-maker who thrived in crisis like a one-man cavalry coming over the hill and could not wait to be the center of attention during the celebration afterwards. He was the fun-loving Falstaff of Delaware politics.

Harkins worked for Mayor Harry G. "Hal" Haskell Jr. in the city, County Executive Richard T. Collins in New Castle County, Gov. Pierre S. du Pont and Castle in the state, U.S. Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine in the Congress, and who knows how much advice he slipped across the aisle to U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat who was an old friend.

Through better and worse, through Harkins' strengths and his faults, Delaware's political circles stuck with him when he went up and when he came down. They knew the way he was. They had ridden him, and they had not reined him in.

On Election Day 2004, he still was invited to Republican headquarters to help get out the vote. On the eve of St. Patrick's Day, at a dinner for the charity called the St. Patrick's Day Society that Harkins helped to found, Biden came boiling in, still in the tuxedo he wore to a Washington event that had detained him, and called out to Harkins from the center of the room.

"You're the reason I'm here. I'm here for you, my friend," Biden is reported to have said.

Harkins' very public doomsday came Friday in U.S. District Judge Kent A. Jordan's courtroom in Wilmington. A row of reporters was there, along with family and friends and some dignitaries representing the station from which Harkins had fallen -- Glenn C. Kenton and Michael Ratchford, the secretaries of state who bracketed him, Kenton under du Pont and Ratchford under Castle.

Amid the remorse and reproach, there was also relief. It could have gone a lot worse. Jordan, who is not known as a judicial pushover, gave Harkins the low end of a penalty based on the advisory sentencing guidelines.

"You defrauded the public," Jordan said. "I will send you to prison."

Although the jail time could have been as long as a year and a half, Jordan sentenced Harkins to a year and two months, while noting the last two months could be shaved for a model prisoner. He probably will be given a date to report to prison in about a month.

Harkins also must pay a $15,000 fine as well as about $50,000 he still owes the authority in restitution, and he has to perform 1,000 hours of community service.

"Every criminal sentencing is a tragic event. This is only a more publicly-noticed tragic event. Lives are damaged, hearts are broken, and penalties are lined up to to be paid," Jordan said.

"You're an uncommonly accomplished man, but you now share with common criminals the distinction of having violated the norms of our society."

The courtroom was so raw with emotion that it even affected the professionals. Victor F. Battaglia, the defense attorney, is a past president of the Delaware State Bar Association and a lawyer's lawyer, but even his voice broke as he spoke on Harkins' behalf.

Battaglia called Harkins' crimes the result of "slovenly bookkeeping" by a big-picture guy who did not sweat the small stuff. "The lesson from Mike Harkins is, do sweat the small things, they can be fatal," Battaglia said.

Harkins read a statement, saying he otherwise could not get through what he wanted to say. He acknowledged that his woes were self-inflicted but hurt many others beyond himself.

"I had succumbed to my own belief that somehow black and white and gray didn't apply to me," Harkins said. "Today I know that justice demands I suffer punishment for those actions."

Richard G. Andrews, the federal prosecutor, was unsparing in his assessment of Harkins, saying this case was all about "greed, arrogance and power."

It was also about delusions of grandeur. What Harkins stole was a lifestyle beyond his means, and his cheating made it fun for so many people for so many years. He was Enron with so much going for it that a president was its pal. He was a baseball player on steroids with the crowd cheering his mammoth home runs.

He was a man of his times. He did not know when to stop. Between sniffles, Jordan told Harkins it was up to him to make another start.

"I sincerely wish you and your family well. I hope to meet you on a happier occasion," Jordan said. "We're a culture that loves comebacks. I hope this sentence is part of your comeback."