Posted: March 22, 2004


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The country has had Enron and Martha Stewart. Here at home there is now Michael E. Harkins and the Delaware River & Bay Authority, the state's own case of confirmed executive excess.

Harkins went to federal court Monday to take his medicine for turning a public agency into a personal romper room and giant expense account, availing himself of airplane flights, limousine travel, hotels and meals for himself, his family and his friends, to live it up at basketball games, golf courses and even a college reunion.

In the dry legalese of the courtroom, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud and to making a false statement on a tax return, both felonies, during a 45-minute proceeding in the Boggs Federal Building in Wilmington before U.S. District Judge Kent A. Jordan.

Harkins, 62, of Wilmington, could get up to eight years in jail and as much as a  $500,000 fine when Jordan sentences him on June 15, but Richard G. Andrews, the first assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said the recommended jail time is likely to be between five months and two years.

How much Harkins' excesses cost the agency remains unresolved. Andrews and Victor F. Battaglia Sr., the Wilmington lawyer representing Harkins, agreed only that it was somewhere between $30,000 and $175,000.

Whatever the amount, it is a lot of tolls. The Delaware River & Bay Authority runs the the Delaware-New Jersey crossings of the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Oh, and five airports. The airports used to be hard to remember, but not anymore.

Harkins showed no angst in the courtroom. He was as calm as if he and Jordan were in negotiations over business terms, not jail terms.

Harkins' wife Helen came with him, but after a lifetime in politics, only one friend was there to stick with him, and that was Michael Ratchford, a former secretary of state like Harkins himself.

It took four prosecutors' offices on both sides of the river to bring Harkins in. At a press conference after the guilty plea, Andrews was there along with Delaware Attorney General M. Jane Brady, New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey and Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey.

Colm F. Connolly, the U.S. attorney for Delaware, was not there. Before he took the federal appointment, Connolly was a lawyer at Morris Nichols Arsht & Tunnell, the Wilmington firm that represented the Delaware River & Bay Authority, so he had to disqualify himself from the case.

All those prosecutors standing in a row was evidence that they knew they had a big one. Before the 10 years Harkins spent as the executive director of the authority, from 1992 to 2002, he was a secretary of state under Gov. Michael N. Castle, now Delaware's congressman, and a consummate strategist and deal-maker known for working his magic in the highest reaches of politics.

Harkins, a Republican, helped U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. get elected to the Congress. He worked in Gov. Pierre S. du Pont's administration before he was appointed to the top Cabinet post in Castle's. In a stint as a congressional aide, he worked for William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican who became the secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, and counseled him through the ordeal of President Richard M. Nixon's impeachment proceedings.

Federal prosecutors seem to have a tendency to turn their cases into timely morality plays, and they certainly did on this one. Here they were, getting Harkins on a tax charge, right at the beginning of tax season. Here they were, nailing Harkins for flying to Chicago in 1998 to watch the University of Delaware basketball team play in the NCAA tournament, right in the heart of "March Madness."

Here they were, coat-tailing on the trial of Martha Stewart, the grande dame of the royal CEOs, and giving them a chance to note that Harkins was charged with mail fraud, the same as the Enron defendants.

There always was something about Harkins that fostered hyperbole. He has been an exuberant Falstaff of politics, someone who would don a suit as sober as a banker's but leave a shirttail hanging out. He was an expansive player who gloried in power and the trappings of power and maybe was a little too fond of displaying golf sweaters from the best country clubs there were.

At the authority, Harkins became enamored of a private, six-seater plane, using it to go to basketball games, to his college reunion in Massachusetts, and even to fly to Sussex County to apply for membership at the Rehoboth Country Club. Often friends and family came along.

If Harkins was going to come to a bad end, this is the one that was predictable, swept up in the high life. Battaglia, his lawyer, said that Harkins was remorseful, that his misconduct was rooted in his zeal for building up and showing off the Delaware River & Bay Authority .

"Mike Harkins became the DRBA, and the DRBA became Mike Harkins," Battaglia said.

Battaglia meant it as a way to explain what was right about Mike Harkins, but what it really showed was where Mike Harkins went wrong.