By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Leslie Crocker Snyder was such a convincing tough-as-nails judge in her years on the bench that no less an authority than the producers of Law & Order had her serve as the show's advisor. Snyder was such a natural that they even had her don black robes and bang a gavel in a few episodes.
But the role Snyder really hankered after was that Adam Schiff character. This is the fictional D.A. modeled on Snyder's bête noir, the now retiring Robert Morgenthau, whom Snyder castigated as too old and stale when she ran against him four years ago and whose record she regularly slams in her current campaign to succeed him.
There's no doubt that the judge nicknamed "25-to-Life" could play the part—on or off TV. In the round-robin appearances she's made at political clubs in recent weeks alongside fellow candidates Richard Aborn and Cy Vance Jr., Snyder comes across as a believably hard-nosed prosecutor-type, full of grit and energy. The tougher question is how she stacks up in some other qualities you'd like to see in your 21st-century crime fighter: judgment and fairness.
One measure might be Snyder's most recent real-life prosecutorial performance, which, while she hasn't been touting it on the campaign trail, could have come right out of the Law & Order script book:
A mob moll who was the key witness in the murder trial of a former FBI agent is suspected of perjury after tapes of old interviews surface showing that she'd told a very different version of events 10 years earlier. The D.A. drops the charges and asks that a special prosecutor be named. Legal experts opine that perjury is a heavy lift since the witness wasn't under oath when she gave the interviews. Other D.A.s duck the assignment. Leslie Crocker Snyder alone rises to the occasion. Couldn't you see that squeezed into an hour of gavel-pounding drama on weeknight air time?
I stipulate here that some of this ruckus was caused when I reported in the Voice what witness Linda Schiro had told me and my former Daily News colleague Jerry Capeci back in 1997, when we spoke to her for a never-published book about her late boyfriend, Greg Scarpa Sr., a notorious Colombo crime family capo and highly prized secret informant for FBI agent R. Lindley DeVecchio. The story upended DeVecchio's murder trial and prompted suspicions that Schiro had lied under oath.
I stipulate further that when Snyder announced a year later, on October 22, 2008, that there was (as the experts predicted) "insufficient proof of falsity" to file perjury charges, she seized the opportunity to hammer me and Capeci:
"Their timing," she wrote in her report, "maximized the burden on all parties (especially the accused); led to a regrettable waste of judicial and law enforcement resources; disrupted the trial in a manner that was most likely to bring disrepute on the entire criminal justice system; and instead of protecting their source, disgraced her and exposed her to criminal investigation for perjury."
These tough words surprised me since Snyder had repeatedly promised to formulate "specific questions" she wanted me to answer for her investigation, but somehow never got around to doing so. Capeci reports that she made the same pledge to him, but was heard from no more. This lapse was puzzling since Snyder stated that the biggest unanswered question relevant to her investigation was "why Schiro's statements were not revealed until the eleventh hour, as a 'surprise' to both parties after two weeks of trial."
Had she asked, I would have tried to explain: I never imagined until I heard the prosecutor's opening statement that an entire case charging four murders against a decorated FBI agent might rest solely on the testimony of Scarpa's lovely but scatterbrained mistress. I also didn't want to assume that Schiro's testimony would go so astray from the facts as she'd told them years earlier until I heard it from her own mouth on the witness stand. We thought as well that coming forward was the right thing to do.
I admit to also being miffed by Snyder's comments because I thought that she brought a wee conflict to her task. During her 2005 campaign, I wrote an article reporting how she had been recruited to her current law firm by a partner to whom she had awarded a lucrative, seven-figure appointment while on the bench—a story she hadn't appreciated. Upon learning she was likely to be the special prosecutor, I relayed this concern via a mutual friend. I was told I had nothing to worry about: "Leslie said that was politics; this is professional."
But those are my own quibbles. Of wider public concern is how Snyder opted to meander away from her "specific mandate" regarding perjury into darkest conspiracy country.
In a three-page addendum, Snyder ominously writes that, just as she was concluding her report, "I suddenly was contacted by a number of people claiming to have pertinent information who were now willing to talk to me as long as their identity was not revealed publicly."
Snyder says she put her report on hold and spent "hours and hours" in conversation with these witnesses, some of them admitted criminals, who detailed Scarpa's role and the deadly civil war waged between Colombo crime family factions during the early 1990s.
The witnesses largely corroborated the murder charges presented against DeVecchio by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, Snyder wrote, and also "gave general support to Linda Schiro's grand jury and trial testimony."
As a result, Snyder said, she felt "compelled to raise" issues "which warrant further investigation by an appropriate agency or some other investigative body." Chief among them was whether the FBI and prosecutors had combined to cover up DeVecchio's misdeeds in order to avoid facing new trials for convicted members of Scarpa's crime family.
As it happens, that's the exact claim originally advanced by a private investigator named Angela Clemente, who first brought the DeVecchio allegations to Hynes's office back in 2005 and who helped spark the indictment and ensuing fiasco.
After the trial collapsed, Clemente, who bills herself as a "forensic analyst," took her theories to the special prosecutor, who was deeply appreciative. Snyder writes that it was "largely thanks to Angela Clemente" that her new witnesses came forward. "Forensic analyst Angela Clemente, who has been investigating the DeVecchio story and the Colombo family for many years," wrote Snyder, "offered invaluable assistance."
What's deeply weird here—and genuinely disturbing in someone who may soon be calling the shots as a top city prosecutor—is what Snyder either didn't know or care to mention: that this invaluable assistance came from someone who wasn't so much investigating the Colombo crime family as working on behalf of members and relatives of a Colombo faction who were desperate to capitalize on whatever crimes could be attributed to DeVecchio and Scarpa in order to win new trials.
Clemente made no secret of it. In a pre-trial hearing in 2007, she testified how she had spent years gathering evidence on behalf of imprisoned-for-life Colombo family mobsters hoping to prove that DeVecchio's misconduct caused their own convictions. Clemente also acknowledged that she stood to profit from a multimillion-dollar lawsuit filed against the FBI and DeVecchio by family members of a Colombo capo killed by Scarpa.
One of those Clemente was helping was Vittorio "Little Vic" Orena, the former acting boss of the Colombo family and head of the rival faction who had been appealing his murder and racketeering conviction for years.
The conspiracy theory advanced by Clemente was so vast that it included the current general counsel for the FBI, as well as the agent who first complained that he thought DeVecchio had crossed the line in dealing with Scarpa (that agent later testified that he knew nothing of DeVecchio's involvement in any murders).
The grateful Colombo mobsters provided an attorney to represent Clemente at the hearings. They also picked up the tab for travel expenses as she visited imprisoned gangsters around the country with her late investigative partner and mentor, a man named Dr. Stephen Dresch.
It's too bad that Dresch, an economics professor who lived in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, wasn't also around to help Snyder in her expanded perjury probe. Dresch, who died in 2006 shortly after DeVecchio's indictment, wrote what he called his "Prosecution Referral Memo" on DeVecchio, which Clemente hand-delivered to the Brooklyn D.A.'s office and which sparked Hynes's probe.
Dresch, an avowed libertarian, was quoted this way in 2004 in The Daily Mining Gazette: "I'll be honest," he said. "I want nothing more than to bring the FBI into complete disrepute." Shortly before his death, the paper ran another interview in which Dresch was pictured in a big, red plaid shirt and an immense white beard. The DeVecchio indictment, he said, was "a notch" in "my gun."
According to the website still maintained for his firm, Forensic Intelligence International, LLC, among the projects Dresch was working on when he died were "The Phenomenology and Dynamics of Sexual Exchange," and "Taxation and International Trade in the Context of Soviet Economic Reconstruction."
Such was the troupe that pressed the case against DeVecchio. When Hynes held his press conference in March 2006 announcing the indictment, he also praised Angela Clemente as crucial to the effort. In the back of the room, smiling and passing out his business card to reporters, was Andrew Orena, son of the Colombo acting boss.
No one understands these zany overlaps between conspiracy theorists and gangsters seeking their ticket to freedom better than DeVecchio's defense attorneys, Mark Bederow and Douglas Grover. But Snyder never got around to calling them either.
Every investigator—reporters included—knows what it's like to sometimes get lost in the weeds when chasing theories advanced by sources who appear otherwise sane. But Judge Snyder seems to have been only too glad to follow Clemente and her mob backers down the same rabbit hole where Hynes and his team had already gone woefully astray. She never even sought opposing views, a reality check that even Law & Order prosecutors routinely get, usually from the Adam Schiff/D.A. character.
Snyder's response to questions about her report was the same last week as it was last fall: "She called it as she saw it," said Ken Frydman, a campaign spokesman.
Her vision may have blurred because she was focused on another target. The same week Snyder was named special prosecutor, she sent out an e-mail blast to her campaign supporters, the first in nearly two years. It announced a major policy shift: She was now against the death penalty, the issue that so hobbled her in the 2005 race against Morgenthau, an avowed capital-punishment foe. The e-mail linked back to her newly revived campaign website.