By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
There are 300 candidates running for slots on the new City Council in this wide-open, post-term-limits election year that is supposed to help bring a surge of fresh faces and citizen activists into office.
But the single largest campaign war chest of any council candidate has been amassed by a veteran Brooklyn politician whose entire career is the product of holding an inside edge in party politics.
Attorney Steven Cohn, candidate for the 33rd District representing Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and a swath of Park Slope, has raised $303,000more than double that of the next-highest council candidate. The rich haul has come from the landlords and nursing-home owners he has long represented, his associates in the legal industry, and the businessmen who have always clustered around the Brooklyn Democratic party machine like moths at a streetlight.
Steve Cohn, say those who have watched him in action for years, wants to be everyone's best friend.
The son of a popular former assemblyman and judge, Cohn is a longtime Democratic district leader from Greenpoint with a string of political appointments on his résumé. He has been law clerk to a Brooklyn judge, counsel to the two prior council members from the district, and a part-time staff member of two Assembly subcommittees. This is Cohn's first tilt at major elective office, and if he's elected, both his age (52) and his experience will make him a formidable power amid a sea of novices and second-termers. His supporters have openly advanced the notion that Cohn could well be the next Speaker of the Council.
The idea isn't an enormous stretch.
For 25 years, Stevie Cohn has been a Court Street fixture, a good man to know around the courthouses and law offices of downtown Brooklyn. Rail-thin, bespectacled, and soft-spoken, he is no one's image of a powerbroker, but as executive secretary of the Kings County Democratic Committee he helps decide who becomes a judge in that borough and who doesn't. And as things work on Court Street, judges have recognized his legal talents, awarding him court appointments as guardian, receiver, or referee that have earned his law firm hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.
After the New York Postin 1997 named him the largest single recipient of courthouse patronage, collecting $550,000 in fees for his firm over the previous five years, Cohn insisted the appointments were all on the merits. But, he said, if the receiverships were disturbing to some, he would no longer accept them. Court records show, however, that seven more appointments fell his way from Brooklyn Supreme Court judges over the past two years. Through a spokesperson, Cohn said he had only meant to refuse appointments from Surrogate Court.
Such hairsplitting is a way of life on Cohn's Court Street, where it has always been more important to know the judge than to know the law.
When the owner of a Brooklyn adult home was charged last year with swindling Medicaid out of tens of millions of dollars, he quickly hired three lawyers to represent him: a former deputy mayor, a law partner of Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Clarence Norman, and Cohn. As it happened, the Supreme Court judge who was given the case had only just sent out invitations to his son's bar mitzvah. Cohn and Norman's partner were two of the invitees. Prosecutors objected, and Cohn and the partner quietly dropped off the case.
Almost all the fixtures of Brooklyn politics can be spotted at Cohn's annual preelection-day breakfast at Junior's Restaurant on Flatbush Avenue that is part fundraiser, part meet and greet. The political expenses of serving as a party district leader are almost nil, but Cohn has made it into a high-rent office. The Friends of Steve Cohn, headed by his law partner, Richard Goldberg, annually pulls in more than $60,000. The money in turn has gone to newspaper ads and contributions to political committees and organizations, ranging from orthodox Jewish yeshivas to Al Sharpton's National Action Network.
Steve Cohn, say those who have watched him in action for years, wants to be everyone's best friend.
But some friends are best forgotten.
In 1984, Cohn served as campaign manager for a lawyer named Samuel Weinberg in his race for civil court judge. It wasn't much of a race, since Weinberg was given the party designation by Democratic officials and he beat his Republican opponent 5-1. Although Cohn's spokesman insists the men had no personal relationship, Weinberg listed his official residence as 235 Adams Street, the same downtown Brooklyn apartment building where Cohn lives.
But a couple of years later, something very unjudicial happened with Judge Weinberg: He was arrested by federal authorities, charged with a slew of disturbing crimes stemming from his real estate business. Weinberg was alleged to have hired a torch to burn a building he owned. The resulting fire had scorched a sleeping tenant, causing third-degree burns, and injured several firefighters.
Weinberg pled guilty to one count of racketeering, but prosecutors asked the judge to consider Weinberg's full array of criminal activity in determining sentence, what they described as "a veritable laundry list of crimes against vulnerable individuals." Weinberg had solicited "henchmen to assault and rape tenants," the lawmen said. He had exposed his genitals to an elderly female tenant he was trying to evict. He had hired vandals to wreck apartments, withheld services, evicted tenants by force, and defrauded insurance companies.
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 Voiceby 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 Poststories 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.
Cohn's campaign treasurer is Avery Okin, the executive director of the Brooklyn Bar Association. "The campaign has at all times been in compliance with Campaign Finance rules," said Okin. The reason for so much financial overkill, he said, is the possibility of an expensive race in the general election, where the rules allow Cohn to spend an additional $137,000. Who is that tough opponent down the road in November? Perennial Green Party candidate Craig Seeman, who is running with a shoe-string budget.