Nassau’s GOP Affirmative Action Machine
December 7, 1988
NASSAU COUNTY abounds in poor role models, and Richard Hartman, a lawyer on the make, found more than his fair share. Take his first two bosses, for instance.
Fresh out of law school, Hartman clerked for Judge Floyd Sarisohn. A few years after Hartman left that job, Sarisohn was removed from office for improperly handling a speeding ticket and for giving a prostitute tips on how to deceive her probation officer. Between 1965 and 1968, Hartman worked for Nassau district attorney William Cahn, who would go to jail for padding his expenses and for mail fraud. In 1968 Hartman entered private practice and, like Judge Sarisohn, specialized in traffic matters. His first partner, Jack Solerwitz, would later, after separating from Hartman, be convicted of stealing $5 million from clients.
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Hartman cultivated a reputation for helping influential people beat their raps, often at no charge. “If I had friends who got tickets, I sent them to Richie,” said a former city official in Nassau. “If Richie was your attorney, the cop who handled the ticket didn’t show up to testify.”
Meanwhile, as Hartman became famous for getting things done, lawyer Harold Foner was deciding he had too much to do. Foner represented two police unions, the Nassau and New York City PBAs. In 1969, weighed down by his New York City responsibilities, he resigned his Nassau position. As his successor, Foner suggested the up-and-comer Hartman, who had strong connections to the county’s Republican machine. Foner was nevertheless surprised when Hartman consented, since the young man’s practice was yielding far more than Foner’s salary, which approximated the pay of a police captain. But Hartman correctly bet that handling police labor relations and legal matters could be spectacularly lucrative.
Police officials had taken note of Hartman. “He lit up the courtroom,” said William Rupp, a former state police officer (and later president of the Metropolitan Police Conference) who helped introduce Hartman to police unions. “I thought he could help us with our plight.” And he did. “Before him,” Rupp said, “we used to go to Albany or City Hall on bended knee and beg.”
Thanks to concessions won by Hartman, within a few years Long Island cops would take it for granted that they earned more than FBI agents. After the Nassau police, Hartman added the Long Island State Parkway Police, then the Suffolk County police, and soon was the super-lawyer for practically every cop in every city, town, and village on Long Island and in Westchester. At one point, by Hartman’s own count, he represented 300 unions, mostly in law enforcement.
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A mystique built up. If you called Hartman at 3 p.m., he might return the call at 3 a.m. and act like there was nothing unusual about doing so. People said he slept in his car; indeed, he was rumpled, his shirttails always hanging out. “I don’t think he hit his bed three times a week,” recalled Bob Pick, formerly of New York City’s Office of Labor Relations.
The marathon must have taken its toll, because one night in 1973 Hartman’s car jumped a divider, flipped, and landed on another car. Hartman suffered massive internal injuries, and concerned cops mobbed the hospital. After that, Hartman had himself chauffeured around in a Cadillac limousine. Always in a hurry, going 90 miles an hour, the limo would hit a bump, scattering his papers about the passenger compartment. The car got pulled over on numerous occasions, but was never ticketed, unless it was in New Jersey, where troopers didn’t recognize him.
The high-speed legal practice, meanwhile, didn’t stop with cops. Hartman virtually locked up the Nassau justice system, representing clerks and court officers, throwing Christmas parties for judges. Hartman’s generosity helped him prevail; aides routinely delivered gifts, ranging over the years from apple-shaped gold baubles to booze, VCRs, and a bigscreen TV.
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Hartman’s New Year’s party guest list was a Long Island who’s who. One table was invariably heaped with honorary PBA shields, which could be pinned in a wallet and flashed if an officer asked to see a license. “Richie was great at networking,” recalled Daniel Guido, a Nassau police commissioner in the ’70s and now a criminal justice professor at John Jay College. “He had the judges in his hip pocket.”
Apparently, there were not enough cops and clerks to keep Hartman busy. He built a long list of criminal clients, which bothered some people, among them Guido: “I suggested to Hartman that it was inappropriate for him to be repping our 4000 police officers while also … representing people his clients were arresting.”
But no mere police commissioner was going to tell Hartman what to do. The lawyer hit Guido with two $10 million lawsuits accusing him of slander. Hartman eventually withdrew the suit, yet he won the war. Nassau County supervisors did not renew Guido’s contract.
BESIDES HIS ENERGY and his open wallet, Hartman had deep roots in the Republican organization that ran and still runs Nassau County. So did two brothers, Armand and Alfonse D’Amato. All grew up in the same time, the D’Amato household a few miles from Hartman’s. During the 1960s, Hartman’s father, Bill, nominally a grocer but more significantly a GOP committee man, worked for Joseph Carlino, then the powerful assembly speaker and former law partner of Armand. Early in his career, a young Richard passed the machine’s admissions test, offering himself as the sacrificial lamb for the GOP in a futile 1969 city council race in Democratic-controlled Long Beach.
These connections would become useful to Hartman when he began to negotiate police contracts. His bargaining table success, insiders said, was not just a matter of caffeine and number-crunching. “The unspoken thing was that Hartman had such a friendship with [longtime supervisor] Al D’Amato,” a Nassau political operative explained, “that D’Amato went out of his way to get him good contracts.”
Small wonder. D’Amato and fellow supervisors — even a Democrat or two — won their seats with the Nassau PBA endorsement and contributions rounded up by Hartman. “Almost anybody from either political party could ask Richie for a contribution,” said John Matthews, until recently the Nassau Democratic chairman.
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So staunch was that solidarity that even independent-thinking Republicans were banished. Ralph Caso, a Nassau county executive until 1978, told the Voice that when finances tightened and he began opposing big police wage increases, fellow Republicans, including D’Amato, turned against him and ensured his defeat.
It often seemed many figures in the labor-bargaining process, from negotiators to the county executive, were either political allies or accepting Hartman’s gifts. Hartman began bargaining sessions by sending out for lavish spreads of food and drink, even beer, for both sides of the table. Then he went to work, putting on the appearance of sweating out the details. One observer recalled the lawyer’s tactical devices, as demonstrated at a late-’70s bargaining session. Hartman was leafing through a thick book, and gesticulating: “Now if you look at page 1385, subsection C, paragraph 4, you’ll see that it says, ‘Differential, blah, blah, blah.’ Now if you’ll go back to page 943, you’ll see in subsection … blah, blah, blah.”
“The poor suckers across from him,” the observer said, “just couldn’t keep up.”
Another Hartman tactic was to make excessive demands at the table, which would put the decision into the hands of presumably neutral arbitrators, such as Joseph French. In a 1978 settlement, French awarded Hartman’s client, the Nassau PBA, interest on retroactive pay increases, a highly unusual concession. He also doled out a three-year, 24.5 per cent raise. “There were strange aspects of the decision, a strange rationale,” said Bruce Lambert, who covered the talks for Newsday. It was noted that French had a few conflicts of interest. He was not only a police buff (a brother and brother-in-law were cops who would benefit from the settlement), but his divorce had been handled by Hartman’s firm. (French did not respond to messages left by the Voice.)
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In 1979, Al D’Amato himself intervened directly in favor of a record salary increase for Nassau Community College’s adjunct faculty, which was represented by Richard Hartman. The lawyer won extraordinary labor gains for the adjunct faculty. The contract was written in such a way that it allowed a high percentage of new teaching positions to be filled via the Nassau GOP patronage network — run by the very people negotiating police contracts.
The agreements were so exceptional that they infuriated the full-time faculty, which would reap outsize gains as well. The faculty, whose salaries currently average $72,918, includes D’Amato’s wife Penelope (math) and Hartman’s brother Elliott (math). In turn, the faculty unions gave cash and material support to the campaign of Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta, whose wife Elizabeth teaches biology at the school. The most recent faculty contract, in the words of college trustee Richard Kessel, a Democrat, “is one of richest municipal labor contracts I’ve ever seen.”
When Al D’Amato intervened in the Nassau Community College negotiations, the math department was headed by Abe Weinstein, a close D’Amato and Hartman pal who has since become a vice-president at the school. Al D’Amato himself has been a Nassau Community College trustee, as has Jeffrey Forchelli. Until recently, Forchelli was a law partner of Armand D’Amato — sentenced in November to five months house arrest and 19 months of supervised release (with disbarment proceedings pending) for mail fraud. John Cornachio, who monitors the college’s construction contracts, is the brother of a former Hartman law associate who now represents the Nassau PBA. In 1966 and 1971, Richard Hartman himself taught math classes at Nassau.
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The relationship of the college to police labor negotiations is critical to understanding the quid pro quo nature of Nassau County contracts. Regional officials who got themselves or their relatives adjunct teaching positions at the college were in many cases the same people approving nice contracts for Hartman’s other clients, like the Nassau Police union.
The Nassau County cops became the highest-paid police in the country; their base pay is currently $52,229. With overtime, some officers earn as much as $90,000 annually. Nassau police also receive the best benefits ± days off and vacation account for half the calendar year. And though police routinely cite the dangerous nature of their work as a basis for raises, Nassau officers have a relatively low casualty rate.
When Hartman moved on to New York City, he did not do nearly so well for its police officers, who have a far more perilous job. But the concessions he won proved incredibly lucrative to executives at the PBA, its staff, and its small circle of service providers. ■