Serving a Life Term

Morgenthau: The long, long, long, long arm of the law

Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, is a mortal man, but the press has awarded him sainthood. Look at the coverage of his campaign this year for re-election to a ninth consecutive four-year term. Nary a critical word. Virtually every story brings up his age, 85, and then—correctly—brushes it aside with a litany about his mental acuity and his tennis game.

Age isn't the issue. Holding the same powerful office for 32 years is. Like other government officials who have stayed for many decades, he has built an unseen empire. With it, he has done many laudable things—supporting worthy civic causes, playing a leadership role in charitable activities such as the Police Athletic League, and carrying out major prosecutions like the BCCI international banking scandal. In a case that affected my family, he stepped in to help arrange a much reduced sentence for activist Abbie Hoffman, my cousin, when Abbie, after six years as a fugitive from federal cocaine-dealing charges, came in from the cold in 1980 and gave himself up.

At the same time, Morgenthau has looked after the New York City establishment, the political and moneyed ruling classes, who are centered in Manhattan, his election district. He is, after all, a charter member. When other members get into trouble, he often helps them out. Where lesser beings would face automatic indictments, powerful people of old and new money—people he wants in his corner to keep his empire together—are sometimes spared embarrassment. Through a spokeswoman, Morgenthau declined comment on this article.

He has courted the press, which all successful politicians do, and it has paid off for both sides. In the 1980s, his office investigated a mob-linked corruption enterprise involving bogus circulation figures that led to higher advertising rates at the New York Post, then owned by real estate baron Peter Kalikow. A few employees at the bottom of the Post food chain were sent to jail. Morgenthau allowed two of the paper's executives, one of them very close to Kalikow, to plead nolo contendere to misdemeanors and then walk. Kalikow, who is now the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said he had no knowledge of the wrongdoing. The executive close to Kalikow who walked, Richard Nasti, is still Kalikow's chief aide—at his real estate company.

Here are some other random examples of the media's relationships with Mr. Morgenthau. In 1996, as Random House was about to bring out a biography of David Durk, a whistle-blower against police and government corruption, the publisher sent a copy of the galleys to Morgenthau to insure his approval of the contents. Some passages in the book—Crusader, by James Lardner—recounted episodes in which Morgenthau was reluctant to go hard against police corruption. Morgenthau edited out the unfavorable material. Random House made no objection and published it as edited. Why would any publisher give a public official veto power over passages in any book? Normally, a book is merely given to the publisher's own attorneys to be vetted to avoid exposure to a libel suit. But Random House's behavior is a measure of Morgenthau's connections and power and reach.

In the 1970s, Governor Hugh Carey appointed a special state prosecutor to examine corruption in the judiciary. Some bad-apple judges, as we know, take bribes to fix cases. Others kowtow to D.A.'s and assign cases (as requested privately by the D.A.'s) to judges with known legal predispositions. The state's 62 district attorneys, led by Mr. Morgenthau, lobbied against this appointment and protested loudly. He insisted that the existing prosecutors were doing the job properly and needed no new special investigator. The man Carey appointed was Maurice Nadjari. From the start, the D.A.'s tried to undermine him. Morgenthau managed to place a "mole" in Nadjari's office to keep him informed. One tactic the mole used was to leak Nadjari's indictments of judges to the press in advance to make it appear that Nadjari was doing the leaking and therefore was guilty of misconduct. Appeals judges began overruling Nadjari's indictments. Eventually the office was shut down. It was the last time any governor or mayor has tried to create an aggressive investigation of the state's or city's judiciary.

A few years ago, Morgenthau's office buried an investigation into New York State's economic-development chief Charles Gargano, the fundraiser for Governor George Pataki and former U.S. senator Alfonse D'Amato. The allegations were that Gargano was doling out state contracts as rewards to major campaign contributors.

In 1991, when the toothless Senate Ethics Committee let off the ethically challenged D'Amato with a wrist slap on multiple charges of abuse of office, Morgenthau immediately sent the senator a personal congratulatory message by fax, saying that he knew all along that the senator would emerge unscathed. I doubt if many of you ever read about this incident. To my knowledge, it appeared in only two places—first in Cindy Adams's column in the New York Post, where I saw it, and then in my column in Newsday after the district attorney confirmed it for me by phone. Somehow D'Amato and Morgenthau became buddies—a career crooked politician and a crime fighter who has cultivated a squeaky-clean image. But that's what makes life—and journalism—interesting. Shouldn't that pique the interest of the press?

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