CITY HALL ARCHIVES

Meade Esposito, Runnin’ Scared

“The essence of the ruling was that Esposito, who has become a caricature of the county party boss, is in fact no boss at all and thus cannot be penalized for breaking state laws that limit the commercial activity of a county leader.”

by

State Supreme Court Judge Alvin Klein’s recent dismissal of a legal motion to unseat Brooklyn Democratic boss Meade Esposito was in part the result of a series of compromises and a lack of prosecutorial zeal by State Attorney General Robert Abrams.

Abrams, who inherited the complaint against Esposito from former Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, cooperated with Esposito’s attorney in the selection of Judge Klein to hear the case, allowed Esposito to miss two default deadlines, failed to use important evidence he had gathered against Esposito, and did not even seek out other available and obvious evidence. Last week Abrams, who was supported by Esposito for attorney general in 1978, refused to answer specific questions about the case directly, despite repeated requests by the Voice. Instead, Abrams’s press aides selectively responded to some of the questions and issued a general denial, calling “any insinuation that the Esposito matter” wasn’t handled thoroughly and professionally “reckless and totally inaccurate.”

The County Leader’s New Clothes
Klein’s decision itself represents a cynical attempt to isolate the law from the real world, surrounding Esposito with legal fantasies so bold as to nullify the last century of machine politics in this city. The essence of Klein’s ruling was that Esposito, who has become a caricature of the county party boss, is in fact no boss at all and thus cannot be penalized for breaking state laws that limit the commercial activity of a county leader.

The complaint alleged that Esposito violated a 25-year-old statute that requires public and party officials to forfeit their office if they do any business with a racetrack. Esposito was charged with sharing in the insurance and mortgage fees for the Parr Meadows racetrack in Suffolk County. (He was paid as a partner in two firms that represented the track.) Two weeks ago, Klein decided that Esposito couldn’t be required to give up the office of Brooklyn county leader on the novel ground that there is no such title in the Brooklyn party. A few hours after Klein’s decision was released, Abrams announced his intention to appeal. But indications are that Abrams contributed to the awkward result he is now challenging.

Klein based his decision on the fact that Esposito, like every other county leader in every borough for decades, holds the title of “chairman of the executive committee” of the Brooklyn organization. A strict reading of the rules of the organization, claimed Klein, reveals no reference to the term “county leader.” The language of the statute used against Esposito covers “county leaders” and a host of other titles, but does not specifically list the title “chairman of the executive committee.” So, concluded Klein, the law does not apply to Esposito. “He is not the county leader,” wrote Klein, “since no such position exists.”

Klein granted Esposito’s motion for summary dismissal of the case, meaning that the question of whether or not Esposito is a county leader is so beyond doubt that it is not a “triable fact.” Though Esposito’s attorney, James LaRossa, submitted an affidavit denying that Esposito was a county leader, Esposito himself was not even asked by Klein to do so. If Klein had asked, it would’ve blown the whole house of cards. Esposito wouldn’t have denied he was county leader in a sworn statement because that would’ve invited a perjury prosecution.

Unless the appeal prevails and a trial before a jury is eventually ordered, Esposito may never have to admit in court that he is in fact the cigar-chomping, jowled, potbellied, gravel-voiced party boss he’s been playing these 10 years. If the facts stand as Klein left them, Brooklyn will have but a shadow leader, masquerading at Foffe’s Restaurant and on Court Street as a kind of historic replica of the old machine tradition. Klein has abolished the position in order to allow Meade to continue to hold it. But, after Klein’s decision, all Esposito will legally hold is an obscure and bureaucratic title having something to do with an executive committee. Brooklyn, the grand old county of organization politics, will have no official leader.

When I visited Klein and his law clerk, Steve Zarkin, I asked them why Esposito hired one of the most expensive criminal lawyers in town to defend a position he didn’t hold. Since the worst that could have happened to him under this statute was the forfeiture of the title “county leader” — not the loss of the executive committee chairmanship — why fight to keep a title that Klein insists doesn’t exist? Seemed to me, I said, that his willingness to pay to defend the title proved he had it. Klein looked bewildered. Zarkin laughed. “To tell you the truth,” said Zarkin, “we never thought of that.” Apparently neither did Bob Abrams. But then again, it might not be much of a legal argument. It makes too much sense. And Klein was bent on redefining the universe, turning his courtroom into an abstraction uncomplicated by the nuisance of real life.

There was a kind of “Free Meade” hysteria beneath the surface of both the decision and my interviews with Klein, Zarkin, and others about this case. The statute used against Esposito is viewed as ancient, and the violation as technical and ill­-matched to such a grand loss of power. As a result of this thinking, there were few limits on the willingness by Klein and others to invent frivolous dodges that sidestepped the obvious. But the statute is a sound and tested conflict-of-interest prohibition, and the clear intent of the 1954 legislature that adopted it was to bar political leaders able to influence racing legislation from acquiring an interest in those same racetracks.

Picking the Judge
After years of watching election cases in Brooklyn courts, I learned that the critical moment in political cases is when the judge is assigned. I recall one case where countervailing political pressures twice succeeded in changing the judge assigned and, with each switch, the preordained winner also changed. Two powerful, regular Brooklyn organizations were battling over the assignment and, once the judge was finally in place, the leaders who lost the assignment battle never even appeared for the hearing. Everyone knew how the county had decided the case would go.

In his last month in office, prodded by insistent revelations in Newsday concerning Esposito’s interests in the racetrack, Lefkowitz brought the case against Esposito in Manhattan Supreme Court. The technical grounds he used to bypass Brooklyn courts was that the attorney general’s office is in Manhattan. Lefkowitz’s choice of venue was an implicit indictment of the Brooklyn judiciary. But the chances of finding an independent judge in Manhattan to handle so extraordinary a political case were only slightly better than in Brooklyn.

The Manhattan judicial district includes the Bronx, and Alvin Klein became a judge after a lifetime of politics in the Bronx regular Democratic organization. For 14 years he was personal secretary to the legendary Bronx county leader and congressman, Charles Buckley. In 1963 Buckley decided to reward Klein with a civil court judgeship. But Buckley’s antagonist, then mayor Robert Wagner Sr., balked momentarily, in part because the bar association had rejected Klein as unqualified. So county leader Buckley called a meeting of the Bronx executive committee, which he chaired, and they anointed Klein as the party candidate anyway. Wagner was subsequently forced to agree. So Klein knows something about executive committees and county leaders: that’s how he became a judge.

Esposito is the heir to a boss tradition symbolized by Buckley and his Manhattan ally, Carmine DeSapio. The best example of Buckley’s style of leadership was his boast once at a dinner honoring the Bronx district attorney that every assistant DA in the Bronx for the previous 50 years had been recommended by his district leader. “They were not Liberals or reformers,” he said, “they were honest-to­-God Americans.” It was a couple of decades of subservience to that kind of organizational mentality that prepared Klein for his decision in the Esposito case.

I asked Klein if he regarded his former mentor Buckley as a county leader and whether Buckley held the same executive committee chairmanship as Esposito. Klein said yes to both questions, then conceded: “He was in the same position as Esposito.” Catching his own slip, he corrected himself: “I may have looked at Mr. Buckley as the county leader … But suppose 50 people call somebody a boss. Suppose the newspapers call somebody a boss. That doesn’t mean he’s a boss.” As one attorney familiar with both the case and the judge told me: “Klein couldn’t do anything but decide that way. His whole life has led him to certain feelings about these institutions — the party, the leadership. No one would have to buy a contract to persuade him. The instincts of a lifetime would only permit one result.”

If anyone should’ve known that about Alvin Klein, it was Bob Abrams. Abrams got his start as a Bronx reform assemblyman in the mid-‘6os, fighting against the Buckley machine. Klein says that he and Abrams met in Bronx politics and have known each other for years. Pat Cunningham, who came out of the same Bronx club as Buckley and Klein and eventually became Bronx county leader, used to call Abrams the “Hirohito of the Bronx reform movement” — meaning its kamikaze pilot, its cutting edge. It was Abrams’s archfoe Cunningham who elevated Klein to a Supreme Court judgeship at the 1972 judicial convention. Indeed, when I first talked with Abrams’s aides about the Esposito case, they were openly contemptuous of Klein’s machine roots and his shabby legal reasoning in this case. All of this made it only the more surprising when I later read the full court file on the case and discovered that Abrams had acquiesced in the selection of Klein.

Judge-shopping in Manhattan courts begins in something called Special Term Part I, where much civil litigation is processed. Judges are assigned to Special Term on a weekly, rotational basis by Administrative Judge Edward Dudley. As certain pretrial proceedings are filed in Special I, they are marked on the calendar of whatever judge happens to be sitting in Special Term when the papers are ready for what’s called “final submission” (that is to say when both sides are ready to have the matter heard). The judge who gets a case while in Special Term may often be the judge who eventually decides it.

Alvin Klein was assigned to Special Term a total of five weeks in his first five years in the Supreme Court, far less than many of his colleagues. He has mostly worked the criminal courts, where he has never had any difficulty recognizing felons or understanding legislative intent. Klein was assigned to begin his first week of service as a Special Term judge this year on May 14. One of the first cases submitted to Klein the morning of his first day on the bench was Abrams v. Esposito.

What got the case before Klein was a stipulation signed on May 9 by Abrams and LaRossa, Esposito’s counsel, which specified that even though the case would not be ready for submission until June 6, both sides would accept May 14 as the submission date, putting the case squarely in Klein’s lap.

The scenario that preceded the stipulation makes it even more difficult to understand why Abrams agreed to it: Abrams filed the complaint on April 10, giving LaRossa the required 20 days to answer or default. The 20 days expired and LaRossa hadn’t answered. So Abrams gave LaRossa a five-day extension.

LaRossa filed his motion to dismiss the complaint on May 4 and, in his papers, set the return date as May 14. LaRossa could’ve picked any day for the next couple of months as a return date. He picked Klein’s first day. In leaving only 10 days between the filing of his motion and the date for final submission, LaRossa was giving Abrams the shortest amount of time to reply permissible under the rules of the court. Presented with this rushed deadline and having already granted LaRossa an extension, Abrams had a sound legal basis for requesting and getting an adjournment of the May 14 date, putting the case before a judge other than Klein. A check of the court calendar revealed there were several brighter prospects: Judge Oliver Sutton, whose leanings in a case like this are certainly less predictable than Klein’s, was scheduled for the next week; Judge Martin Stecher, one of the city’s most respected and independent jurists, was set for the second week in June, almost exactly to the day the final papers really were submitted.

Instead of seeking another date, Abrams executed the stipulation, and on May 14 the stipulation was filed with Klein, giving him custody of the motion. Because the hearing date had been adjourned by agreement, no appearances were made by either side, and there were no submissions of any papers. Abrams met the deadlines set in the stipulation and submitted his final papers opposing the motion on May 31. LaRossa didn’t, and once again Abrams gave him an extension.

Abrams’s press aide told me they signed the stipulation because “the alternative was to throw ourselves at the mercy of the court” and go before Klein on May 14 “with the possibility that the judge would refuse the adjournment and not give us the time we needed.” This explanation, especially in view of LaRossa’s delays and the short response time, seemed implausible to the lawyers I asked about it. Abrams’s aide added that the attorney general didn’t want to ask for an adjournment because Newsday editorials had criticized Lefkowitz for his delay in bringing the case, and they didn’t want to open themselves to the same criticism. This argument doesn’t say much for Abrams’s willingness to take possible short-term flak to achieve long-term success. It is also a little silly since the stipulation was signed by Abrams and constituted a postponement anyway. Presumably Newsday might’ve been persuaded that some judge-shopping delays were justified.

Though Abrams’s press aides did their best to portray Abrams as having been forced to take Klein, the judge volunteered to me that he “understood that Abrams wanted this case before me.” Klein contended: “I wasn’t looking for this case. They signed a stipulation to put it before me. It is my understanding that Abrams’s office initiated the stipulation because Abrams knew I would decide this case solely under the law as I saw it.” After hearing this, I called Abrams’s office, informed them of the judge’s “understanding,” and asked if they’d “initiated” the stipulation. They never got back to me with an answer.

There are only two possible explanations why LaRossa and Abrams might’ve wanted the same judge: either Abrams miscalculated and, despite Klein’s background, thought him a worthy trier of this sensitive matter, or both sides were after the same result.

Proving the Obvious
In an extensive reply-brief and affidavit, Abrams’s staff managed to devote no more than a handful of paragraphs to the issue of Esposito’s role as county leader. The document went on for pages on the intricacies of the Parr Meadows transactions and submitted an inch-thick stack of documents and exhibits supporting their analysis of these aspects of the case. But their only evidence establishing that Esposito is a county leader was a collection of half a dozen news clips. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know the probative value of a Daily News story calling him a county leader. Abrams also resubmitted the evidence Lefkowitz originally offered: a 1975 state Red Book listing Esposito as a “county chairman.” That was all Abrams could marshal to prove the pivotal fact in the case.

I thought he could have done better. I went to the archives of the Kings County Democratic organization at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. Archivist Arthur Konop said that no one from the attorney general’s office had ever reviewed any of his records, including the minutes of every meeting of the executive committee from the 1880s to 1969. I started with 1969 and worked my way back to 1920. The record made it unmistakably clear that the titles of county leader and chairman of the executive committee are historically indistinguishable. In these records, every chairman of the executive committee in this century has been described — or has even described himself — as county leader.

The archives’ records end when Esposito became county leader. But since then, there haven’t been any rule changes that would alter the equation of titles that is already a century old. Nonetheless, I decided to try to see the recent records and called Bill Gary, secretary of the county organization (once listed by Jack Newfield among the 25 worst hacks in city government; Voice, December 8, 1975). When Gary did not return my calls, I went to see him at the party’s Court Street headquarters. He would not let me in his office, but I did make it into the reception area, where I could see him and he could see me. We shouted back and forth at each other. Gary, who is Brooklyn borough president Howard Golden’s former law partner and was editor of the City Record under Abe Beame, told me that the minutes of the largest county political party in the state are “not public record.” He sneered, laughed, and snapped: ”You’re not gettin’ anything outta here.” (The Voice has asked the New York Public Interest Group and the ACLU to examine the possibility of bringing suit to unlock the apparently private records of the Brooklyn Democratic Party.)

When I questioned Abrams’s office about why they hadn’t pursued these records, they called back with an answer that raised new questions. An aide said that Abrams had “substantial, additional evidence” to prove Esposito’s county leader role, but refused to say what the evidence was. He just described it several times as substantial and then said they didn’t submit the evidence to Klein because “it was not necessary at the initial stages of the case.” We all have to wonder what they are saving it for.

Of course, the evidence they chose not to use, as well as the archive records they never reviewed, cannot now be added to their appeal. The Appellate Division will only have whatever evidence Klein had. That makes it at least conceivable that the appeals judges will reach the same conclusion. Of course, they may be more willing than Klein to open the case to a common-sense nose test about Esposito’s county leadership. In that case, the paucity of the evidence won’t matter that much. But even if the Klein decision is reversed on appeal, Esposito has, at the very least, bought time.

A Background of Relationships
Joe Conason (Voice, June 26, 1978) covered the state Democratic convention that nominated Abrams for attorney general. Conason described how reformer Abrams entered the convention with 76 percent of the delegate vote, including the support of almost all the regular party leaders, and then barely held on to the majority he needed. When Governor Carey, Queens county leader Donald Manes, and upstate party leaders subtly moved away from Abrams, and some of them lined up behind Abrams’s opponent, Delores Denman, Abrams was able to keep two county leaders behind him: Esposito and the Bronx’s Stanley Friedman. When Conason asked Esposito about Abrams becoming a regular, Esposito laughed and said: “He’s just come out of the closet, that’s all.” Esposito explained his persistent support of Abrams as “following his conscience.”

Conason also described the increasingly close political relationship between Abrams and Bronx leader Friedman. Friedman, who has spent his career working for Brooklyn regulars like city council majority leader Tom Cuite and Mayor Beame, is the county leader closest to Meade. Their recent two­-county partnership is the talk in regular party circles.

Judge Klein has a long-standing friendship with Friedman and Friedman’s law partner, the omnipresent, sometimes Esposito counsel Roy Cohn. Klein described Cohn to me as “a close personal friend for many years” and said he’d attended several of Cohn’s parties.

Klein said, however, that he never discussed the case with either Cohn or Friedman. Cohn said he’d had nothing to do with the case, but the minute I asked him about Klein, Cohn went directly to the question of Abrams: “I never had a case with the attorney general’s office,” claimed Cohn, “where the AG didn’t have a strong say in picking the judge. He usually controls when it comes up.” These shifting relationships — Klein, Cohn, Friedman, Abrams, Esposito — form the important backdrop to this case.

The other leading Bronx reformers of the Abrams period — Jay Goldin and Herman Badillo — have become, respectively, an embodiment of the bus­-shelter scandal and a silenced, outcast deputy mayor. Their Manhattan and Queens reform colleagues, Manfred Ohrenstein and Jack Bronston, are now collecting legal clients such as shelter-scandal magnate Saul Steinberg. Brooklyn’s reform linguist Shirley Chisholm has become a fund-raiser and political bulwark for convicted felon and former councilman Sam Wright, as well as Esposito’s brightest black star. Ed Koch, the reformer who beat Carmine DeSapio 16 years ago, has a special relationship with Canarsie district leader Tony Genovesi, who comes from Esposito’s home club and has been chosen by Esposito to succeed him as county leader.

And now Bob Abrams has prosecuted Esposito on a dual track. For public consumption, he refiled the Lefkowitz complaint and is now doggedly appealing his loss. But on another level, he has left a trail of subtle omissions and gentlemanly concessions which allowed Esposito to win.

Reform in this town is but a phase in the political maturation process. When those who successfully use it grow up and reach an appropriately lofty height, they allow themselves to become the compromised, but still temporarily respectable, veneer for the same power relationships they previously campaigned to “reform.” ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 7, 2020

Archive Highlights