Robert Morgenthau Goes Out on a Roll


Part of the rap on Robert Morgenthau was always that he was this aloof, patrician prosecutor. Critics liked to peg the Manhattan District Attorney as an elite upstate apple farmer, someone out of touch with everyday New Yorkers and happy to pull his punches for those in his lofty social circle.

If this were all true, then, by rights, Bob Morgenthau should have gotten along famously with Mike Bloomberg, the wealthiest mayor ever and New York’s richest citizen with his own sprawling estate north of the city.

As it happens, the two men never had any use for each other. The way Morgenthau tells it, he tried several times over the years to engage Bloomberg about one of his biggest gripes: the billions hidden in off-shore tax havens by the wealthy. Whenever he brought up the subject, said Morgenthau, the mayor would look at him blankly. “I said, ‘This is tax evasion, using off-shore accounts out of our jurisdiction.’ And he says to me, ‘I pay my taxes.’ I said, ‘Mike, nobody is suggesting you don’t pay your taxes.’ And he says, ‘I am glad I’m not a lawyer.’ I had three separate conversations with him, with almost identical language over several years.”

Morgenthau said he never figured out what to make of it. He also tried to get Bloomberg and his team interested in the problem of the burgeoning underground economy, which pulls more tax dollars out of the city’s coffers. “There was just no interest,” he said.

A couple of years ago, Morgenthau said, he had an interesting conversation with one of the mayor’s budget advisers. “He said to me, ‘Do you want to have the reputation of someone who just goes after cases in order to collect taxes?’ And I said, ‘You’re goddamn right I do. You let me worry about my reputation, and you worry about yours.’ “

These tasty morsels of mayoral-D.A. acrimony only surfaced in the wake of the public fight that the mayor picked earlier this month as Morgenthau was preparing to leave office after 35 years. Bloomberg claimed Morgy was short-changing the city in the payout of hundreds of millions of dollars in fines collected by his office from tax cheaters and banking scamsters. The mayor’s people weren’t especially interested in making sure these fines got levied, only that they got the lion’s share of the dough.

The fight didn’t even go one round. First, Morgenthau beat Bloomberg on legal grounds, winning a new state law that mandates a 50-50 split between city and state. Then he handed Bloomberg a worse drubbing on the public relations front, forcing the newly re-elected mayor to sue for peace.

It wasn’t a bad last act for New York’s longest-serving lawman. Thursday is Morgenthau’s last day in the eighth-floor office on Hogan Place where he’s been presiding since 1975, back when Bloomberg was still making trades at Salomon Brothers. The job was already his second stint as a prosecutor. In 1961, when he was 42 years old, Morgenthau was picked by his friend John F. Kennedy to serve as Manhattan U.S. attorney.

Back then, he met with similar scorn: He was an aristocratic crony who wouldn’t know a gangster if he tripped over one on Mulberry Street. He went on to make more cases against organized crime than the entire Justice Department. He had the first Mafia defector, a Genovese crime family hoodlum named Joe Valachi. That kind of catch would give most prosecutors permanent bragging rights. Morgenthau wasn’t impressed, then or now. “He was kind of like the doorman, or the elevator operator,” he said. “He could say I saw so-and-so, but he didn’t know a hell of a lot.”

As for rolling over for his powerful friends, when the Kennedy family counselor, a man named James Landis, was found to have failed to file tax returns, everyone from the Attorney General on down bolted for the door, quickly recusing themselves. Morgenthau shrugged and got a conviction.

Before his tangle this month with Bloomberg, his most famous political feud was with a president. When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, Morgenthau had such a healthy distrust of his new boss that he refused to graciously hand in his resignation, the way U.S. attorneys are expected to do when a new president takes office. “If he’d offered me the job, I wouldn’t have taken it,” he said later.

Last week, he sat at the end of a long wooden table in the big office on Hogan Place. At the other end of the room, his desk was still piled high with papers. A small mountain of documents cascaded from a wing chair. There were several glass bookcases, all packed away and empty now, save for a couple of rows of law books. The walls were still lined with photos and memorabilia. Most had yellow tags on them, reading “Property of RMM.”

There is a shot of the prosecutor campaigning with JFK in the Bronx, confident smiles worn by all. There is an arms-around pose with a law-school friend, Byron White, the Supreme Court justice known as “Whizzer” when he was an All-American football player at the University of Colorado. “I’d go down to see him at the Supreme Court. He’d walk down the hall with an open can of Budweiser. He was no bullshit,” Morgenthau said.

An earlier generation of public servants took up most of a wall: Herbert Lehman, a great-uncle and former governor; a grandfather, Henry, photographed in Constantinople, where he was American ambassador and where he blew a lonely whistle on the Armenian massacre in the first World War. There is a note from the British foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, to his father, Henry Morgenthau, a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet who championed early-wartime aid to Britain: “We cannot publicly acknowledge your assistance, but we hope the day will come when you will visit us and receive the thanks we owe you.”

There is a picture of the U.S.S. Lansdale, where his own war was fought. The ship was escorting a convoy when it was sunk by a Nazi aerial torpedo in the Mediterranean in 1944. Morgenthau tread water for hours. Alongside, the S.S. Paul Hamilton went down with 580 men. “I made a lot of promises to the Almighty without a hell of a lot of bargaining position,” he said.

“Well, you gotta be lucky,” he added, staring at the photo. Still, he managed to go places where luck was required. “That’s the Harry F. Bauer,” he said, pointing to another black-and-white photo. “We went out to the Pacific on that. Shot down 17 Japanese suicide planes. We got the Presidential Citation for Okinawa.”

This may be part of the reason why incoming fire from mayors and tycoons failed to rattle him. A few years back, he infuriated a good chunk of the city’s business establishment by exposing a cozy system of bribery among contractors and building managers. Loud grumbling was heard after indictments sullied many big names. The D.A. responded with a rare lecture, a punch aimed at the permanent government’s midsection: New York, he warned, was becoming “Kickback City.”

He would have been delighted to keep making such cases except that he turned 90 this summer, the only clock that told him it was time to go. “You’ll be seeing me around,” he said at the door. “I’m going to stay active.” On the radio on Sunday, Bloomberg announced that he is looking for some good volunteers to engage in public service to help the city. Maybe the now-retired D.A. can spare the mayor a few afternoons to show him how it’s done.