How He Got That Story


Trying to contain a Krakatau eruption of fury in the very same Village hangout where his mentor, Jack Newfield, used to come to savor a steak and a piano combo, Wayne Barrett must have thought, only for you, Jack. The secret source that Barrett had fed with his interest and patience over half a year was plopped across from him in a corner nook at the Knickerbocker. A wannabe Deep Throat who required clandestine meetings and empathetic nods from Barrett during his long confessionals, he was inching closer to detonating his newspaperman, while the moll half his age that he wore on his arm like a flashy watch was AWOL yet again in the bathroom. When she finally sidled back into the booth, she flipped Barrett’s switch: How ’bout helping the girl out with a job?

“Do I look like an employment agency?” Barrett boomed.

Well, Jack, he had tried.

There, right across from the favorite table of Brooklyn boss Clarence Norman—the corrupt
clubhouse heavyweight whom Newfield and Barrett had been gunning to take down for years—Barrett had lost it. Not just his temper but, potentially, his source—the man who could help him fulfill Newfield’s dream of Drano-ing the clog that had plugged the pipes of justice in the borough for generations.

Barrett couldn’t get it out of his head that Newfield died while trying to nail this one down. In a way, it was the definitive Newfield/Barrett story: how the greed and narcissism of small-minded viceroys gunks up democracy for all.

Barrett happened upon the key to the story the day in December 2004 that they buried Newfield. The funeral had been a who’s who of newshounds, political big shots, boxers, and jazzmen, and by nightfall his West Village brownstone was brimming with old chums like Jimmy Breslin and Freddy Ferrer for the first night of shivah. Chuck Schumer was holding court in the living room when Barrett decided he needed a little alone time with Newfield, and stole up to the dusty, paper-strewn third-floor office, where files of notes and clippings packed bookshelves that stretched so high it took a ladder to retrieve them all. Newfield had long since moved on from the Voice to work for the News, Post, and Sun, but yellowing issues of the paper where he made his name—and whose name he helped make—still hung off the sides of the Buick-long slab of black Formica atop two filing cabinets that served as his desk. In the middle, next to a manual typewriter that he poked at with two fingers, was an open notebook scribbled with his last interview.

Barrett recoiled.

It was a knockout scoop, the breakdown of selling judgeships in Brooklyn—the how to the why they had both known. Barrett staggered downstairs, awed once again by the working-class boy from Bed-Stuy’s ability to pry open the vaults of power. Out of deference to Newfield’s pacts with his confidential sources, he didn’t consider picking up this particular crowbar himself until a year and a half later, when an anonymous caller rang the Voice spewing dirt on Norman, including how the former Kings County chairman squeezed payoffs out of a relative of Howard Ruditzky—a judge’s name he had seen scrawled on the notebook on Newfield’s desk. Barrett, for sure, listened good. Soon he found himself driving to fetch the notes from the house of the dead man who taught him how to make a canary’s song sing from the Voice‘s front page.

By the mid ’70s, Newfield had attained a position at the Voice that allowed him to fill notepads with quotes and quips from the likes of Mario Cuomo and Bobby Kennedy and to land shots against Ed Koch, while Barrett’s muckraking at the time kept closer to the ground. After graduating journalism school he co-edited an underground paper in Ocean Hill–Brownsville that sought to out every local drug dealer and poverty pimp. It named names—and often points of sale. This was a principle that had steered Newfield’s own journalism. “Jack would not write in general about lead poisoning,” said Janie Eisenberg, his widow, in a recent interview. “He would say, this person in this house.”

In 1976, Barrett wrote a state report on how the broke city was spilling a fortune in contracts to the politically wired pals of Democratic Party fat cats. It got Newfield’s attention. He came to tour the streets where Barrett saw a mentality of predator and feeder fish in a shark tank and where hope met a dead end in Brooklyn politics. Soon Newfield drew Barrett to the Voice as a reporter whose coring screeds echoed his own. When Voice staffer Tom Robbins was asked the other day if Newfield created Wayne Barrett, his response was, “No, he harnessed him.” The two came to share scores of bylines before co-authoring the Koch-damning
City for Sale in 1988. According to Robbins, Andrew Maloney, the former U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, used to mutter about the duo who dashed about town sharing notes and a hit list (which sometimes included Maloney’s name), “Oh no, here come Batman and Robin.”

And the way they saw it, no part of Brooklyn politics needed more cleaning up than its courtrooms. Barrett had seen the muck-making machine firsthand in the mid ’70s while helping out the campaign of State Senator Major Owens, an unbranded leader who backed candidates who routinely got knocked off the ballot by the party’s puppet judges. The strings were nearly visible when the Dems’ law chairman would show up to election hearings for five minutes, just long enough to convey his message by standing next to the candidate that his boss wanted to win.

Such Punch-and-Judy shows had led Newfield to write expositions like his 1972 “The 10 Worst Judges in New York,” in which he lamented: “It is common belief on the streets of this city that judgeships are bought and sold by politicians for cash, and that once on the bench, some judges continue to be up for sale—or at least for rent. But nothing seems to change because the criticisms are usually general and few individuals ever get named.”

To name the names, Newfield would park himself in the city’s courthouses for a month at a time, buttonholing every judge, lawyer, criminal, and cop he could in off-the-record gut-spillings that taught him better than anyone how the game was really played. He became such a constant presence that Barrett let it pass with just a smile when, twice during recent interviews for the story that lies in these pages, a source accidentally called him Jack.