The Dragon Lady Runs for D.A.

Working the street: Snyder greeting voters last week on the Upper East Side
photo: Marc Asnin

On May 10, after a year spent in dress rehearsals, former Supreme Court justice Leslie Crocker Snyder presented herself to the voters at a gala fundraiser and campaign kickoff breakfast at the Sheraton New York on Seventh Avenue. There she was hailed by some 800 supporters, including former colleagues, defense lawyers, and officials from all of the city's police, fire, and court officers' unions who have endorsed her candidacy to be the next district attorney of New York County.

In her announcement speech, Snyder struck most of the high notes in a remarkably high-profile career: first woman to try a homicide case in New York City, co-author of the state's rape shield law, founder of the sex crimes bureau, and tenacious judge overseeing many trials of organized-crime figures and drug kingpins.

Snyder, who is 63, also went straight at her opponent, longtime incumbent D.A. Robert Morgenthau, who is 85. "New Yorkers deserve a D.A. who will bring the office into the 21st century," she said, a campaign theme that can't help but remind listeners that Morgenthau, a World War II veteran, was born early in the last century.

She went on to thump Morgenthau for what she said was his failure to push for reforms of the Rockefeller drug laws that mandate lengthy prison sentences even for nonviolent offenders. The D.A., she said, had waited until just last year to announce his opposition to statutes "that have ruined so many lives and unfairly targeted African Americans and Latinos. He could have and should have been at the forefront of the battle."

Snyder also hammered Morgenthau for failing to cooperate with other prosecutors, saying he had "stood in the way of cooperation," an argument underscored by the presence of former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who is chairing Snyder's campaign.

Actually, jurisdictional fights have been waged forever between the D.A.'s office on Hogan Place and the U.S. Attorney's office down the street at St. Andrews Plaza. And Snyder herself has spoken approvingly several times in the past about the Rockefeller drug laws. "I've never had a problem with them," she told Phil Donahue in a 2002 interview. But in a private poll Snyder commissioned shortly after retiring from the bench in late 2003 to evaluate her chances in a race, she had learned that the immensely popular Morgenthau was vulnerable on several levels, including his age, the drug laws, and his turf wars with other prosecutors.

To have a chance, the pollsters instructed, Snyder needed to "continue devising a negative message" about Morgenthau. "The age issue needs to be used carefully," they warned, lest it backfire with sympathetic voters. To win the race, the survey warned, Snyder would need a "tremendously well funded campaign" to overcome Morgenthau's built-in advantages.

The poll—conducted by Penn, Schoen & Berland, the firm that advises Hillary Clinton—cautioned that the ex-judge carried her own potential negatives: Morgenthau could remind voters of Snyder's occasionally heated temperament (she once told a defendant convicted of murder that she wished she could personally give him the lethal injection) and that she is now employed at a law firm that represents tobacco companies among others.

Such polls go for about $30,000, according to experts, but Snyder, who paid for the survey herself, never disclosed the expense in her campaign filings, saying she didn't need to because it was only "exploratory." State election officials say disclosure is preferable but not mandatory. In any case, when Snyder was asked about the survey this month, she dismissed it as old and unimportant. "I don't need a poll to tell me what the issues are," she said.

Before and after her speech, Snyder, a peppy blonde who was trained in the rarefied halls of Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe, worked the ballroom's crowded tables, hugging and kissing like a veteran pol.

"I think she's courageous," said Alan Futerfas, an attorney who represented a reputed mob carter before Snyder. Indeed, while she was on the bench Snyder was the target of numerous death plots hatched by defendants, and she is still accompanied by a bodyguard in public.

In a business in which it is a badge of honor when the crooks start coming up with nicknames for you, Snyder had several. She was called "Dragon Lady," "Queen of Lockdown," "232" (for the prison term allotted one defendant unlucky enough to come before her), even "25 to Life"—a name stamped on glassine heroin packets below a likeness of the judge and one that Snyder so admired she used it as the title for her 2002 autobiography.

But if her law-and-order background put some off, there were others to counter it. Richard Emery, a lawyer who has represented police brutality victims, said he is backing Snyder because "it's just time for Morgy to go."

Ruth Messinger, the liberal ex-Manhattan borough president who was Snyder's classmate at Radcliffe, praised the judge as a pioneering feminist. (In Snyder's autobiography she pointedly mentioned that she was "not particularly friends" with Messinger and another famous liberal classmate, former congresswoman and city comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman. "We've talked about that," Messinger said.)  

Age baiting and record fudging aside, Snyder's challenge—the first serious one to Morgenthau in his 30 years in the office—has already paid positive benefits to the body politic. It has spurred both candidates to speak out against the Rockefeller drug laws, and it has renewed discussion about the death penalty (Morgenthau's against it, Snyder's in favor, albeit, she quickly adds, "only for the worst kind of crimes"). Snyder has also forced Morgenthau's office to confront uncomfortable issues, such as its slow response to evidence indicating that two men may have been wrongfully convicted for a 1990 murder at the old Palladium nightclub.

But for a judge who doled out some of the toughest language heard from the bench, and who was famous for making defense counsel squirm, Snyder is remarkably thin-skinned when pressed about her own views and affairs, ranging from her varying positions on the drug laws, handling of cases, and even her current employment.

Despite the pollsters' advice to soft-pedal the partnership she now holds in a major law firm, Snyder publicly saluted her associates right at the beginning of her speech at the fundraiser. "Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman—you have been incredibly supportive," she said.

Indeed they have. Last year, the firm donated $300,000 to Snyder, an extraordinarily large donation that put the first strong wind into Snyder's sails as she launched her expensive and uphill bid. To comply with election law limits, the July 2004 contribution was apportioned equally among the firm's 44 partners; even those working in branch offices in Atlanta, Houston, and San Francisco chipped in $6,818 apiece.

But the firm apparently can afford it. In 2003, Kasowitz, Benson helped the Liggett Group overturn a massive $145 billion damages verdict won by Florida smokers against big tobacco companies. In 2002, it quashed a class action suit by alleged asbestos victims against its client Armstrong World Industries. The firm has also worked the other side of the litigation street, winning an environmental damages suit on behalf of low-income Alabama residents. Here in the city, it is defending the New York Jets in lawsuits opposing the West Side stadium.

According to The American Lawyer, Kasowitz, Benson earned per-partner profits of $2.9 million in 2003, the year that Snyder joined the firm. Little of that big money comes her way, however, Snyder insisted in an interview after her campaign kickoff event. "They are doing very well. But I am not an equity partner, my salary is quite modest," she said, adding: "I do not intend to disclose it to you at this point."

Snyder said she'd release her tax forms if Morgenthau released his. But whatever she's paid, Snyder has a comfortable arrangement for any attorney, particularly one embarked on a political campaign in which getting out and getting known are key ingredients. As a campaign spokesman explained later, Snyder does not handle any clients. Her work consists of representing the partnership at meetings and television appearances, training, and consulting.

But Snyder also marked as off-limits any discussion of who approached her to join the law firm. "Basically, I knew people there for quite a while, and they wanted me to come to the firm," she said. "I told them I was interested in running for D.A., and they said fine."

Who were they?

"I really don't feel the need to detail all their names," she said. Her discussions were "personal," she added. "They may not appreciate it."

Asked why, Snyder snapped, "That's my position."

One of the partners who wooed the judge to join Kasowitz, Benson was a former prosecutor named Eric Herschmann, who appeared before Snyder on cases in the 1980s. Later, after Herschmann joined Kasowitz, Benson, Snyder appointed him as a "special master" to handle a multimillion-dollar restitution fund, an appointment that eventually earned Kasowitz, Benson more than $200,000 in fees.

"Yes, he was one of them," she said when asked specifically if Herschmann had urged her to come aboard.

In appointing Herschmann in 1996, Snyder asked him to oversee a $3.75 million fund consisting of court-ordered restitution payments made by managers of co-ops and condos who had taken kickbacks from vendors. The fund was the result of a wide investigation by Morgenthau into corrupt practices at many of the city's biggest management firms. (Morgenthau later used his findings to scold the city's business establishment, saying New York was becoming "kickback city.")

Snyder, who was then considered a Morgenthau favorite on complex indictments, presided over the case, which eventually resulted in guilty pleas from 73 agents and management companies. Herschmann's job, which lasted through 2000, included the task of identifying victims and evaluating claims.  

After some management firms objected to bad publicity stemming from his efforts, all of Herschmann's written reports were placed under seal. But the Voice obtained some of his filings, which show that Snyder approved $216,800 in payments to Herschmann for just a partial period; the records indicate that his total compensation was likely to have been much higher.

Herschmann, citing a family medical emergency, said he was unable to discuss the appointment but would try to have someone else at the firm respond. Other firm members failed to return calls.

Snyder said she had no recollection of the fees earned but said such appointments were rare for a criminal judge. "I probably had one or two in my entire professional career," she said. Herschmann was chosen because "he is a very good lawyer," she said.

Her own actions, she insisted, paled beside those of Morgenthau, whom she accused of regularly funneling such assignments to his own favorites. "If you want to be balanced," Snyder said, "let's just look at who the D.A. has appointed." Although she said she had no specifics, she said that Morgenthau's former investigations chief, Michael Cherkasky, who later became head of Kroll Inc., a corporate investigation firm, "has been appointed to a zillion things." (Morgenthau's office identified only one Kroll appointment, prior to Cherkasky's hiring at the company.)

But the co-op case wasn't the only appointment that went to a Snyder friend, records show. In 2001, the judge selected attorney Lawrence Goldman to manage another restitution fund, this one to cover payments to investors defrauded by a crooked brokerage firm. Goldman, who bills at a rate of $450 an hour, has collected $50,000 so far, and has indicated in court filings that he is seeking an additional $175,000 in fees to oversee the fund, which reached $11 million.

"I've known Larry Goldman for years," said Snyder last week. "If they say I approved him for something, I probably did. I don't remember."

Goldman, who worked with Snyder in the D.A.'s office in the late '60s, is the chairman of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and a past president of the three bar associations. "It was [Snyder's] recommendation," said Goldman, "but it was with the agreement of Morgenthau's office and the defense attorneys." His fees so far have included $15,000 in advertising expenses, and his final tab will be well below 5 percent of the fund, a cap that applies to court-appointed guardians, he said.

So far Goldman has contributed $2,125 to Snyder's campaign and has been prominently quoted in several articles about her candidacy. "I think she is gutsy, competent, and incredibly energetic," he said. "There are a lot of things we personally disagree about in terms of criminal justice issues," he said, "but I admire her energy, intellect, and diligence."

Not all lawyers who saw Snyder on the bench share that view. Jim Rogers, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, whose members represent indigent defendants, accuses Snyder of using the Rockefeller drug laws to hand down severe sentences for nonviolent drug crimes. "I am far from a fan of Robert Morgenthau's office," said Rogers. "But Snyder is an extremist whom all New Yorkers who care about the fate of poor people in the criminal justice system should be frightened of."

Snyder denies it, insisting that she bent over backward in several instances to help defendants, particularly women. But she acknowledges that in order to win leniency from her at the bench, defendants had to plead guilty. "I had a lot of credibility with the prosecutors because I was tough in the cases where a judge was supposed to be tough," she said.

That tough side is amply on display in a 1997 transcript that the judge's critics have circulated in recent months. The case involved a man who was picked up by police, accused of being a fugitive drug dealer named Ramon Perez. The defendant's lawyer, Kenneth Wasserman, told Snyder it was mistaken identity, and that a state fingerprint check had confirmed that his client was in fact Saul Gonzalez.

According to the transcript, the assistant D.A. offered no opinion, but Snyder, pointing to a 10-year-old snapshot of the fugitive, mockingly dismissed the claim. "That is truly absurd," she said. "The photographs look exactly like your client." The fingerprints had simply gotten mixed up, she insisted. "There is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind," Snyder said twice at the hearing before she remanded the defendant back to jail.

Two weeks later, the D.A. told Snyder they did indeed have the wrong man. At that point Gonzalez had been in jail for 24 days, but Snyder was still suspicious. "Unless he's been cloned, he is clearly the same person," said the judge as she released him.  

Last week, Snyder admitted her mistake, but offered no apology. "You would have to look at the record," she said. "I don't remember each time what I said." If anyone was at fault, she said, "it was the D.A.'s office, which kept insisting it had the right person."

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