Nicky Barnes swaggered. In the 1970s, when he strode along the streets of Harlem, everyone noticed. “There goes Nicky Barnes,” they would say. They noticed his custom-made suits and shoes, his full-length leather coats, his flashy ties, his look of bold command. Everything about him said elegance, power, success. And when he drove on the streets of Harlem, often with a beautiful woman not his wife beside him, they noticed his Mercedes-Benz, his Thunderbird, his Lincoln Continental, his Cadillac, and knew that he was fabulously rich, to the tune of a hundred million dollars. Not everyone admired the drug lord of Harlem who had flooded their neighborhoods with heroin, but many did, especially the street kids, for in a world where everything was against them, this son of Harlem had made it big, very big, and it gave them hope. The authorities noticed him too, but if a law enforcement surveillance team followed him, he took delight in leading them on a high-speed chase, to see if he could shake them off.
In 1977 the New York Times also noticed Barnes and decided to do an article on him in the Sunday Magazine section chronicling his uncanny ability to wiggle out of charges and arrests. The Times asked Barnes to pose for a cover photo; though unwilling, when informed that they were going to use a mug shot from a previous arrest, the dapper drug lord agreed. When the June 5, 1977, issue appeared, there on the cover of the Magazine section was Barnes in a blue denim suit with a red, white, and blue tie, looking composed and elegant, with the label “Mister Untouchable”; it was the peak of his career. I remember that issue; it was the first time I'd ever heard of Nicky Barnes. I didn’t admire him, but I marveled at his charmed existence. But President Jimmy Carter also saw the article, and Barnes’s look of smug invulnerability infuriated him. He told his attorney general to get him.
Every day at noon a gleaming limousine pulled into the driveway of a modest split-level house in the Howard Beach section of Queens, and out of the house came a barrel-chested, broad-shouldered man in a muted double-breasted suit, creamy white shirt, and hand-painted floral silk tie, his silvery hair swept back, his step springy. He stepped into the waiting limousine, a Mercedes-Benz or Lincoln, and off he went, his bodyguard at the wheel.
Arriving at the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club in the Ozone Park district of Queens, he settled down in a barber’s chair installed there especially for him and had his hair cut, washed, and blow-dried in what had become a daily ritual. He then conferred with his lieutenants, for whom the club was a regular hangout. In the late afternoon he was driven to the Ravenite Social Club, his main headquarters, on Mulberry Street in Little Italy, Manhattan, where the top members of his family – meaning his organization – reported to him regularly.
If in the course of his daily rounds he spied FBI agents tailing him, he might rub one index finger against another while mockingly saying, “Naughty, naughty,” though he was also known to offer them coffee. And if, when he entered a restaurant, he saw people gawking at him, he relished it, for unlike most Mafia capos, who shunned attention, the Dapper Don loved it and considered these gawkers his fans. “When people go to the circus,” he once told a subordinate, “they don’t want to see the clowns. They want to see lions and tigers, and that’s what we are.” Waiters showered him with attention, but he always sat with his back to the wall, commanding a wide view of his surroundings, just in case.
From his associates he demanded and got respect. Brawny bodyguards accompanied him everywhere, and even his brothers held doors open for him, helped him put on or take off his coat, and held umbrellas over his well coiffed head. In public he was always elegant, always poised and amiable, though in private he was known for a fiery temper and a foul tongue, and a readiness to betray allies. On the street, moving out of the range of any concealed microphones, he might order a killing, perhaps a loyalist whom he deemed a traitor or who had failed to show him respect. Needless to say, he was feared.
Such was John Gotti, the Dapper Don, in the 1980s. He claimed to be a hard-working family man making $100,000 a year as a plumbing supply salesman and from a job with a garment accessories firm, but everyone knew he was a top Mafia boss, astute and ruthless, grossing $500 million a year from illegal activities in the New York area and Florida. And his Howard Beach neighbors admired him, flocking to the annual summer street party that he sponsored at his social club in Queens. When news came of his acquittal on racketeering charges, they decorated trees near his home with yellow ribbons, a symbol of concern for hostages. For many Italian Americans he was a symbol of success, a hero. And his acquittal in three much publicized trials in the 1980s gave him another nickname, the Teflon Don. Arrested yet again in 1990, in the back of a police car he announced, “I bet ya three to one I beat this.” Having immersed himself in a world of obsequious subordinates, he thought he was invincible.
Nicky Barnes and John Gotti, Mister Untouchable and the Teflon Don, are prime examples of outlaws who loved attention and flaunted their contempt for the law. Known criminals, for years they seemed to get away with it and were admired, if not by everyone, by many in the ethnic group they came from. Their swagger won them praise.
But not immunity. Following President Carter’s order, Nicky Barnes was arrested for drug-related crimes and sentenced to life in prison without parole on January 19, 1978. In prison, learning that his associates weren’t looking after his interests, Barnes helped the authorities indict 44 other drug traffickers, 16 of whom were convicted. Because of his cooperation, he was resentenced to 35 years in prison and was released in August 1998, following which he entered the federal Witness Protection Program and began a new life with a different name.
John Gotti was convicted in 1992 on multiple charges that included murder, conspiracy, loansharking, and illegal gambling and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. “The Teflon is gone,” announced an FBI official. Diagnosed with throat cancer, he deteriorated rapidly and died in prison in 2002 at age 61.
What exactly is an outlaw? In this country the word suggests the desperadoes of the Old West, but the word goes back much further and has a wider application. Webster’s Second defines “outlaw” as follows:
1. A person excluded from the benefit of the law, or deprived of its protection.
2. Hence: A lawless person, or a fugitive from the law.
The first definition applies to premodern times, when an outlaw was someone excluded from the protection of the law; anyone could persecute or kill him. But later, in medieval England, those suspected of crimes had to be judged in a court of law before punishment could be administered. And already outlaws were being admired, as seen in the stories of the perhaps mythical Robin Hood. But being declared an outlaw meant that you were banished from civilized society, and anyone who gave you food, shelter, or other support risked likewise being declared a criminal. This changed with time, as population density made it harder for fugitives to avoid capture, and modern concepts of law and order took hold. Today the second definition prevails.
|Billy the Kid, the quintessential outlaw.|
In this country’s history those who have been labeled outlaws include pirates and buccaneers (Jean Lafitte), Western desperadoes (Jesse James, Billy the Kid), gangsters (Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde), and motorcycle clubs like Hell’s Angels. Most of these outlaws have inspired both fear and admiration, though the admiration usually implies a certain distance from the outlaw, so we don’t feel menaced, and a certain romanticizing, a blurring of unpleasant facts, which the media and Hollywood have often been happy to do. The fact remains, many law-abiding citizens can’t help but admire those who break the law and seem to get away with it. Yet at the same time we resent the outlaws’ seeming immunity and feel great satisfaction when they are apprehended or killed.
Who in the history of New York City can be viewed as an outlaw? Madame Restell, the notorious but successful nineteenth-century abortionist who has visited these pages before, paraded herself and her ill-gotten gains for years, provoking condemnation but eluding prosecution. Like Nicky Barnes and John Gotti, she shunned the shadows, displayed herself in daily carriage promenades, and violated the decorum and exclusiveness of fashionable Fifth Avenue by building a handsome brownstone mansion only a block from the rising walls of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Few in those days dared voice admiration of Madame, but given the less rigid mores of today, feminists have discovered and extolled her as a woman in advance of her time. But she too paid a price: arrested by the Puritan crusader Anthony Comstock, on the eve of her trial she cut her throat from ear to ear.
Were the robber barons outlaws? Commodore Vanderbilt, the first to whom the label “robber baron” was applied, reputedly once said, “Law? What do I care about the law? I got the power, hain’t I?” Which would certainly suggest that he merited the label “outlaw” as well. Trouble is, he probably never said that. Another robber baron, Jay Gould, skirted illegality throughout his career, but may never quite have broken the law. Christened “the Mephistopheles of Wall Street,” he was supremely unloved, but his daring market coups provoked amazement and wonder, if rarely admiration. He got away with a lot, but the laws were looser then and there was little regulation.
Who in our own time might be labeled outlaws? Politicians immediately come to mind, as for example Jimmy “Beau James” Walker, the mayor of New York from 1926 to 1932, at the peak of the Roaring Twenties and beyond, who has appeared on these pages more than once. Fond of leading celebrity parades down Fifth Avenue, and fond as well of speakeasies and showgirls, he was fun-loving and dapper, and was on the take from businessmen eager to get city contracts. When an investigation began uncovering evidence of corruption in his administration, he decamped for Europe with his showgirl girlfriend and returned only when the risk of prosecution had faded. But when he did return, ferry whistles greeted him in the harbor, and a multitude of well-wishers awaited him at the dock. He was elegant and charming, so many New Yorkers forgave him his rumored peccadillos. An outlaw? Maybe only a rascal, but he did get away with a lot.
He wasn’t the only one. For years, the crucial decisions about legislation in Albany were decided in secret by a committee of three: the governor, whether Democrat or Republican; Joseph Bruno, Majority Leader of the Republican-dominated State Senate; and Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the Democratic-dominated State Assembly. All too often their private enclave produced legislation that legislators had to vote on immediately, without having time to read its contents and know what they were enacting. Little wonder that Albany was considered one of the most corrupt state governments – if not the most corrupt – in the nation. If Congress was – and is – a swamp, Albany is a cesspool.
Like many, I deplored this system, suspected rank corruption, and wondered how long they could get away with it. For years they did, and cries for reform went unanswered. Governors came and went, but Bruno and Silver persisted, like hardy weeds. Bruno, an upstate Republican, and Silver, a New York City Democrat, balanced each other out and exerted vast influence. Outlaws of a kind, I suspected, but there were only rumors and suspicions, nothing that would hold up in court.
In 2008 Joseph Bruno announced that he would not seek reelection and shortly afterward resigned from the Senate in the wake of a federal corruption investigation. In January 2009 he was indicted on eight counts of corruption, including mail and wire fraud. It didn’t surprise me, and I felt a delicious satisfaction at seeing one of the mighty brought down. In 2010 he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. But never underestimate the skills of good lawyers. In 2011 Bruno’s attorneys got his conviction overturned on a technicality. A legal imbroglio followed with resulting delays, and in 2014 Bruno was retried and acquitted on both charges. White-haired and buoyant, Bruno, age 85, left the courthouse smiling, then with friends and admirers adjourned to a nearby oyster house, where he told journalists that his case involved “persecution, not prosecution.” Still popular in his upstate home district, he is honored there with his name on a minor-league baseball stadium, as well as a commemorative bust at the Albany airport. An outlaw, I suspect, who did in the end get away with it.
|Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the Assembly. For looks, |
Bruno wins. For power, it was a toss-up.
And what about Silver, a bespectacled and jowly man with graying hair who looks like your benign and smiling uncle? When Tweedledee was indicted, I hoped that Tweedledum would follow. Reelected Speaker of the Assembly eleven times, despite complaints by upstate Republican members that he wielded too much power, Silver was guarded and shrewd, not open and jovial, seemed unassailable. He controlled where Assembly members parked, the size and location of their offices, how much money they could spend on their staffs, and who got the lucrative Assembly leadership posts. An Orthodox Jew born and raised on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he had a solid base of support there, comparable to Bruno’s base upstate. But like Bruno before him, on January 22, 2015, he was arrested on federal corruption charges resulting from his receiving large payments over the years from a law firm advocating reductions of New York City real estate taxes. Under intense political pressure and with dwindling support, on January 30 he resigned as Speaker, while remaining an Assembly member and vowing to fight the charges against him. Will Tweedledum, like Tweedledee before him, be acquitted? Given the stench that emanates from Albany, I hope not. But he’s innocent until proven guilty. Time will tell.
So much for politicians. How about CEOs of banks: can they be classified as outlaws? If so, they’re sure getting away with it, for I’m not aware of any of them going to prison; at most, the banks get fined some outsized sum that the shareholders have to pay, while the CEOs get their usual fat bonuses. But have the banks really committed dark deeds? Here are some of their alleged or admitted crimes:
· Laundering money for terrorists. Bank of America is said to have funneled large amounts of money to BCCI, an international bank with offices in Karachi and London, which in turn funneled it to Bin Laden and other terrorists.
· Laundering money for drug cartels. In 2013 London-based HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, settled with the U.S. for $1.9 billion to resolve charges that it enabled Latin American drug cartels to launder billions of dollars. And in 2015 Swiss authorities raided two HSBC offices in Geneva as part of a new criminal inquiry into allegations of money laundering. And Wachovia, now owned by Wells Fargo, settled with the U.S. Department of Justice for $160 million in 2010 for moving billions from Mexican drug cartels into currency exchange houses.
· Manipulating the price of precious metals. In 2015 the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into the manipulation of the price of gold and silver by at least ten of the world’s biggest banks.
· Deceiving regulators by hiding the extent of their losses. J.P. Morgan Chase has been accused of this by the Senate’s Permanent Committee on Investigations.
· Selling complex investments without disclosing the risks. Wells Fargo and its subsidiary Wachovia have been fined for these offenses many times, and J.P. Morgan Chase settled with the SEC for $153 million in 2011 for similar charges. In 2013 Bank of America settled for $14 billion with Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, and other agencies, and in 2010 Goldman Sachs settled with the SEC for $550 million.
And these are only some of the charges. Are the CEOs gloating in private as they get their bonuses, or are they sweating in the face of more possible charges? Either way, I see them as modern-style outlaws, seemingly immune to the rigors of justice.
Dare we aim higher? Diplomat and statesman Henry Kissinger, the confidant of presidents, admitted to saying, “The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.” He was joking of course, wasn’t he? To pursue this further would take us into deep waters indeed, and the highest levels of government. Have any of our post-World War II presidents broken the law? Have any not? How high can outlawry go? To probe such matters would require one or several posts and take us far afield from New York, the focus of this blog. But there’s lots to ponder.
Finally, how about whistleblowers? They often violate the letter of the law so as to make public the misdeeds of government agencies, but in spite of U.S. legislation meant to protect them from retaliation, they often suffer dire consequences. I’ll mention only Edward Snowden, now a fugitive in Russia, who in 2013 leaked thousands of classified documents from the National Security Agency to the mainstream media. Those documents revealed massive global surveillance programs by the NSA and cooperating European governments and provoked heated debates over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the conflicting claims of national security and the right to privacy. Indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for violating the Espionage Act and theft of government property, he has been hailed as a hero and denounced as a traitor. Polls indicate more support for him abroad than in the U.S. Personally I view him as an outlaw hero, one who broke the law with justification, and I rejoice in his immunity at present in Russia. Time magazine named Snowden the runner-up for Person of the Year in 2013, losing out to Pope Francis, and he has received numerous awards. Yes, a modern outlaw, no swaggerer but highly controversial, and one whose story is still unfolding.
Coming soon: Why do the names of banks mention chemicals, drovers, shoes, and old J.P.? A glance at the history of New York banks, and how they once were creative in a way that benefited the whole community.
© 2015 Clifford Browder