Sunday, July 31, 2016

247. Robert Morgenthau: Crime in the Suites and the Streets

     A New York Times article of July 17, 2016, interviewed Ida van Lindt, a Brooklyn-born secretary of a prominent New York attorney.  The accompanying photograph shows Ms. Van Lindt to be a remarkably youthful woman of 77 with a winning smile and long blond hair, wearing an attractive black dress revealing shapely arms.  She has worked for her present employer for 41 years, occupying a small office outside his much larger one, currently with a law firm on West 52nd Street in Manhattan.  “I’m his office wife,” she says with a laugh, for she organizes his private and public lives, keeping track of doctors’ appointments, lunch dates, and everything else.  She knows what to order him for lunch, signs his checks and, since he doesn’t mess with computers, prints his e-mails out for him.  Clearly, her employer is of another era, wanting everything on hard copy, so she keeps an electric typewriter handy for checks and other tasks. 

     Miss Van Lindt married twice, both times to lawyers, and her current spouse is now in private practice and glad to have her working as well.  She’ll stick to her job as long as she can, for she doubts if her boss could get used to another secretary.  And who is that boss?  Robert M. Morgenthau, the perennially reelected and almost legendary district attorney of New York County from 1975 until his retirement in 2009, and who now, at age 97, still works for a private law firm, sitting on boards and working on special cases.

     Robert M. Morgenthau was born in New York City in 1919 to a prominent Jewish family that had emigrated here from Germany in 1866.  His father was none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., a name that I grew up hearing almost as often as the President’s.  The family home was near FDR’s Hyde Park estate, and Robert Morgenthau grew up knowing the President himself.  Needless to say, he was destined to great things.  After a wartime stint in the Navy and graduating from Yale Law School, he came to New York and practiced corporate law. 

     His family’s connections paid off repeatedly.  Appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, he resigned this federal office to run as the Democratic candidate for governor in 1962, only to be defeated by the Republican incumbent, Nelson Rockefeller.  He was then reappointed U.S. Attorney and served throughout the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, until forced out by Richard Nixon in 1969.  After that he continued in private practice until 1974, when, at age 55, he was elected District Attorney of New York County, following the death of Frank Hogan, who had held the job for 30 years, ever since Thomas Dewey’s reign as a prosecutor of organized crime.  Elected to a full term in 1977, Morgenthau was re-elected seven times, and not opposed in a general election from 1985 until 2005.  He had found his niche.  And with him from then on, as secretary, was Ms. Van Lindt, who had served Hogan for 17 years and enjoyed a father/daughter relationship with him. 

     Building a loyal team of subordinates was essential to Morgenthau’s success, though there was a steady turnover.  Every year, when some 60 assistant prosecutors left for fairer pastures, some 2,000 applicants would hope to become one of the 554 attorneys employed by his $68-million office.  Each prospective hire was interviewed by Morgenthau himself.  He was open to graduates of schools other than the Ivy League, but was willing to hire the sons of well-connected families as well, since he himself had a father who was famous.  After a stint with him, his assistants went on to become at least 25 criminal-court judges, four federal judges in the Southern District, three U.S. attorneys, and most of the top criminal defense attorneys of the time.

     Though he held what was technically a local office, he became known nationwide for his determination to prosecute “crime in the suites,” meaning white-collar crime, as well as crime in the streets.   When, early in his career, he convicted three accountants who had certified misleading financial reports for Continental Vending Machines, it shook up the financial world, for until then it was a common practice to go easy on accountants and lawyers; prosecution was considered too harsh.  But the case established a precedent that accountants could be held criminally liable for such actions, even if their reports technically satisfied accounting standards.  And the case was no fluke; he would be going after white-collar offenders throughout his lengthy career.  Many sensitive toes would be stepped on, but he told his prosecutors, “Just follow the case wherever it goes.”  Numerous prosecutions followed, though not always with convictions; critics said he focused too much on white-collar crime, letting it eat up a disproportionate amount of his budget.  But he was determined not to go primarily after poor minority youths, while bankers and executives wallowed in ill-gotten wealth.

     But it was crime in the streets that obsessed the public.  I remember those dark days of the 1970s, when apartment dwellers had bars on their windows and a police lock on their doors.  My partner Bob, coming home late at night from an opera, was nearly mugged in the vestibule of our building; having his key to the inner door handy, he was through that door as the mugger, carrying some object in his hand, entered the vestibule, too late by seconds to catch his intended victim. 

     I served as a juror on a number of criminal cases in those days and can state that, while defense attorneys might get flamboyant and dramatic, Morgenthau’s young assistant D.A.s did not.  Instead, they presented their case with quiet efficiency, marshaling facts that forced the jury to convict, regardless of their sympathy for the defendant, or their frustration at not knowing more about all those involved in or witnessing the crime.  Which was indicative of Morgenthau’s whole operation.  The city might be turbulent, but he himself was not.  His massive operation proceeded with machinelike efficiency and got results.  No wonder he got re-elected time after time.

     Many of the cases prosecuted by his office were highly publicized nationwide, as for instance these three, which I vividly recall:

·      Mark David Chapman, 1981.  Arrested for the murder of John Lennon, whom he shot outside the Dakota apartment building in Manhattan, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a term of 20 years to life.  He has since been denied parole many times.
·      Bernhard Goetz, 1987.  I remember clearly how in December 1984 the city was electrified by the news that a white man being mugged by four young black men on a subway car had whipped out a .38 revolver and shot all four, then fled the scene.  “They picked on the wrong guy,” was the common reaction, jubilant, of New Yorkers obsessed with crime.  It wasn’t a question of white vs. black, but victim vs. assailants, and this victim had done what others only dreamed of.  Nine days later Bernhard Goetz, age 37, surrendered to the police and in time was charged with attempted murder, assault, and other offenses.  A jury found him not guilty of all charges except carrying an unlicensed firearm, for which he served eight months.
·      The Central Park jogger, 1989.  A young investment banker, she was assaulted and raped while jogging in the park; left in a coma, she was unable to identify her attacker.  That night a gang of teenagers had engaged in what they called “wilding,” assaulting anyone they encountered in the park.  Five young men, four blacks and one Hispanic, were arrested and confessed to a number of assaults and being accomplices in the rape, but denied themselves committing the rape.  Charged with assault, rape, and attempted murder, they were convicted on most of the charges and sentenced to from 5 to 15 years in prison.  The crime had shocked the public, and the convictions were generally applauded.

These were crimes of violence and were widely reported.  And what do I remember of the white-collar crimes pursued by Robert M. Morgenthau?  Nothing, nothing at all.

     But there is more to say about Goetz and the jogger case.  Goetz insisted that the four young men were trying to mug him, so he shot them in self-defense; they said they were only panhandling.  Who to believe?  Goetz garnered more sympathy when he told of being attacked by three teenagers in a subway station in 1981, two of whom escaped.  Arrested, the other one was quickly bailed and blithely departed, while Goetz and the arresting officer were stuck in the stationhouse, waiting while the wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly. 

     When he shot the four young men in 1984, Goetz noticed that one of the four, seated nearby, seemed free of injuries. “You don’t look so bad, here’s another,” he said and fired a fifth shot that severed the young man’s spinal cord and left him paralyzed.  The public were all trying Goetz in the court of their mind, and in my court that fifth bullet was critical; with it, Goetz ceased to be on the defensive and himself became an assailant.  Years later, after Goetz’s release, the paralyzed young man sued Goetz and won $43 million in damages, at which point Goetz declared bankruptcy.  After that he dropped from sight for a while, ran for mayor in 2001 and lost badly, and  reappeared in the news in November 2013, arrested for selling an undercover police officer $30 worth of marijuana, charges that were later dropped.

     The aftermath of the Central Park jogger case was more troubled and controversial.  In 2002 another Hispanic male, a convicted serial rapist and murderer serving a life sentence, confessed to raping the jogger, and his DNA confirmed his guilt.  It turned out that the DNA of the five convicted men had not matched the rapist’s DNA, which implied a single attacker.  Learning of the confession, Morgenthau urged the court to vacate the convictions of the five, which it did.  Once freed, the five convicted men sued the city for malicious prosecution and other charges, but under Mayor Bloomberg the city – quite shamelessly, in my opinion – refused to settle.  When Bill de Blasio became mayor, he supported the settlement, and the city settled the case in 2014 for $41 million.  But the five men then sought another $52 million from the city.  Meanwhile none other than Donald Trump called the settlement a disgrace and opined that the five were probably guilty.

     In the face of these controversies, it’s easy to forget that Morgenthau was prosecuting white-collar crime as well, as for instance:

·      BCCI, 1991.  The Bank of Credit and Commerce International, an international bank with head offices in Karachi, Pakistan, and London, was indicted on charges of fraud, money laundering, and larceny.  The bank’s liquidators pleaded guilty to all charges and forfeited all the bank’s U.S. assets.
·      Tyco International, 2005.  The CEO and chief financial officer of this security systems company were found guilty of stealing more than $150 million from the company.  The CEO, Dennis Kozlowski, became a symbol of corporate greed for using Tyco money to buy a $30 million Fifth Avenue apartment with a $6,000 shower curtain, a $15,000 umbrella stand, and paintings by Monet and Renoir.  Sentenced in 2005, Kozlowski was granted parole in January 2014 and still insisted he was innocent.  The CFO, Mark Swartz, was also granted parole and released in January 2014.

     The man behind all these headline-grabbing cases lived quietly – an almost boring life, being devoid of scandal.  By his first wife, whom he met in college, he had five children.  She died of cancer in 1972, and five years later he married Lucinda Franks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist 27 years his junior.  They were opposites.  Raised as a middle-class Christian, she has described herself as “in hippie mode, and a radical and a war protester,” convinced that money corrupted the rich.  She had interviewed him and at first was a bit intimidated, but this patrician lawyer with a slight smile also fascinated her.  When they dated, his broadmindedness was apparent, though once, when they visited some hippie friends of hers, he insisted on leaving because their hosts’ shower curtain was an authentic American flag – in poor taste, he thought, and she agreed. 

     Morgenthau’s children by his previous marriage resented his second wife’s taking him away from them, though in time the tensions eased.  And with her new husband the “hippie” wife was soon meeting notables like President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, socialite philanthropist Brooke Astor, Senator Ted Kennedy, New York Mayors Ed Koch and Rudolph Giuliani, and a host of others.  But in spite of the socializing, and her continuing to work as a journalist, she bore her new husband, now in his sixties, two children.  When not in their residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, they retreat to a home in Martha’s Vineyard, or to Fishkills Farm in Dutchess County, a commercial farm owned by the Morgenthau clan and now run by his youngest son, Josh.

     By the time he was in his eighties, the prosecutor needed a hearing aid and walked with a shuffle.  “Is he past his prime?” some of the staff would whisper, when his office lost a significant case.  But the white-haired prosecutor remained immersed in major cases and showed no signs of slowing down.  And when he won his eighth term in 2001, his staff that year got convictions in two-thirds of the 577 criminal cases that went to jury trials.  In 2005 the Times reluctantly declined to endorse him for re-election, feeling he was too stuck in his ways, but he was re-elected anyway.  “I’m too old to retire,” he quipped.  Said his daughter Jenny, “The man has a steel-trap mind.” 

     In his later years he was up at 6:45 a.m. to have breakfast with his youngest daughter.  Then he would walk around the reservoir in Central Park or, in bad weather, do a treadmill at home.  One day a week a trainer would come to his East Side apartment; the other six, he lifted weights on his own.  Then to the office, where he worked until 6:30 or 7:00 p.m.  If he didn’t go out in the evening, he would read voraciously, usually books about the Holocaust and World War II, or watch Law & Order on TV.  By 11:00 p.m. he was usually in bed.

     And today?  Having finally retired in 2009, thinking he was indeed too old, he goes daily to his office at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz at 51 West 52nd Street, a prestigious law firm known for its skill in mergers and acquisitions and in business litigation.  There he is an “of counsel,” meaning he is connected with the firm without being a partner or associate.  “He’s the type of person who has to work to live,” his wife Lucinda explained, when, soon after retirement as prosecutor, he joined the firm.  He was welcomed there for his wealth of experience, contacts, and judgment, though he promised to bring something else as well: tomatoes and eggs at wholesale prices, from the Fishkills Farm upstate. 

     My poems:  For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down.  To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here.  For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.

     My books:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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     Coming soon:  Probably Wall Street -- again!  Greed, addiction, flamboyant overspending -- you name it.  Because Wall Street is always with us.  After that, maybe the Four Seasons, where I never set foot, feeling no need of a "power lunch."

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder

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