The City

Trump Learned at the Feet of a Master Cheat

When the Voice called out Roy Cohn on his deadbeat ways

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By 1976 Roy Cohn was already known as a take-no-prisoners fixer, whose “Never apologize, never explain” style was honed as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy during his 1950s red-baiting witch-hunts. McCarthy’s campaign of baseless accusations, fabrication, and exaggeration came to a head when he claimed that security was lax at a top-secret Army facility; the Army countercharged that McCarthy was seeking preferential treatment for a friend of Cohn’s, G. David Schine. The most famous moment of the televised Army–McCarthy hearings came after McCarthy accused a young lawyer in the office of Army counsel Joseph Welch of being a former Communist sympathizer. This fact was publicly known, but McCarthy nonetheless used it to smear Welch as a fellow traveler.

Fed up with the demagoguery, Welch said, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy blew him off, Welch angrily (and famously) ended the exchange: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy’s bullying and prevaricating caused his popularity to plummet, and three years later, at age 48, he died from complications due to alcoholism.

One might think that Cohn (1927–86) would have learned some lessons about humility and shame. But instead, he injected steroids into the McCarthy model and gained a reputation as a nasty infighter within the halls of power. Once, when representing a Mafia boss, he said, “Truth is hardly ever an absolute — there are so many elements.” His client at the time, Tony “Fat Tony” Salerno, beat that particular tax evasion rap. (One can get the flavor of Cohn’s character through Al Pacino’s portrayal in Angels in America.)

By the time writer Lois Morgan looked into Cohn’s machinations for the Voice, in 1976, he was known as a cheapskate and a flimflammer. Morgan reported that Cohn was being hounded by creditors, large and small, all over New York: “The firm (including the predecessor firms) owes at least $32,000 to miscellaneous travel agencies, personnel agencies, office supply companies, and firms providing all kinds of services. Most have been embroiled in collection proceedings and litigation for years. Some give up, like the man who said, ‘You have to make a whole career out of trying to collect judgments against Roy Cohn or his firm — I got tired.’ ” Morgan then lists numerous overdue bills: “$94.16 for office furniture, $558.56 for routine stationery (envelopes, engraved letter heads, business cards) … $144.45 to a locksmith, $153 for mechanical work on a car … $10,121.92 to an airline service company for storage, pilot services, fuel and maintenance of a company plane.”

The Voice article also notes how Cohn and his firm would give collectors the runaround and then ignore court judgments that went against them. One creditor told Morgan, “It’s a dead horse — you can’t get anywhere. I got very disgusted with it [the court action]. It’s a damn bother, with little return.” Cohn apparently cared little about the small businesses he ripped off. Morgan reports, “According to the September 5, 1969 issue of Life magazine, lawsuits have left Cohn, in large part, personally untouched, ‘for virtually all his assets — including his elegant Manhattan townhouse, his telephone-equipped limousine … and his 99-foot yacht Defiance [since sunk off the Florida coast] — are leased or held in separate corporations headed by his nominees.”

Cohn and Trump met in 1973 and became close friends and business associates. So the next time you hear about the Donald’s history of stiffing contractors (a practice known as “selling out one’s goodwill”) and how his labyrinthine businesses manage to dodge taxes and creditors alike, know that he learned at the feet of a master. Now, as a parade of Trump’s associates plead or are found guilty in court, we know why the harried, erratic POTUS has been quoted more than once as saying, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

— R.C. Baker

July 5, 1976

Why Doesn’t Roy Cohn Pay His Bills?

Roy Cohn has trouble paying his bills — particularly the small ones. In the words of one man who’s been trying to collect for five years, “He lives like a millionaire, buys like a millionaire, and pays like a pauper.”

In January 1976, it was reported that the IRS was after Cohn for $370,000. As of the end of April, the New York State Industrial Commission was after Cohn and Scott E. Manley, law partners, for $7429 in unpaid unemployment insurance taxes. The firm (including the predecessor firms) owes at least $32,000 to miscellaneous travel agencies, personnel agencies, office supply companies, and firms providing all kinds of services. Most have been embroiled in collection proceedings and litigation for years. Some give up, like the man who said, “You have to make a whole career out of trying to collect judgments against Roy Cohn or his firm — I got tired.” 

In April, Roy Cohn’s law firm owed $94.16 for office furniture, $558.56 for routine stationery (envelopes, engraved letter heads, business cards), $183 for telegraphic services, $7000 for the use of an oil company’s credit cards, $3512.92 for services rendered that reduced the law firm’s monthly phone bill and got them credit, $144.45 to a locksmith, $153 for mechanical work on a car, $436 for temporary office help, $3366 to a photo offset company; $3000 to several travel agencies for charged airplane tickets, $875 to private attorneys, $10,121.92 to an airline company for storage, pilot services, fuel and maintenance of a company plane. 

In a number of these cases there has been a marked similarity in the progression of events, from the initial delivery of services or goods (anywhere from three to eight years ago) up to the present. Some companies haven’t gotten a penny; others have collected part of the original amount. Some have recovered their money. A typical scenario is this: Business “A” does something for Roy Cohn or one of the other partners at the law firm, and sends a bill. The bill never gets paid. Business “A” calls the firm and speaks with one person who refers him to another, the book-keeper, who handles all those matters, and who is particularly hard to reach. After several unsuccessful calls, a few letters are sent. Same result — nothing. Business “A” gives the whole thing over to a bill collector. Legal proceedings begin. A suit is instituted against the law firm, a summons is served, and the case is eventually put on the calendar for trial. Cohn’s firm requests and is granted a couple of postponements until the judge finally sets another definite date for both parties to appear before him. A judgment is granted in favor of the plaintiff. This is just the beginning, however, for now, with all the ingenuity and time and endurance he can muster up, he has to col­lect.

“Collecting from them is unbe­lievable. A judgment means noth­ing — it means okay, they owe you money. Youhave to collect. Nothing’s in the firm name . . . It’s impossible to find where their assets are,” says Ron Chernow, who did some work for Saxe, Bacon, Bolan & Manley in 1973, and has not gotten a penny. “We’re telephone consultants . . . We audit telephone bills on a contingency fee arrangement. If we can prove that New York Telephone is over­charging a client and can reduce the charge, our fee is half of what we reduce the bill by for the following five years plus 50 per cent of any lump sum refunds. We showed that Saxe, Bacon, Bolan & Manley was being overcharged and we got them both a refund check from the phone company and a reduction in their monthly bill.” After repeated telephone calls (“at least two dozen”) and a letter to Roy Cohn who had signed the original agreement, proved unfruitful, Chernow’s attorney served a summons and was even­tually awarded a default judgment (they didn’t show up in court this time). “They’re very cute. They sign contracts under one name and own everything — all their cash — under different names, so you can’t ever attach their assets. Other people have advised us that we shouldn’t waste time with that firm, trying to collect . . . It has cost me money, time, and effort to take it as far as I have . . . There comes a point when you throw your hands up in the air and chalk it off. . . “

What seems common to Cohn’s creditors’ experiences is the fact that collecting is a very difficult business. The time, money, and energy involved is something that small firms; in particular, can seldom afford. As one lawyer who has been trying to collect $1000 since 1968 puts it, “If it’s a small claim it doesn’t justify spending the time [to find where the assets are]. If there were $10,000 involved it would be worth doing a real search. So the tendency is to drop it . . . it’s a nuisance.” The client whom this lawyer is representing expresses it another way: “It’s a dead horse — you can’t get any­where. I got very disgusted with it [the court action]. It’s a damn bother, with little return.”

What makes it so difficult? Everyone has a slightly different ex­planation, but they’re variations on the same theme. When Station­ery Production Company began its litigation in 1969, it was against the law firm Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, of which Roy Cohn was officially “counsel.” A summons was served on May 13 after repeated demands for payment were not met. Sta­tionery Production got a default judgment (the law firm didn’t ap­pear in court partly because Cohn was on trial somewhere else) for the full amount of the bill plus cost — a total of $1058.56. Saxe, Bacon & Bolan started paying off the debt, $100 a month, and then stopped. $558.56 is left unpaid. “Then we had all kinds of problems,” says Nancy Young, attor­ney for Stationery Production. “They dissolved the law firm Saxe, Bacon & Bolan and reconstituted under a new partnership, Saxe, Bacon, Bolan & Marley — not liable for the debts of the old. We have to go after the partners individually. The only old partner left, who had survived from the old firm, was Thomas Bolan, and we couldn’t find any assets of his to attach.” Although Ms. Young had had cor­respondence with Roy Cohn, he technically had no liability since he was not a partner in the firm at the time of her client’s suit. She could not attach any of his assets, supposing she could find them. When this was all going on, ”the house — the brownstone — and the furniture were owned by Roy Cohn, who was not a partner. We couldn’t attach them. He was rid­ing around in a Bentley or a Rolls and we couldn’t attach them.” The last attempt she made was about a year ago, with a subpoena duces tecum, a legal document which would have required Thomas Bolan to appear in court with Saxe, Bacon & Bolan’s tax returns, bank accounts, bank statements, books and records, and accounts receiv­able. After the document was served, Ms. Young was informed by the firm that Saxe, Bacon & Bolan no longer existed, a new firm had taken its plan, and the subpoena would not be honored. She soon dropped the matter. Why hasn’t she tried again? “I would like to, but I haven’t got around to it. That’s the gimmick.”

According to the September 5, 1969 issue of Life Magazine, law­suits have left Cohn, in large part, personally untouched, “for vir­tually all his assets — including his elegant Manhattan townhouse, his telephone-equipped limousine . . . and his 99-foot yacht Defiance [since sunk off the Florida coast] — are leased or held in separate corporations headed by his nominees.”

MMNG Temporaries was awarded a judgment against Saxe, Bacon & Bolan for $416.97 for temporary office help. A settle­ment agreement was worked out for $300, of which the law firm paid $250. Then they didn’t pay any­more. MMNG Temporaries soon went bankrupt’ and “everything went into the hands of receivers. “I wasn’t going to work and not get paid,”says their lawyer, “so that’s where it stands.”

Some creditors do finally get paid; for example, Karel F. Mulder, owner of International Translators, a small translation bureau in New York City. He received, in October 1973, a legal document, in Dutch, from Saxe, Bacon, Bolan & Manley for translation into English. Mr. Mulder’s company did the work, returned the document with the translation a week later and billed the firm $150. He didn’t get paid. He telephoned several times and wrote letters but got no response (“they gave me the runaround”), so he put the matter into the hands of a collection agency. After some time when no money was forthcoming, Mr. Mulder switched to another agency, which managed to collect. After each was paid its fee for services rendered, Mulder was left with little besides bitter feelings. “I caught in the end $15 or $20. If they had called again (for transla­tion work) I would have told them to go to the devil. People who prey on small businesses ought to get their behinds kicked.”

Other debts have been settled in full: $285 for groceries purchased at Gristede Brothers was paid, as far as the credit department can recall, after the matter was put into the hands of their collection attorney; close to $900 in restau­rant charges to Roy Cohn, person­ally, from Restaurant Associates was paid after law suits were ini­tiated.

When I asked Roy Cohn about the many people who say he owes them money, he answered by em­phasizing the years between 1963 and 1971 when he was involved in three criminal trials, on indict­ments including bribery, fraud, extortion, blackmail, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy (he was acquitted in all three trials), and. during which time debts piled up. “We had a nine-year period of fighting to stay alive, “Cohn said. “Legal fees and court expenses were huge. It was a murderous time . . . the court costs were absolutely enormous. But I’m lucky, I have clients and friends who stand by me. [During that period] there was a total lack of attention to other things — [every­thing was] subservient to the issue of the criminal trial. That resulted in a lot of chaos. People attempted to hit us where no money was due . . . We got hit with a bunch of phony judgments . . . “

“To straighten everything out takes time and energy,” he went on, “and we’re doing very very well . . . It’s a catching up process — not an easy thing. Anything due and owing is being looked at. Of all the justifiable claims, 90 per cent are cleaned up. Most people have been 100 per cent nice about it. We’ve worked it out on a gradual basis. There have been very few problems, except those who love to stamp on people who are down . . . “

But Roy Cohn’s troubles seem far from over. Last week, he was found to have tricked the late Lewis S.Rosenstiel, the former head of the Schenley distillery complex who died last January, into changing his will. Dade County Probate Judge Frank Dowling issued an order voiding the document, which named Cohn a trustee of Rosenstiel’s $75 million estate: The court found that Cohn “misrepresented to the decedent the nature, con- tent, and purpose of the document he offered Mr. Rosenstiel for execution.” Attorneys for Rosenstiel’s estate had accused Cohn of telling the dying 85-year-old man he was signing a document concerning a divorce from a former wife. Roy Cohn denies the charges of misrepresentation and has said he plans to take the case into New York and Connecticut courts. 

The reactions of the people contacted in doing the research for this article were revealing. While a few people were openly suspicious of me and protective toward Cohn and his firm (“I don’t know anything about it and I wouldn’t tell you even if I did”) and hostile, most.wanted to be helpful, were cautious, and expressed a mixture of fear, anger, cynicism, disgust, resignation and awe, in varying proportions. Ben Gould, photo off-setter, had perhaps the briefest comment of all. Roy Cohn? “He’s a doll.” 

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