With a young aide facing serious jail time, Liu does his business-as-usual routine

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John Liu. (Office of the Comptroller)
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John Liu's political prospects may be in ruins after the arrest on Tuesday of his campaign treasurer, and in fact the federal investigation into his fund-raising may be far from over.

But you wouldn't know any of that from looking at Liu, who is doing the same thing he did last time someone connected to his campaign got arrested, which is to act as if nothing much is wrong at all.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney's office arrested and charged his campaign treasurer Jenny Hou with lying about donations and obstructing federal investigators. The 25-year-old Hou was being paid less than $28,000 a year, and is now reportedly facing up to 60 years in prison, leading many of Liu's colleagues in city government privately to express incredulity about the idea that she orchestrated a conspiracy on her own, and to suggest that she's taking a fall for her higher-ups.

But Liu has kept up a full, campaign-like schedule of public appearances since the arrest. Yesterday, he hosted a Black History Month event at Brooklyn College, then attended two more Black History Month events, one hosted by DC37 in lower Manhattan and finally one hosted by the Transport Workers Union on West 134th Street, in Harlem.

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Asked at the T.W.U. event about his colleagues' apparent doubts about his ability to carry on, Liu gave a canned answer, saying that he would "continue to do the work of the comptroller's office."

This is Liu in forge-ahead mode, which he's shifted into at various points before.

Hou's arrest comes two weeks after federal officials indicted Oliver Pan of New Jersey for illegally sending $16,000 to Liu's campaign under other people's names. The day after that happened, Liu delivered the first ever State of the City speech by a comptroller, complete with dancing dragons, a church choir and Jeremy Lin jokes.

During his campaign for comptroller in 2009, after his mother contradicted his biographical claim they had worked in a sweat shop, Liu stuck to his guns, and even kept on repeating the line. After the campaign, one aide said she thought the two front-page stories they got in the Daily News over the controversy actually helped them win.

His appearance last night was meant to convey that he's still doing this job and still interested in being mayor, with an unstated subtext that labor, at least, has not abandoned him.

The same cannot be said of some of his Democratic colleagues.

Several Democratic City Council members I spoke with yesterday—they asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely without insulting Liu—said he may not have acted illegally, but his rationale for running for higher office, and perhaps even for staying in his current one, is gone. In the most charitable explanation of what happened, they say, Liu failed to keep track of what was going on with his campaign's finances, while ostensibly looking after the city's.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is likely to be one of several candidates running for mayor next year, pointedly refused to say whether she thought he could continue serving as comptroller in light of his scandal.

At the end of his third public appearance last night, I asked Liu what he thought of Quinn's non-assessment of him. He responded with a canned answer about the importance of doing his current job.

 

"I'm just past my halfway point in my term as City Comptroller," he said. "I've been doing my job vigorously. We're going to continue going after wasted city spending, audit city agencies, maximize the effectiveness of taxpayers' dollars, invest the pension assets, and access the capital markets to underwrite our bonds, and continue to do the work of the comptroller's office. It's a privilege to be in this office. Thank you."

The Observer's Hunter Walker followed up by asking about a news report which said it wasn't the 25-year-old arrested campaign treasurer, but someone else, who was "sort of the primary conduit, for you, for the campaign treasury."

"You'd have to show me what you're talking about," Liu said.

Then he smiled, said "thank you," and left. Walker was left restating his question to the back of Liu's head as he walked away.

Earlier that night, Liu tried winning over the crowd in Harlem by stressing the need to help re-elect President Barack Obama.

"We'll be out there reminding people that this recession that we're still struggling thorugh, it started in 2007," Liu said. "The financial collapse occurred in 2008. And Barack Obama became president in 2009 and has been relentless" in fixing the economy.

Helping re-elect Obama "will be the best way we can honor Black History Month, this year," he said.

The crowd of about a hundred largely black and Latino transport workers and their family members cheered and whistled.

"You can do better than that" said Curtis Tate, a union member and the night's M.C. "Give it up for John Liu!"

Afterward, Tate told me Liu has always been a friend to the union, and that they've always been pleased with his performance. He said there was "no reason" that opinion would have changed.