Among the notable cases handled by Robert M. Morgenthau during nearly a half-century as a Federal and state prosecutor prior to his death July 21 at 99, the then-Manhattan District Attorney’s massive corruption case involving District Council 37 has largely been forgotten, going unmentioned in a lengthy New York Times obituary.
But it represented a crucial moment in municipal history, bringing to light not only the stealing that by the union’s own estimate involved presidents of 44 of its 56 locals and other ranking officials, but the fixing of a 1996 contract vote that wound up saddling all city unions with a five-year deal that began with a two-year wage freeze.
Took Time to Act
Arthur Schwartz, the attorney for one of the DC 37 reformers, the late Mark Rosenthal, who played a pivotal role in producing the prosecutions that rocked the union to its foundation but also ignited a much-needed cleansing, in a July 23 phone interview said there were times during the probe in 1998 when he was convinced the DA’s Office was moving too slowly.
“They sat on a lot of information for a long time,” he said. “I had conflicts with their office where they let things keep going and going and going.”
But, he added, once enough of the pieces came together to present a comprehensive case, “They did finally do it and they really got pretty far downstream, and once they got into it they did a really great job.”
Was Mr. Morgenthau’s decision to have his aides, led by Michael Bixon—who a couple of years earlier had successfully prosecuted the president of the District Council of Carpenters, Frederick Devine, for embezzlement—the primary reason the full extent of the corruption within the union came to light?
“Yes,” Mr. Schwartz replied. “We could expose it; we couldn’t clean it up ourselves.”
Union-corruption cases in New York more often than not have been the province of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, with labor leaders from Brooklyn longshoreman’s union President Anthony Scotto in 1979 to correction-union leader Norman Seabrook last year, as well as officials of the now-defunct Transit Police Benevolent Association and their lawyers, among those convicted. But Mr. Morgenthau, himself a former U.S. Attorney in Manhattan before he was pressured to leave by President Richard Nixon, was known for stretching his territorial boundaries and crossing into areas normally handled by the Feds if he believed strongly enough in a case.
A Suspicious Vote Tally
As Mr. Schwartz said, elements of corruption hovered over DC 37 going back to the contract agreement reached with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani late in 1995. When its second-largest local, representing city clerical workers, ratified the deal by a margin of more than 8,000 votes in early 1996 despite the two-year wage freeze at its outset that seemed particularly unlikely to have pleased a membership that was among the city’s worst-paid, the head of DC 37’s hospital-workers local, James Butler, proclaimed, “They stole the vote.” His counterpart at Social Service Employees Local 371, Charles Ensley, sent a letter to the president of DC 37’s national union, Gerald McEntee, demanding an investigation.
But Mr. McEntee did not order a probe, later explaining that Mr. Ensley had offered no specific evidence that the vote had been rigged aside from the suspicious vote tally. After the DA’s office started dropping indictments that would produce more than two dozen convictions of DC 37 officials, an internal probe uncovered the fact that one of those charged, Clerical-Administrative Employees Local 1549 President Albert A. Diop, had been able to get away with siphoning more than $2.1 million in dues money into his own pocket and those of other union officers without it being noticed because the Philadelphia accounting firm that handled its books hadn’t done an audit for the period between 1995 and 1997.
That produced suspicions that since Mr. Diop was a vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, where he strongly supported Mr. McEntee, the national union had not watched his operations as closely as it should have.
Parade a Profit Center
Certainly Mr. Morgenthau took a dim view of the lack of oversight regarding DC 37 once his investigators got a look at the books of the union and its locals. In April 1999, announcing the indictment of the president of a small local for her role in a kickback scheme involving overcharges for sandwiches prepared for the union’s Labor Day Parade celebration that were provided by a bakery run by Joseph De Canio, the president of Laborers Local 376 who became a primary witness for the DA’s Office, Mr. Morgenthau noted it had been a regular occurrence starting in 1993 and continuing through the 1997 march.
With the tart humor for which he was known, he told reporters, “Unfortunately for these people, the 1994 Labor Day Parade was canceled.”
A month later, indicting longtime School Employees Local 372 President Charles Hughes for embezzling nearly $2 million from a local in which virtually all the members were part-timers making an average of $20,000, the DA said, “Funds contributed by hard-working municipal employees were looted for the defendant’s personal benefit to support a lifestyle no union member could afford.”
Mr. Hughes, one of the more-activist local presidents in DC 37, had been removed from office 15 months earlier after the AFSCME Judicial Panel concluded he had plunged Local 372 roughly $10 million into debt. But the national union did not take that situation, the allegations of vote-fixing on the labor contract, and reported cases of local presidents buying holiday turkeys for their members through Mr. De Canio at prices nearly twice what those workers could have gotten the birds for in their local supermarkets, as reasons enough for a sweeping probe. AFSCME did not act until November 1998, with Mr. De Canio’s guilty plea bringing forth the full scope of the corruption.
Steamed the Ballots
Once it was revealed that the contract vote had been fixed, with the officials involved coming into the union’s headquarters on a Saturday to steam open envelopes containing Local 1549 ballots, remove the ones that had opposed the deal, and substitute extra “yes” ballots Mr. Diop had printed, then reseal the envelopes, it produced outrage among the city’s other unions, which had wound up saddled with the pattern created by that pact’s terms. But Mr. Giuliani and Deputy Mayor Randy Levine, who as Labor Commissioner three years earlier had negotiated the DC 37 deal, refused to reopen the other contracts, contending the unions had all willingly agreed to the terms.
Lee Saunders, who became DC 37’s administrator for more than two years after Mr. McEntee placed it in trusteeship in response to the corruption uncovered by the DA and is now president of AFSCME, praised Mr. Morgenthau’s handling of the situation.
“During one of the most-difficult chapters in DC 37’s history, Robert Morgenthau was a straight shooter, dogged in his pursuit of corruption and of those who had betrayed the trust of 125,000 hardworking union members,” he said in a July 25 statement. “My experience with him was, he understood the importance of the union and the work we were doing to rebuild it and to bolster member confidence. His door was always open and the result was frank, candid discussion that helped ensure the future of DC 37.”
‘Cleaned Up DC 37’
Assessing the impact of the scandal, Joshua Freeman, a labor historian and Professor at both Queens College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in a July 25 phone interview, “It certainly cleaned up DC 37. I also have to say DC 37 lost a lot of its influence as a result of what was brought out by those prosecutions.
“Also,” he continued, “it was kind of a warning shot to other unions that they had to be attentive to things like corruption and proper procedure.”
Ironically, those issues had surfaced earlier in the year involving a different union—the by-then defunct Transit PBA—whose leaders, as well as three outside service providers—had been convicted by Federal prosecutors in a bribery scheme. The union had negotiated a civil legal-defense fund to assist members in any case in which they were sued individually for actions taken on patrol for which the city failed to indemnify them. No such cases had occurred at the time the deal was reached several years earlier, and none occurred while the union was still operating, but the benefit of $750,000 a year had gone to the union’s lawyers and bargaining consultant, who in turn kicked back a portion of the money to top union officers.
The attorneys, James Lysaght and Peter Kramer, and the bargaining consultant, Richard Hartman, had all performed similar duties for the city police union. A prime reason for the scheme, which also involved Mr. Hartman and former Transit PBA President Ronald Reale trying to swindle the city Campaign Finance Board out of tens of thousands of dollars in matching funds during Mr. Reale’s 1993 campaign for Public Advocate, was Mr. Hartman’s gambling addiction and the constant need for cash that it produced.
DA Let Him Off Easy
It wasn’t the first time his problem got him in trouble with the law: in 1988, the Manhattan DA’s Office had uncovered Mr. Hartman’s dipping into monies intended for escrow accounts of city Police Officers who were using what was then his law firm for the purchase of homes, either to gamble or pay off gambling debts. Rather than bring criminal charges, Mr. Morgenthau agreed to a deal under which Mr. Hartman surrendered his law license and made full restitution.
Revelations during the Federal trial showed that aside from his being unable to practice law, little had changed. Mr. Kramer and Mr. Lysaght, who previously worked for Mr. Hartman, took over his law practice, but the three men were financial partners, and the city PBA paid Mr. Hartman a $2 million a year to negotiate its contracts while also allowing him to serve as the union’s insurance broker, which earned him a similar sum.
This brought renewed questions about whether Mr. Morgenthau, who was sometimes accused of having too close a relationship with the police, had been unwise in making a deal that spared Mr. Hartman jail time and hadn’t had much effect on him financially.
George Arzt, who had covered the DA as the City Hall Bureau Chief of the New York Post, dealt with him over the last four years of Ed Koch’s term as Mayor while serving as his Press Secretary, and later as a political consultant took on Mr. Morgenthau as a client, explained that lenience as part of the balancing act any DA must have with top Police Department officials.
‘NYPD is DA’s Partner’
“The NYPD is your partner when you’re DA,” he said in a July 23 phone interview. “You cannot run investigations without NYPD. There are always tensions and friction, but for the most part, if you are running the office well, you’ll have a good relationship with the department.”
Alluding to the clout that the PBA can exert in its dealings with both top police brass and prosecutors, Mr. Arzt explained, “Hartman was part of the same milieu.”
On the other hand, he said, Mr. Morgenthau had not hesitated to risk antagonizing the Police Department, and particularly its Detective Bureau, when he decided in 2002 to vacate the convictions obtained of five teenagers a dozen years earlier for their alleged roles in the Central Park Jogger case after a man with a string of rape convictions, Matias Reyes, said that he alone had attacked and raped the jogger in April 1989 and his DNA matched material found on both the jogger’s body and one of her socks.
Several Detectives who had worked on the case, as well as Linda Fairstein, the head of the DA’s Sex Crimes Bureau who had overseen the prosecution, questioned the decision, insisting that confessions made by the teens in which they implicated each other shortly after the attack had been legitimately obtained.
The Times obituary quoted Mr. Morgenthau saying at the time that he asked a judge to throw out the convictions, “If only we had DNA 13 years ago.” Actually, it was around, and while it wasn’t made available until November 1989, seven months after the attack, that was actually seven months prior to the first of two trials of the five youths.
Thirty years ago, Mr. Arzt noted, DNA “wasn’t in wide use” and wouldn’t have been given the weight it later was in establishing possible guilt or innocence. He indicated that Mr. Morgenthau, who had created the Sex Crimes Bureau—one of numerous innovations that later became common in other prosecutors’ offices—was inclined to trust those he placed in charge of key cases rather than second-guessing their decisions.
‘Didn’t Have a Choice’
One reason for the anger among both Detectives and prosecutors like Ms. Fairstein was that they were convinced the teens were involved in other violent assaults in the park that night, and three of the youths had admitted their guilt in those attacks during subsequent parole hearings. Given their ages at the time—14 to 16—convictions for those assaults wouldn’t have resulted in nearly the jail time they had served, which ranged from 7 to 13 years at the time that Mr. Morgenthau moved to have their convictions vacated.
“I don’t think with DNA evidence there that he felt he had any other choice,” Mr. Arzt said. “Once they had [Mr. Reyes and his confession], that was it.”
Mr. Morgenthau had been the model for the original DA on “Law and Order,” played by Steven Hill. The character Adam Schiff was known for terse remarks like “cut your losses” when he became convinced a case was unwinnable because of unforeseen complications, even if his Assistant DAs vehemently disagreed. Mr. Morgenthau’s real-life conclusion that tossing the Central Park 5 convictions was the only option that would serve justice at that point reflected his strength as a prosecutor and a person, Mr. Arzt said.
“Many people today we see never admit error; they double-down on their mistakes,” Mr. Arzt said. “Morgenthau wouldn’t do that.”
‘A fearless Prosecutor’
It was why he said, when asked about the legacy of a man who served from 1975 through 2009 as Manhattan DA, and the better part of the 1960s as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, “I think it’s as a fearless prosecutor. Who went after the mob, street criminals, and corporations and carried his office to the highest standard.”
The funeral service for Mr. Morgenthau July 25 at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side featured nine speakers: six of his seven children and three of his former Assistant DAs. It just so happened that one of his old subordinates was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
She remarked that over the previous two weeks, “I have lost the two most-important mentors of my life: Justice John Paul Stevens and Bob Morgenthau,” both of whom, she noted, were 99 at the time of their deaths.
Using the title by which he was commonly known among staff, she said, “The Boss was my first employer after law school.” Besides creating specialized divisions within the DA’s Office “that are now a staple in other jurisdictions,” she said, he succeeded in convincing his colleagues in the other four boroughs to back legislation creating a citywide Special Narcotics Prosecutor as the best way to bring cases in which traffickers did business in more than one county.
He also, Justice Sotomayor continued, “hired Spanish-language interpreters” before it was common “and diverse prosecutors, including me.”
Winning Not Everything
While prosecutors sometimes become overly concerned about maintaining high conviction rates, sometimes leading them to accept plea bargains rather than risking trials when their cases aren’t air-tight, she said Mr. Morgenthau worried less about wins and losses at trial than “whether we had fully and carefully investigated the facts, put forth the case forcefully. If a case deserved to be dismissed, he dismissed it.” And if an acquittal was the proper verdict based on the facts, she added, “he understood that justice had been done.”
She referred to his World War II experiences as a naval officer, particularly an incident in which the U.S.S. Lonsdale was struck by Nazi torpedo bombers in the Mediterranean Sea, killing many of those aboard. Mr. Morgenthau saved several shipmates and leaped into the water, where he spent the next three hours swimming until he and the others were picked up by an American warship. Justice Sotomayor noted that he told a Times interviewer in 2009 that while he was swimming, “he prayed to the Almighty and promised he would live a useful life if he was spared.”
After a pause, she told the gathering, “He kept that promise, in spades.”
Later in the service, another former ADA, Steve Kaufman, added an additional detail to that story. He said decades after the incident, he met a fellow shipmate of the DA’s who told him that the reason Mr. Morgenthau was in the water without a life-jacket was that he had given it to another sailor who cried out that he needed one.
When Mr. Kaufman asked his old boss why he had given up his and added to his own risk, the DA responded, “I think it was one of the stupidest things I ever did.”
Laughter rippled through the spacious synagogue; it was one of Mr. Morgenthau’s best tools, particularly because of his ability to laugh at himself, several of his children said in remembering him. Mr. Arzt a couple of days earlier recalled accompanying Mr. Morgenthau to a meeting with the New York Times editorial board while seeking its endorsement prior to the 2005 campaign, when he faced rare opposition from a former aide, Leslie Crocker Snyder.
Gail Collins, who was then the paper’s editorial-page editor and is now a columnist, pointed out to Mr. Morgenthau that he was in a building where 65 was the mandatory retirement age for staff, and asked why he should be seeking another term at age 84.
His response, Mr. Arzt said, was, “I guess I’m lucky that I don’t work at The Times.”
His children spoke of the fact that he found time to ask about their lives, from school to friends to their opinions about the world, at the same time that he was working a demanding job and also serving as the founding chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage and of the New York City Holocaust Commission, serving for 57 years as the chairman of the Police Athletic League and also devoting himself to the Fresh Air Fund, and aiding immigrants and wounded military veterans.
A Sense of Duty
“He never had bad days,” said his son Josh. “ ‘Remember where you came from’ was a phrase he repeated many times. Taking care of refugees, the poor, wounded veterans, was a duty to him.”
But he also found time to have fun, and not always of the forthright, upright kind, said his son Bob. Prosecutors sometimes bring cases against those looking to give people a bang for their buck on the Fourth of July; at the family’s upstate home in East Fishkill, he recalled, “Each year he oversaw the destruction of illegal fireworks, one at a time.”
And, he said, his father would brush off compliments from prosecutors who had worked for him, saying, “Remember, you were the talent. I was just the front-man.”
Earlier in the service, Ms. Sotomayor had offered contradictory testimony, saying of his skill as a mentor, “I am living proof of that guidance. Without Morgenthau. I would be neither the person nor the judge that I am today.”
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