The Louima Prosecutor


The breathtaking Louima reversals—reconstructing the Blue Wall of Silence—require that George Pataki withdraw his nomination of Roslynn Mauskopf as U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, the office that faces the daunting challenge of achieving justice in that case and in the recently overturned conviction of Yankel Yosenbaum’s alleged killer, Lemrick Nelson.

If Pataki will not act, Senator Chuck Schumer, who chairs the judiciary subcommittee that reviews these appointments and told the Voice last week he was “troubled” by Mauskopf’s lack of federal prosecutorial experience, must send her name back to the Bush White House. Schumer has just assembled a judicial screening committee of 14 lawyers—including Loretta Lynch, the former U.S. attorney who oversaw the Louima prosecutions until last year—to make recommendations to him about New York appointments. That committee is scheduled to interview Mauskopf next week.

The U.S. attorney must decide whether to reargue the Louima decision before the full Court of Appeals, take it to the solicitor general for appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, retry Charles Schwarz on the assault charge, or re-indict all three cops for lying to state and federal investigators. Once these decisions are made, he must have the experience and commitment to make them stick. Alan Vinegrad, who personally tried the Louima and Nelson cases, has been the acting head of that office since Lynch left in May 2001. A coalition of minority clergy and leaders, led by Andrew Young and Fernando Ferrer, is now reportedly petitioning Schumer to allow Vinegrad to remain until some of these critical matters are concluded.

Mauskopf, who was a prosecutor in Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office for 13 years and has been Pataki’s inspector general since 1995, would be the first U.S. attorney in Brooklyn without any credentials as a federal prosecutor in at least the last 30 years. The résumé she submitted to Schumer does not specify a single significant case put together by her IG office, which has been faulted in both news accounts and a state audit. Other than assisting in an ’80s garment-center prosecution led by Eliot Spitzer, who has since become the state attorney general, she lost her only other major case as a Morgenthau aide, when a 1994 jury acquitted boxer Ray Mercer on charges of trying to fix a heavyweight fight.

Zachary Carter, who was U.S. attorney when the Louima charges were initially brought, told the Voice that “it wouldn’t seem to be a close question” that, in this post-reversal climate, prior federal experience would be a “substantial advantage” for anyone running the office. Named last week by Mayor Bloomberg to chair his judge-picking Committee on the Judiciary, the respected and circumspect Carter explained, “I’m not going to say that a state prosecutor can’t be brought up to speed. But the absence of federal background is certainly a handicap in resolving these difficult issues.” Pointing out that highly technical legal points decided the Louima appeal, Carter said the “subtlety” of the issues “demands an understanding of federal law,” which he said is “different in many respects from state law.”

The Voice has also learned that State Comptroller Carl McCall, who is running for governor, wrote Schumer a three-page letter, with nearly a hundred pages of attachments, deriding the Mauskopf nomination. Sent shortly before the Louima reversals, McCall’s letter concluded that she “appears woefully inexperienced in the most important duties of her proposed office.” Saying she was “not an appropriate candidate,” McCall charged that “the appearance of political favoritism has imbued her tenure” as IG.

The letter cited Mauskopf’s “unacceptable indolence” in probing allegations by Newsday and his office about state architectural contracts awarded Pataki’s next-door neighbor and in-law. It also accused Mauskopf of failing to recuse herself or address her own conflict of interest in conducting investigations that “raised significant and sensitive questions of integrity within the very office of the governor.” Finally, the comptroller said that while she demands that all state agencies cooperate with her probes, she refused to comply with his auditors, a “double-standard” that is “unthinkable” in the U.S. attorney’s office.

As McCall indicates, the questions about Mauskopf’s appointment go well beyond an experience deficit. While Schumer has named a full, statewide screening panel like many of his Senate predecessors, Pataki relied on a one-man panel, Elmira attorney John O’Mara, who recommended Mauskopf. O’Mara, a partner in former senator Al D’Amato’s lobbying firm, also has only state prosecutorial experience. Mauskopf is closely tied to D’Amato through her friendships with D’Amato ex-girlfriend Barbara Jones and former D’Amato top aide Zenia Mucha.

More importantly, O’Mara spearheaded a defense fund designed to blunt a probe of Pataki’s parole board and campaign committee until recently conducted by the Brooklyn U.S. attorney. If a witness agreed to use an attorney on O’Mara’s list, the lawyer would be paid through O’Mara by Pataki’s committee. O’Mara was in effect helping to pick the successor to a prosecutor he was actively combating on behalf of the governor.

A Voice analysis of the Friends of Pataki committee and the state Republican Party has identified $603,900 in fees paid to eight law firms that represented targets and witnesses in this pay-for-parole probe, which resulted in four convictions, including three state officials and one fundraiser long tied to D’Amato. Mucha was subpoenaed before this grand jury, as was Patrick Donohue, the then and current finance director of the Pataki committee who was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in court papers. Donohue took the Fifth Amendment.

Three lawyers who represented Donohue—Paul Windels, Tom Puccio, and Leo Kayser—ran up combined bills of $256,877. The firm of Robinson, Gill, where both Ed Koch and Battery Park city chairman James Gill practice, collected $70,275, in part for representing Mucha. Rod Lankler was paid $102,634, including $25,000 by the state party, for representing fundraiser Cathy Blaney and other committee-connected individuals. Elkan Abramowitz ($95,856) and Matt Fishbein ($45,639) also were substantial winners in the legal sweepstakes.

A state board of elections spokesman said he “doesn’t think there’s a legal problem” with such expenditures, but no campaign committee in New York has ever spent so lavishly to defend itself from a criminal probe. In addition, though 1998 was the most active year in the investigation, the committee delayed paying most of the legal bills until after the governor’s November re-election, spending $120,537 that December alone. If the committee failed to report expenses it knowingly incurred prior to the election, it may have committed a state misdemeanor violation.

While state parole board chair Brion Travis, community affairs director Jeff Wiesenfeld, and other high-level officials were implicated in wrongdoing but not prosecuted, Mauskopf’s office never made any ethics referrals or issued any report about their apparent misconduct. Instead, Travis, who was also named as an unindicted co-conspirator by federal prosecutors, remains in his key position. It is traditionally an IG’s job to sanction a public official whose improprieties do not rise to the level of a criminal charge. A Mauskopf takeover of the same federal office whose evidence of misconduct she ignored is widely seen by veterans as punishment for its role in the most serious corruption case of the Pataki era.

Instead of viewing the prosecutorial choice in his own home district as a decision he does not have to balance against nominations his subcommittee reviews across the country, Schumer appears to be leaning toward giving Pataki and Bush what they want. He publicly cites the unsurprising support of mentor Morgenthau for Mauskopf as a rationale and even appointed Morgy’s favorite defense counsel, Steve Kaufman, to his panel. (Kaufman also represented a Pataki aide implicated in the parole board probe.) Merit may well take a backseat to a Schumer desire to appear nonpartisan, even when faced with so partisan a nominee.

Research assistance: Martine Guerrier, Jess Wisloski, Lauren Johnston, Peter G.H. Madsen

Related Articles in This Issue:

The Louima Decision: Is Punishment Possible for Police Brutality?” by Jill Nelson

Reversal of Misfortune: The Wrong Charges, the Right Decision” by Alan M. Dershowitz