Listening to the tapes of telephone conversations between the imprisoned Webb Hubbell and his wife, I was struck by a particularly chilling comment made by Hubbell as he explained to his wife that he would never do anything to put Hillary Clinton in peril.
In an injured tone, Hubbell said, “Have I ever been disloyal? . . . Those are issues I have to stay away from to protect others, and I will. I always have.”
Disloyal to what or whom? He certainly didn’t have the Constitution of the United States in mind if he was implying that he would obstruct justice to protect the queen of the realm. (Hand-picked by the president, Hubbell had been the third-ranking official in the Justice Department before he was sent to the can.)
Obviously, he was renewing his oath of fealty to the Clintons. He reminded me of a feudal vassal who pledged the monarch undeviating loyalty and kept that oath for fear of losing his land, or his head.
I’ve seen other chieftains encircled by faithful servants. I knew one of those loyalists, the Reagan administration’s attorney general, Ed Meese. He would never have put Reagan in any danger of exposure of questionable acts. I came to know Meese because later we debated each other on the college lecture circuit. I was surprised to find him warm, witty, not as pompous as he seemed on television, and indeed likable–though still wrong-headed on civil liberties and the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution.
But because he was so utterly loyal to Reagan, Meese was not loyal to those he had sworn to serve–namely us. J. Edgar Hoover, of course, had a similar praetorian guard at the FBI. I met one of them, Walter Sullivan, at a Harvard seminar on privacy. He was on the brink, I thought, of becoming his own mensch, and he soon lost his place close to the sun king. For authoritarian rulers, loyalty must be unquestioned and unquestioning.
What follows is a true story of New York at this time that partially illuminates the rigidity and vindictiveness of Giuliani and his own true-blue praetorian guard in matters of police brutality.
The story begins with an op-ed piece in the August 24, 1997, New York Times. The writer was Joel Berger, who had worked in New York City’s Corporation Counsel’s office from 1988 to 1996. His job was monitoring police-brutality cases–deciding which cops should be defended by the city. Since then, Berger has been in private practice, and much of his time is devoted to defending victims of the police.
Berger cited the case of officer Francis X. Livoti, “who was found by the police to have used an illegal choke hold while arresting Anthony Baez, who died during the incident. Mr. Livoti was eventually fired by the police department, but the sergeant who was with him that night was not disciplined. Nor were other officers who testified at Mr. Livoti’s criminal trial, in which he was found not guilty of criminally negligent homicide.
“During that trial, Acting Justice Gerald Sheindlin said that he suspected a ‘nest of perjury,’ apparently referring to testimony by three of Officer Livoti’s colleagues.” That is, those officers’ impenetrable blue wall of silence.
So why was this “nest of perjury” not explored by the eminent police commissioner, Howard Safir? He said, according to Berger’s article, that nobody had brought any perjury to his attention, especially not the trial judge. Safir doesn’t read the newspapers? The “nest of perjury” quote was all over the press. This is the same Safir who said recently, after some of his police brutally beat up a 54-year-old woman, a cancer survivor with one eye, “I give the police the benefit of the doubt in this case.”
In his Times op-ed column, Joel Berger told about Officer James Pitti’s 1995 conviction for felonious assault. He had viciously beaten a young man and was dismissed from the force.
But punishing just him is not enough. What about his partner, Frank Bolusi, who testified that he didn’t see or hear a thing because he was “catching up on his memo book and paperwork”?
The judge, Ronald J. Aiello, criticized Bolusi’s “rather astounding ignorance of what happened that night.”
Yet, Joel Berger wrote, “to this day, Bolusi has not been departmentally disciplined. The message was . . . unmistakable. Failing to report brutality, and even covering it up, were not deemed serious offenses.”
Berger, until he wrote that column in the Times,had been teaching a class at NYU law school that enabled students to earn credit while working for the city’s Corporation Counsel. Remember, Berger was one of the leading lawyers in that office until he went into private practice, so he was particularly qualified to teach that course.
The September 29, 1997, New York magazine takes up the story: “Shortly after classes began [that] fall–according to the director of the law school’s clinics, Martin Guggenheim–‘I was informed by a lawyer in the Corporation Counsel’s office that it would not permit the apprenticeship to continue . . . if Joel Berger were to be involved.’ ” (Emphasis added.) This was despite the fact that he was not going to include police cases in his course.
In his article about Commissioner Safir’s failure to bring the cops huddling behind the blue wall of silence up on charges, Berger had failed to show reverence to the police commissioner and his august boss, the mayor.
New York magazine quoted Martin Guggenheim as saying that the Corporation Counsel offered to find someone else to teach the course. (Someone who knew how to revere the mayor and his inner circle.)
Guggenheim declined. New York magazine then quoted an anonymous source: “This is nothing but the typical, spiteful, get-back-at-them attitude that this administration has shown in so many ways.”
As for the Corporation Counsel, its spokesman said, “We have nothing to say.”
Giuliani detests dissent, and when it is in his power to punish an independent voice, he has members of his praetorian guard do his dirty work. None of them dare refuse.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 9, 1998