The Court Street Regular

Brooklyn Machine Wants One of Its Own Atop the New Council

At a Queens apartment building Weinberg owned, where many tenants were Holocaust survivors, he spread the rumor that a Christian religious organization had purchased it. He then had the superintendent tear down Hanukkah decorations and erect a large metal cross outside. He bribed the same super $10,000 to lie about the rent roll to help him jack up the building's sale price, but then he sued the hapless superintendent, claiming the bribe was a loan. According to prosecutors, Cohn provided legal assistance for the lawsuit.

After a three-day hearing on the charges, the judge gave Weinberg eight years. The defendant collapsed on the courtroom floor and had to be revived with smelling salts.

How did this one-man crime wave ever become a judge?

Back in 1987, when the allegations were first reported, Cohn refused to discuss the matter, and he took the same position this time around, issuing a statement through his part-time campaign manager, Lorin Wiener.

"He did help on Mr. Weinberg's campaign as Steve had done for every candidate that was running on the Democratic county slate in 1985," said Wiener. "But Weinberg's legal troubles stemmed from his activities as landlord well before he ran for or presided as a judge, and this was years before he and Steve had met." Wiener, an aide to State Senator Martin Connor who says he volunteers his time for Cohn, said he had no information about Cohn's legal representation of the judge.

Cohn also declined to discuss a 1979 report in the Voice by Jack Newfield, at the time the city's fiercest critic of political cronyism, who reported that Cohn was a partner in a huge and lavish new three-story Manhattan disco on lower Fifth Avenue called the Electric Circus. The lead partner was George Vallario Jr., another politically connected Court Street lawyer whose practice included representation of massage parlors.

At the time, Cohn was renting office space from Vallario. Also hanging out in the law office at the time and involved in the new club was a man everyone called Ziggy and whose real name is Thomas Sicignano. According to two Democratic Party stalwarts who knew all involved, Sicignano ran errands for Vallario and others, and both Cohn and Sicignano frequently had passes for the nightclub that they gave to friends and associates. This spring, Sicignano surfaced in Atlanta as the key government witness against the owner of a mob-tied nightclub, the Gold Club. Sicignano, the club's former manager, admitted that it was really controlled by John Gotti Jr. Apparently he'd had experience.

Back in '79 in New York, local residents strongly opposed the Electric Circus and voiced suspicions that the club was so opulent it had to have some hidden backers. The State Liquor Authority initially refused it a liquor license, a decision later reversed by the Court of Appeals. When the club reopened it was called the Peppermint Lounge, after the old 1960s Joey Dee twist palace. But its problems continued. In 1985, attorney Vallario was arrested along with the man the feds said was the secret owner all along: Genovese crime family captain Matthew "Matty the Horse" Ianniello, then the king of Times Square smut and massage parlors. Vallario was charged with serving as a front for Ianniello and other mobsters who never would have qualified for liquor licenses. Vallario entered a guilty plea in the case and was later suspended from law practice for two years. He has since retired to Florida where he couldn't be reached.

While easily reachable, Cohn again preferred to have his young spokesman handle the topic.

"Steve was a minor investor in the Electric Circus nightclub," said campaign manager Wiener. "This investment was only a minute percentage of the total ownership of the club. Steve severed his relationship with the club long before there was even a hint of investigations. He was absolutely unaware that any other investors had conducted improper or illegal activities within or outside the establishment."

Again, Wiener said he had no details about the size of the investment or when it was sold.

At a forum earlier this month for council candidates at St. Francis College on Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights, Cohn was full of details. He presented himself as an experienced elder statesman compared to his four opponents, one who will bring clout and know-how to a new council in search of leadership. He ticked off a list of community issues on which he had performed free legal work. In fact, since the 1997 Post stories about his glut of court appointments, Cohn has done more high-profile pro bono legal work and even won an award this year from the New York State Bar Association.

Cohn's toughest critic among the candidates opposing him has been a 37-year-old Brooklyn Law School professor named David Yassky, who was a former aide to Senator Chuck Schumer. Yassky served as counsel to the Crime and Criminal Justice Subcommittee, where he helped write the Brady handgun-control law and other bills. This month, Yassky wrote to the Campaign Finance Board complaining about Cohn's huge war chest and several of his fundraising practices.

All told, Cohn has raised more than twice the $137,500 he can spend under Campaign Finance Board rules in the only real race he faces, the Democratic Party primary. In a Bloomberg-esque display of riches last week, Cohn received $75,000 in matching funds from the campaign board, then promptly endorsed the check back to the board, saying in a letter the city had better uses for the money.

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