What Did Koch Know, and When Did He Know It?

Anatomy of a Cover-Up

I’m the perfect route to the downfall of this administration.
— Bess Myerson, New York magazine,
March 30, 1987

In the middle of the afternoon last Friday, Ed Koch slouched in his office chair, with just a cou­ple of cameras to perform for and a handful of print reporters. He’d called a press conference to badger the City Council and the Board of Estimate about the budget, but the reporters wanted one more run through the Myer­son thicket — a complex and mounting series of questions about the mayor’s knowledge of former Cultural Affairs commissioner Bess Myerson’s wrongdoing, which had dominated news coverage at City Hall all week. For the next half-hour, the mayor became a zombie.

“I don’t know,” “I can’t recall,” “I can’t reconstruct that,” were Koch’s answers to question after question. He looked like a man who’d spent the night in an arcade with a pocketful of quarters; a video­game glaze had seized control of him. Having struck out on questions that pushed Koch’s memory about events as far away as 1983, the Voice‘s Wayne Bar­rett asked him to think back to when he first read the Tyler report in early April of this year. Barrett wondered if Koch could recall whether the report’s account of the activities of his close friend and aide Herb Rickman rang a bell with him, sounded like something he’d heard be­fore, or whether it was news to him — the first time he’d ever heard that Rickman had warned both Myerson and Judge Hortense Gabel not to go ahead with the hiring of the judge’s daughter. The mayor paused. The mayor grimaced. The mayor grappled. But nothing came out. He couldn’t remember again.

The mayor’s memory lapses last week were part of a four-year-old stonewall on questions about Bess Myerson. And the stonewall did not end with the confer­ence. Moments after Koch finished, the gray tape recorder that the press office used to record the conference was hurried into a small private office 40 feet from the mayor’s. The office belongs to Herb Rickman, who immediately sat with an assistant, listening to a playback of the mayor’s amnesia.

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Koch cannot be sure that Rickman will decide to match the mayor’s apparent evasions with his own. A former assistant U.S. attorney who voluntarily appeared before Judge Harold Tyler’s commission and the federal grand jury probing Myerson without even retaining an attorney, Rickman has been a sword in Myerson’s gut. If sworn or forced by the press, he might be the same to the mayor. Rick­man knows how many times Koch was warned about Myerson over the past four years and he knows the depths of the mayor’s indifference. Rickman told Tyler a good portion of the truth about Myer­son, but no one, until now, has asked him to spell out his own conversations with Myerson’s stubborn protector, Ed Koch. When Rickman raises his hand for the Ferrick Commission — appointed by Gov­ernor Cuomo to probe the city scandal — ­he may, combined with other evidence of warnings to the mayor, put Koch at the center of a legal firestorm.

The report, news stories over the last week, and Voice interviews suggest the following chronology of cover-up:


Around Labor Day in 1983, Herb Rickman, whose office is only four doors down the hall from Koch’s, learned that his longtime close friend, Bess Myerson, had hired the daughter of another friend of his, Hortense Gabel. The hiring deeply disturbed Rickman, who knew that Judge Gabel was then hearing a difficult divorce case involving Myerson’s lover, city sewer contractor Andy Capasso. A week later, the New York Post reported (on Septem­ber 14, 1983) that the Capasso divorce case was heating up and that Myerson and Capasso had “recently been playing coy” about their relationship. This story appeared the same day that Judge Gabel slashed Capasso’s alimony payments by two-thirds. Rickman says he then ar­ranged a meeting with Myerson to warn her about the appearance of impropriety and to urge her not to go through with the Gabel hiring. Later he went to lunch with Judge Gabel and warned her.

But Rickman, who was so troubled he confronted two of his friends face-to-face, has so far maintained that he said noth­ing to the mayor, even though the con­flict of interest involved the possibly ille­gal use of a city job. The mayor also says Rickman divulged nothing to him, noting that it would have been better if Rickman came forward, but insisting that Rickman did nothing wrong. Rickman’s explana­tion for his silence is that Myerson as­sured him that the major decisions in the divorce case had occurred before she hired Sukhreet and that the hiring had been “cleared by City Hall.” These expla­nations temporarily satisfied Rickman, although a City Hall sign-off on the hir­ing — minus the information he had — ­would have been routine. (Of course if Rickman saw the September 14 Post story, he would’ve known that the divorce case was still active after Sukhreet’s hiring.)

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What apparently bothered Rickman was that Myerson’s hiring of the judge’s daughter was a blatant conflict that could attract public attention. His own actions, if they were designed to both help and protect Myerson, suggested a far more subtle approach. Several months before Myerson offered Sukhreet a job, Rick­man began looking for one for her, at the urging of Judge Gabel, whom Rickman had known for years. At a lunch with Sukhreet in May or June 1983, Rickman picked up her resumé. According to Sukhreet, Rickman took it to city eco­nomic development commissioner Larry Kieves, who interviewed her, but did not offer a job. Myerson had simultaneously begun the wooing of Judge Gabel, whose handling of the divorce case had been reported in a March front-page New York Post story that featured a picture of Myerson. During this period, Myerson, Rickman, the judge, and her husband, Dr. Milton Gabel, had dinner at a restaurant. But it is unclear if jobhunter Rickman was acting only out of affection for Judge Gabel or was aware that Myerson was then engaged in what the Tyler report described as a conscious “courtship of the judge.”

The Tyler report says these various contacts culminated in a dinner party at Judge Gabel’s home, attended by about 14 people, on June 17, 1983. Myerson and Rickman attended together. (Rickman, who is gay, and Myerson have been social companions for two decades.) Myerson met Sukhreet for the first time, and the two spent most of the evening chatting. Tyler concluded: “If Myerson was looking for a way to influence Justice Gabel, and we believe she was, it became apparent by the dinner on June 17, if not before, that Ms. Gabel provided the best path to that result.”

Rickman sought a job for Sukhreet while spending several long weekends at Capasso’s Westhampton Beach house, and listening to Myerson and Capasso’s incessant talk about Capasso’s divorce and Judge Gabel. He saw the divorce papers strewn all over the house. With the collapse of his efforts at OED and the pressure of the critical alimony decisions in the divorce case, Myerson took mat­ters into her own hands. Yet when Rick­man learned that Myerson had hired Sukhreet herself — as her own special as­sistant no less — he says he kept his infor­mation to himself. And the mayor now says that’s all right with him.

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On October 18, 1983, the Post re­ported that Myerson’s agency had hired Sukhreet Gabel while Judge Gabel was handling the Capasso case. Herb Rickman was surprised and outraged because the story indirectly attributed the hiring — which he had op­posed — to him. A Myerson spokesperson was quoted as saying that Rickman had tried to get Gabel a job at the Office of Economic Development, but that prob­lems had developed “so her resumé was sent to me.” Rickman told Tyler he an­grily called Myerson and her assistant, correcting the inference that he had something do with the resumé winding up at DCA. But he did not stop there.

Rickman told the press last week that he also informed the mayor the Post sto­ry was incorrect and made it clear that he’d had nothing to do with Sukhreet Gabel’s hiring. During his press confer­ence on Friday, the mayor could not re­call when Rickman told him about the error in the Post story. But sources famil­iar with the facts told the Voice that Rickman went to the mayor about the story “the moment it appeared.”

The timing is important because the day after the story Myerson sent the mayor a letter that responded to the Post piece and falsely contended that “most of what had to be decided” in the divorce case “had already been decided in the first six months, a major part of it in favor of Mrs. Capasso.” On October 21, the mayor answered Myerson’s letter with a brief note of praise, saying Myer­son had done “exactly the right thing in filling an open job with an able person.” The Tyler report has established that Myerson’s description of the hiring pro­cess in her letter to Koch was a wholesale fraud, designed to deceive the mayor.

But the mayor already had two reasons to question the truthfulness of Myerson’s letter. Rickman had just told him that Myerson’s suggestion in the Post story that he’d referred Gabel for the job was false. And the Post story of September 14 established that the divorce case was at such a critical junction after Sukhreet was hired on August 29 that Capasso and Myerson were trying to conceal their own relationship. These facts alone should have prompted Koch to hesitate before enthusiastically endorsing Myerson’s conduct. His own City Hall personnel staff could’ve told him, had they been asked, that Gabel was hired before the vacancy notice was even published, de­stroying the facade of a search concocted in Myerson’s letter.

Tyler concluded that Judge Gabel’s as­sertions that she had not read the Post stories of March and September — which describe her own decisions and link the Capasso divorce to Myerson — were unbe­lievable. Is it believable that the Septem­ber 14 Post piece was missed by Koch, a voracious newspaper reader; Rickman, who had spent much of the summer with the very people named in the story; and the mayor’s chief of staff Diane Coffey, the City Hall liaison to Cultural Affairs who reviewed Myerson’s letter with Koch? At a minimum, this story would’ve alerted them to the falseness of Myer­son’s assertion that the case was virtually over.

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The Tyler report indicates that Myerson called Rickman in March 1984 and left a message regarding a state decision to suspend payments on two contracts with Capasso’s company because of apparent violations of law by Capasso in the use of phony minority fronts as subcontractors. By July 1984, Rickman knew enough about an investigation of Capasso’s construc­tion company, Nanco, to warn Koch not to attend a July 4, 1984 party at Capas­so’s Westhampton Beach house. Rickman declined to go himself and called Koch, telling him that he had “heard there was a problem.” Koch, who had been invited by Myerson, said at the press conference last Friday that he went because “there were no indictments.” Ultimately Attorney General Robert Abrams did indict Nanco on these charges.

Rickman’s rejection of the party invita­tion was part of a conscious decision to distance himself from Myerson. Some months back Rickman told New Yorker reporter Andy Logan that he was con­sciously cutting his contacts with Myer­son during this period, gradually ending their social relationship. The Voice has learned that Rickman told the mayor he was disassociating himself from Myerson, although it is unclear precisely when Rickman told him or whether he told the mayor why he was cutting his ties. These discussions, together with Rickman’s call about the party, constituted a second wave of warnings to the mayor.

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In the summer of 1985, Nancy Capas­so’s counsel, Herman Turnow, met with the mayor’s City Hall counsel, Pat Mulhearn. Turnow says he spoke to Mulhearn “about the interrelation­ship of Judge Gabel’s ruling on the alimo­ny and child support to reports that Bess Myerson hired the judge’s daughter.” Mulhearn says they “never discussed the giving of the job to her” or at least that he has “no recollection of that.” Mul­hearn and Turnow agree that they did discuss the propriety of Myerson, a city official, receiving expensive gifts — includ­ing the use of a Palm Beach condo, a company limo, and a Mercedes sports car — from a company with $200 million in city contracts. Mulhearn maintained there was no ethical violation, saying, “After all, they are friends.” Turnow says he discovered in this visit to City Hall a wholly different set of ethical standards than his own.

Mulhearn passed the issue of gifts on to the mayor, but Koch says that Mul­hearn and then corporation counsel Fritz Schwarz told him that acceptance of the gifts was “within ethics guidelines.” At his Friday press conference, the mayor angrily rejected questions by WNBC’s Gabe Pressman, who was pressing him on the appropriateness of these gifts, none of which were listed on Myerson’s finan­cial disclosure statements filed with the city clerk.

When Mulhearn met with Turnow, he was already sitting on another hot potato involving Myerson. Myerson had refused for six months to fire her city chauffeur after the Department of Investigation found that the driver had been involved in a hit-and-run incident while driving Myerson’s city car, that he’d driven Myerson for two and a half years with a suspended license, and that he had improperly been permitted to carry and dis­play Myerson’s city shield when she was not in the car. Myerson had refused to act on a detailed DOI report sent her in February 1985, and DOI had at first en­listed Mulhearn to try to force Myerson to fire the driver. When nothing happened, DOI Commissioner Pat McGinley brought the subject up at a meeting with the mayor, Mulhearn and Deputy Mayor Stan Brezenoff. The mayor reportedly told Brezenoff and Mulhearn: “Take care of it.”

Of course, as the Tyler report fully demonstrated, the driver had intimate knowledge of Myerson’s activities in the Gabel case as well as information about her violations of city law regarding both the gifts and the illegal use of his own services by Myerson. Myerson, who had directed the driver to falsify his mileage reports to the city, was protecting her own accomplice. Despite Mulhearn’s in­volvement, the driver was never fired, but resigned and was placed in a job deliver­ing payrolls for the City University of New York.

By the time the issues of the gifts and the driver were brought to Koch’s atten­tion in 1985, the mayor was wading in Myerson warnings. But he did not ask the city’s Department of Investigations, which was clearly already involved with a serious Myerson matter, to examine the gift issue, nor did be refer it to the Board of Ethics, though on its face the legal question merited more than informal as­surance from in-house counsel that ev­erything was okay.

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After the Manes suicide and the explosion of the city scandal in early 1986, the Daily News published seven investigative articles on Myerson, from May 1 to May 15. Rickman was featured in many of these stories. We know Koch read them closely because on May 2, at a City Hall news conference, he accused the News of “Mc­Carthyism.” (Koch must have meant Mary McCarthy for her brilliant renderings of the decadence of the rich.) It is certainly reasonable to assume that Rick­man, whose photo accompanied the first piece, discussed the articles with Koch.

These stories — written by Marcia Kramer, Marilyn Thompson, and Barbara Ross — revealed that U.S. Attorney Ru­dolph Giuliani was investigating Capasso and “reviewing records of Capasso’s re­cent bitter divorce.” Myerson was quoted as saying, at this late date, that she and Capasso are “friends, that’s all.” These articles demonstrated that the heart of Myerson’s defense for the hiring of Sukh­reet Gabel, contained in the 1983 letter, was fiction. Judge Gabel had, according to the News, “sharply trimmed the ali­mony payments of a businessman linked romantically to Myerson one month after Myerson hired the judge’s daughter.”

At his Friday press conference, Koch could not say why he hadn’t asked Myer­son to explain the discrepancy between the News stories and her assertions in the 1983 letter. He recalled calling her and said she simply referred him back to the 1983 exchange of letters. That was enough for the mayor to reject what was by now a mountain of evidence. He did nothing. (Giuliani told the Voice this week that the investigations of Myerson and Capasso began in his office and were not a referral from DOI. Although DOI was never asked by Koch to investigate Myerson, this week DOI called in for questioning several employees of the Ap­pellate Division, First Department, to try to find out who leaked the Tyler report to us.)

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Even when Myerson’s decision to take the Fifth Amendment in a federal grand jury appearance was revealed early this year, Koch’s respons was muted. He still proclaimed at a press conference that he had “faith in her integrity” and refused to fire her, although she had hidden this appearance from him. Instead, she agreed to a 90-day suspension while Tyler did his investigation.

Tyler urged Koch not to release the full report to protect witnesses from retalia­tion and safeguard Giuliani’s ongoing probe. But Tyler did not object to revealing the report’s basic conclusions. The mayor’s decision to summarize the report in five simple sentences — one of which was exculpatory — was one more cover-up gesture. As a Times editorial noted last week, “Surely more of Mr. Tyler’s story about Ms. Myerson’s sordid manipula­tion of the judge and her daughter could have been safely revealed.” To keep the report sealed, the mayor’s attorneys had railed on in court that the lives of witnesses would be in jeopardy if it were released. But Giuliani said that after the Voice broke the story last week, “no witnesses needed protection.” Everyone “is fine,” said Giuliani, “there are no problems.”

Why has Koch gone to such great lengths to protect Myerson?

He has attributed it all to friendship. In fact, no public of­ficial is less loyal to his friends than Ed Koch. In his best-selling memoir, Mayor, he wrote about how he reduced his longtime aide and then deputy mayor Ronay Menschel to tears. He has written critically about his loyal special assistant John LoCicero. In fact, inti­mates of Koch say that he has not been personally close to Myerson for years, rarely seeing her socially. It is indeed an irony that though she is widely and accurately credited with having played a piv­otal role in making him mayor, he never mentioned her in Mayor.

The fact is that Koch has protected Myerson because he has long recognized that there is no way that a damaged Myerson wouldn’t also damage him. And perhaps turn on him. The two went to such lengths to manufacture a fictional relationship that Koch is now a captive of it. In the end, the cover-up that has insulated Bess so long was designed to protect the mayor, who was joined to her in the public mind by creative advertising. As that cover-up unravels, so does he. ❖

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There is a great irony in the fact that Ed Koch’s gravest crisis comes from his perceived inti­macy with Bess Myerson. The irony goes back to the Immac­ulate Deception of the 1977 campaign for mayor.

During that campaign, Koch and Myerson kissed in Co-op City, hugged in Forest Hills, held hands in a syna­gogue on Rosh Hoshanna, and looked into each other’s eyes in Pelham Park­way. The Koch campaign wanted to convey the idea of a romance to refute the whispering campaign that Koch was gay.

The romance was the invention of the brilliantly cynical David Garth, who was Koch’s chief strategist and media adviser. Once, early in the campaign, Garth told Jack Newfield he had to cancel a meeting with him because he was hav­ing lunch with “the Smith Brothers.”

Newfield asked who were the Smith Brothers.

“Oh, that’s my nickname for Ed and Bess,” Garth replied.

“I don’t get it,” said Newfield.

“Two beards, shmuck,” Garth said. and laughed.

There never was any romance be­tween Koch and Myerson, although they were good friends. It was Myerson who arranged for Koch to meet Garth, and it was Myerson who pressured Garth to mastermind the campaign, in which Koch started with 2 per cent city­-wide recognition.

Gossip columnists began to print items saying that Koch and Myerson might get married after the election, a notion that surely helped Koch with working-class Jewish voters, who might otherwise have voted for Abe Beame or Bella Abzug without considering Koch.

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Late in the campaign, when political reporters started to ask Koch and Myerson about a real romance, they would give coyly clever answers, like, “Anything is possible,” “We may have an announcement after the election,” or, “For now, we’re just good friends.”

In appearances with Myerson, Koch would say to audiences, “Wouldn’t she make a great first lady in Gracie Man­sion?” On television, Koch was asked if be planned to marry Myerson, and he said, “It’s always a possibility, but I don’t want to talk about it. She’s an incredible person, a warm human be­ing that I truly adore.”

Myerson acted like a surrogate wife in the 1977 campaign. She stood next to Koch on the basic campaign post­er — the only time in anyone’s memory that a nonfamily member was used in such a fashion. She made television commercials for Koch, asking, “Have you no character, Mr. Cuomo?”

It was all a charade — a consumer fraud perpetrated by the former con­sumer commissioner. Koch and Myer­son agreed to use each other to create an illusion. Koch needed to win an election and Myerson wanted a politi­cal career. Three years later, Myerson would run for the Senate with the sup­port of Koch and Garth.

But for the past six or seven years, Koch and Myerson have not been really close friends, in the way that Koch is close to Dan Wolf, David Margolis, Leonard Sandler, or Herb Rickman.

As the Myerson scandal unravels, Koch will be paying a price for his fantasy politics of 1977, which the vot­ers believed and now remember.

— W.B., J.N. & T.R.

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The head of the city’s Human Rights Commission says Bess Myerson demanded that Sukh­reet Gabel be fired from her second city job, a top post at the Commission, which she obtained on the recommenda­tion of her mother, state supreme court judge Hortense Gabel.

At a meeting in Myerson’s Depart­ment of Cultural Affairs office on Au­gust 7, 1984, Myerson urged human rights chairwoman Marcella Maxwell to discharge Gabel without giving any rea­son. “Bess told me I had to fire Sukh­reet,” Maxwell told the Voice. “She didn’t say why, just that I had to. I was so shocked I almost fell off my chair.”

Maxwell had in fact already decided to dismiss Gabel because “she was un­able to relate to people at the agency.” But before telling Sukhreet, she took Judge Gabel — a 20-year friend — to lunch and told her that her daughter would be sacked. “She told me, ‘You can’t do that, she’ll kill herself,’ ” says Maxwell, who agreed to Judge Gabel’s request to let Sukhreet resign.

Myerson’s demand to Maxwell two days later seems puzzling. It may have been one more lurching turn on the roller coaster of affection and rejection to which Myerson subjected Sukhreet. But it came in the midst of increasingly aggressive legal strategies by Capasso’s wife, Nancy, in their divorce case, being handled by Judge Gabel. On July 25, while being deposed by his wife’s formi­dable new attorney, Herman Turnow, Capasso balked at answering questions about his business relationships with city officials — including Myerson.

Less than a week later, on July 31, Nancy Capasso secretly recorded a dra­matic conversation with her husband in which he said she knew enough about his business dealings to put him in jail “for 400-500 years.” Capasso proposed a cash settlement of the case for $1 mil­lion to $2 million; Nancy Capasso coun­tered with $7 million to $8 million. Ca­passo clearly felt a rising desperation as Nancy and her lawyers began closing in on his business dealings, his relation­ship with Myerson — and perhaps Myer­son’s favors for Judge Gabel.

Maxwell’s hiring of Sukhreet came af­ter Judge Gabel, along with many oth­ers, had written the mayor, recommend­ing Maxwell for the Human Rights position. “Hortense told me I’d need someone I knew and trusted,” Maxwell told the Voice. Even though Maxwell barely knew Sukhreet, she took Gabel’s suggestion that she hire her daughter. Ironically, Maxwell had wanted Sukh­reet to serve as an executive assistant, at a lower salary. But no such job exist­ed, and Sukhreet was instead offered the agency’s third-highest job, a $40,000-a-year deputy commissioner­ship — more than double her DCA salary of $19,000.

Myerson displayed her protective side when Maxwell asked her to approve Sukhreet’s release from DCA. Although Myerson had demoted Sukhreet and denigrated her work, Maxwell said when she called Myerson from Judge Gabel’s apartment in June 1984, “Bess was very reluctant to let her leave.”

Myerson may have had good reason to want to keep Sukhreet close by and at the mercy of her fickle attentions. Although Judge Gabel had already sharply reduced Capasso’s child support and alimony payments in September 1983 (following Myerson’s hiring of Sukhreet at DCA), several important motions were pending, and the case was still a ticking time bomb for Capasso.

But Sukhreet’e new job also quickly began to unravel. The only task Gabel seems to have been given on her own was arranging a huge swearing-in bash for Maxwell at City Hall on July 11. Gabel told the Voice she had no further dealings with Maxwell after that. “I sat isolated and alone in my office.” Once Sukhreet began to get the same treat­ment at Human Rights that she had gotten at DCA, Myerson’s attentions re­sumed. “I hadn’t seen Bees for a long time,” said Sukhreet. “I was rather de­pressed. When Marcella started treating me horribly, I showed my work to Bess and she praised it.” When, in early Au­gust, Maxwell told Sukhreet she would be fired, Sukhreet called Myerson, and got a very different reaction than Max­well later received. “Bess was support­ive,” said Sukhreet, “she made nice clucking noises.” Gabel was at a loss to account for Myerson’s demand that she be fired. “Bess is crazy,” she said, “but Marcella is mean and vicious.”

— W.B., J.N. & T.R.


Espada & Son Will Plead Guilty To Embezzlement Charges Today

Sometimes, you have to just give in (to charges of embezzlement).

When State Senator Pedro Espada was charged by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in May 2010 with stealing $400,000 from a Bronx clinic that he helped set up, the Democratic powerhouse, like any politician, fought passionately for his reputation of innocence. His attorneys called the charges ‘rotten to the core‘ and the Senator argued that he was being accused out of political strategy.
This all came to fruition yesterday, when the Daily News reported that the ‘disgraced’ ex-State-Senator and his same-name son, Pedro Espada, would plead guilty today in Brooklyn Federal Court. However, by examining the decline of the Senator’s argument and counsel in the lead-up to this decision, it was evident that it was only a matter of time.
The first hit was kind of the second hit. After the accusation of fraud in May 2010, Espada rode off the argument that he was just a ‘non-profit executive who delivered good services for the money,’ as former Voice scribe Tom Robbins wrote. His Bronx clinic, whether it was committing an illegal act or not, was simply a private business and nothing more.
But then came another punch to the stomach: the Cuomo administration dropped a second lawsuit on Espada, accusing the already-in-trouble State Senator of running a phony job training program, in which he would induct maintenance workers ‘to train’ for another job in the future when really the only work they were assigned to do was to clean the toilets in the health clinic. Now, Espada had two legal illnesses to recover from – he will be dealing with the latter one in Manhattan Federal Court next month.
Then came the abandonment. After Attorney Daniel Hochneiser examined the two cases in front of him, he hesitated and submitted an order to get the hell out of Dodge at the end of last month. But to no avail: the judge ordered that the attorney must power through this client because, after the legal fees, Espada was broke. The Voice reached out to Mr. Hochneiser to ask why his client suddenly gave up in the face of the year-long accusations but never heard back. Regardless, It doesn’t look too great to a jury when even your lawyer is saying, in better ways than none, “Get me the hell out of here.”
Now, it looks as if Espada has come to the end of the line. As of now, he faces ten years of jail – that might change because of the guilty plea – and it’s still unclear what his son’s involvement will land him. Also, he has to keep in mind one thing: he’s gotta be back in a month for his tax evasion hearings.
The law (and sweet justice) can really hurt sometimes. Especially for, to quote Mr. Robbins again, “Albany’s greatest scoundrel.”

The Greatest Sex Scene Ever Written: Failure And Success In The Age Of Unlimited Porno

Consider this literary sex scene: “A spaceship crashes with two midgets that get split up. The blonde one walks around until she finds a farm where she rests and masturbates.”

In reality, that quote is literary only in that somebody went to the trouble of writing it down–it’s actually an excerpt from the liner notes for “Two Midget Aliens” (really NSFW, that link), a 15-minute porno about, you know, two midget aliens having sex and stuff. It is, however, illustrative of an important literary point, which is that John Heilpern is dead wrong about sex. At least in a literary sense.

In the September issue of Vanity Fair, Heilpern — who’s also a drama critic for the New York Observer — interviews esteemed postmodern novelist (and current Brooklyn-dweller) Martin Amis for his “Out to Lunch” column, in which he takes people out to lunch and has conversations with them; Heilpern’s end of the conversation tends to be kind of charmingly random. In this particular one, he and Amis are talking about movies when Heilpern says, “And yet no novelist, including you, has ever written a successful sex scene.”

Heilpern makes this assertion so matter-of-factly, it’s tempting to take it at face value. After all, we all know what he’s talking about. For the most part, sex scenes in literature are pretty terrible, and we just want them to be over with so we can get back to the parts about… whatever it is that’s not the sex scene. Stephen King, for example, is well known for his egregious depictions of coitus. From his most recent novel:

“Ohmygodyes,” she said and I laughed. She opened her eyes and looked up at me with curiosity and hopefulness. “Is it over, or is there more?”

“A little more,” I said. “I don’t know how much. I haven’t been with a woman in a long time.”

It turned out there was quite a bit more. … At the end she began to gasp. “Oh dear, oh my dear, oh my dear dear God, oh sugar!”

The tricky thing about sex–and the reason it’s so hard to write about–is that sex is like an on-off switch: It’s either arousing or it’s disgusting. There’s basically no middle ground. So when it’s written in a way that’s neither arousing nor disgusting (a la King above), it just rings false and silly.

Keeping that in mind, it’s possible that “successful” could mean either arousing or disgusting. But where sex is concerned, it’s hard to anticipate either reaction; what’s arousing to one man is deeply shameful to the next, and possibly both for the same guy–one need only consider the vast array of porno available on this very internet (Two Alien Midgets, anyone?) for proof of just how bizarrely disparate are the things that turn us on and off.

Porno aside, for an example of this phenomenon at work in literature, look no further than anything by Tom Robbins, who writes about vaginas with enough horny recision to give even the most porn-jaded 19-year old at least a half-chub–until you picture Tom Robbins himself furiously masturbating at the Remington SL3 and it becomes disgusting. Successful? Perhaps, if only for the fact of its duality.

Either way, there’s some truth to Amis’ response to Heilpern, which was to say, “Well, I think it’s a watertight statement that you can’t write about successful, fulfilling sex. But you can write about the fiasco.”

Fair enough, Amis, but I want to say it goes deeper than that. The thing about successful, fulfilling sex, you see, is that it’s only successful and fulfilling to the people having it. Watching successful, fulfilling sex, on the other hand, is disgusting at best, boring at worst–at least in literature, where no matter how deep we get into the head of a character, we’re just cheap thought-voyeurs. And for the creeper-peeper, it doesn’t get worse than boring.

But let’s put all this quibbling aside and generously assume that what “successful” means is just plain “genius-level fucking brilliant,” in the most objective sense possible. Even then, the truly baffling thing about Heilpern’s assertion is that he and Amis are talking literally not five sentences earlier about the writer of some of the most evocative, compelling and all-around brilliant sex scenes of all time. That writer, of course, is Nabokov.

“Oh, it’s nothing at all,” she cried with a sudden shrill note in her voice, and she wiggled, and squirmed, and threw her head back, and her teeth rested on her glistening underlip as she half-turned away, and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.

The disturbing fact that this scene happens to take place between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old girl just makes the scene more… well, it’s hard to say “exciting” without seeming pedophile-ish, but I dare you to read this scene in its context without quickening your breath. With the power of literature alone, Nabokov forces you to feel the excitement of the conquest of a pedophile. If that’s not some kind of success, I don’t know what is.

But whatever. We obviously can’t all be Nabokov. What I’m saying is, maybe a literary sex scene is successful if someone likes it–just like in porno. Because as long as the vast legions of turgid, glistening members continue to pump their copious harlequin jism onto the palpitating laps of housewives in used book stores everywhere, there will always be a chance for a Lady Chatterley’s Lover to capitalize on the promise of its dirty parts. Plus, 50 Shades of Grey just made ninety bajillion dollars while you were reading this.

How’s that for successful?

Jef Otte is a writer and essayist living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In his spare time, he contemplates writing sexy Twilight fan fiction to pay the bills.



A Month of Albany Scandals is New York’s March Badness

New York is hosting its own March Madness this month. Our local sport of nonstop political scandal features veteran politicians once thought to know better.

The games began on March 7, when former Queens assemblyman Brian McLaughlin stood up in federal court to plead guilty to stealing more than $2 million. Five days later, Governor Eliot Spitzer abruptly quit after giving new meaning to political prostitution. His successor, David Paterson, said he may have used campaign funds to bed down women who were not his wife.

The political perp walk continues this week with the ongoing bribery trial in Brooklyn of Assemblywoman Diane Gordon. Unlike her wayward peers who acknowledged their misdeeds, Gordon, a feisty pol from Brownsville, admits no wrongdoing and has refused to go quietly.

Gordon, 57, stands charged with bribe-receiving and official misconduct, enough to land her 15 years in prison if convicted. So far, things don’t look good. For the past two weeks, jurors in the courtroom of Supreme Court Justice Robert McGann have spent their days watching videos of Gordon at work.

Actually, there wasn’t much to look at on the herky-jerky videos secretly recorded by a developer pretending to hanker after a large piece of city-owned land in Gordon’s district. The developer carried the tiny camera and audio device on his person, and the lens often tilted skyward, away from his subjects. As a result, jurors stared for long stretches only at the sad water stains on the ceiling tiles in Gordon’s district office on Vermont Street.

But there was plenty to hear. Developer Raj Batheja agreed to be part of the sting operation after the city’s Department of Investigation snared him in his own bribery attempt. Batheja had mistakenly assumed that a city tax-abatement official was just another bureaucrat happy to sell his office for a few dollars. The bureaucrat turned out to be an investigator, and Batheja was soon pledging to find other likely culprits in exchange for lesser charges. He quickly found his target in Gordon, a fast-talking four-term legislator who represents one of the city’s poorest districts and who was easily re-elected after her 2006 indictment.

For more than a year, Batheja tantalized Gordon with descriptions and sketches of the dream house he promised to build her in exchange for her help in obtaining the city parcel.

There would be five bedrooms, two walk-in closets, a kitchen of maple cabinets and granite counters, a fireplace in the living room, and a patio out back. Oak banisters would climb to the second floor, where a Jacuzzi would grace the bathroom off the master bedroom.

Gordon devoured every detail. “Now, the other thing is,” she tells the builder, “do you have another linen closet that’s for the sheets and whatever?”

“Sure,” he responds, like a parent playing house with a small child. “There are two of them.”

Fantasy quickly trumps reason. “Raj,” Gordon cries as he shows her the blueprints, “you’re making me so excited. Oh my Lord.”

On her end of the bargain, Gordon met with city housing officials and introduced Batheja to the local councilman, Charles Barron. A dubious-sounding Barron questioned the builder and an undercover city investigator posing as Batheja’s African-American partner. “Is there someone behind both of you?” he asks.

Gordon is also heard trying to leverage Mayor Bloomberg’s re-election drive to her advantage: “I’m figuring if Mike Bloomberg was to say, well, look, the assemblywoman, she ain’t supporting me, ain’t no reason for us to give her that property,” she says in December 2004.

Later, she claims to have explained things to the mayor’s people: “It’s on the table that my developer have to be the one that gets the piece,” she whispers.

But she was haunted by the prospect of being found out and prosecuted like Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the Brooklyn Democratic boss convicted in 2005 of his own abuses.

To avoid that fate, Gordon’s plan was to have the house placed in her mother’s name. To help structure such a deal she turned to Mitchell Alter, an attorney with expertise in Brooklyn’s two growth industries, politics and real estate. She brought the lawyer, the developer, and her mother to a basement office in her church in June 2005 to hash things out. The resulting video should be mandatory viewing for politicians veering toward the dark side.

“Is your mother buying a house from Raj, is that what it is?” asks Alter. “Yes,” says Gordon. “What’s the price of the house?” the lawyer inquires. Batheja mumbles, but Gordon speaks right up: “Well, okay, this is the other part of it. He wants the house to be something like a gift to me,” she says.

Whoa!” says Alter, coming out of his chair.

Gordon hastened to reassure him that she’s told Batheja it can’t be an outright gift, but alarm bells are now going off.

“Look, you got to watch your back,” says the lawyer. “You can’t just give a house away . . . If it ever gets investigated, we’re all going to have a problem.”

“Right, right,” says Gordon.

“It’s got to be done in a way that, you know, so it passes some sort of muster,” says Alter. He invoked the name of an ex–city councilman who sought a similar gift from a developer. “[He’s] now doing time in jail behind this shit,” says Alter. The price, he adds, “has to bear some resemblance to reality.”

Asked how much the house would be worth, Batheja says: “About half a million dollars.” Gordon quickly interjects that the price can’t “go over two hundred thousand.”

“Hey, Diane,” a frustrated-sounding Alter says, “I’m not telling you what to do. I’m just telling you how to do it so you don’t get your butt whacked.”

A price of $300,000, however, might give enough “wiggle room,” in Alter’s phrase. The lawyer also suggested that Batheja provide a personal money mortgage to finance the sale.

This may have sounded perilously close to legal, for the developer quickly reminded everyone of the basic agreement. “Okay,” Batheja says, “but that doesn’t mean she has to pay for it, right?”

“Look, excuse me,” shoots back Alter. “However you guys want to, it’s got to show money.”

For the lawyer, the warning bells kept ringing. “What do you need a D.A., a grand jury subpoena for?” says Alter, who then starts talking to the walls: “I want you, anybody who hears this [to know] we love you. If that thing is wired,” he says, gesturing across the table, “I want everybody to know, I love this man . . . I’m not asking for any favors or any money. We love him.”

That should have been the end of things, but the dream house lured Gordon on. Even after listening to her lawyer’s sermon in her church, she still let Batheja put $7,000 for a down payment in an account in her mother’s name. She later sent the money sent back, but it was too late. Confronted by law enforcement in February 2006, Gordon tried for a while to work her way out of trouble by wearing her own wire for the district attorney. Sources say she wore the device to her own campaign fundraiser, where she gabbed with judges and political leaders. But her heart apparently wasn’t in it, and she was indicted in July 2006.

Gordon’s attorney, Bernard Udell, said last week that his defense is simple: “She was the victim of entrapment,” he said. “She was just trying to get the land for the community and she needed someone with expertise to develop it.”


Hoffa & Obama: The Labor-Latte Alliance

If you wanted to conjure up an unlikely photo op—something along the lines of George W. Bush in a loving arms-around with Dennis Kucinich—you might try putting skinny Barack Obama in a happy embrace with burly Teamsters union leader Jim Hoffa Jr.

These are not exactly birds of a feather. But there they were last week, grinning and gripping in San Antonio, as Hoffa vowed to put DRIVE—the union’s powerful political-action committee—in gear for Obama in the upcoming campaigns.

It’s an odd-bedfellows alliance that represents a major shift for the union, as well as one more indication that Obama-mania can jump all divides.

Just a few months ago, the surest way to find a passionate Obama supporter was to head for the nearest WiFi-enabled coffeehouse. If there was a Teamster around at all, he was probably out back delivering a truckload of latte cups. Hoffa’s 1.4 million members wear the bluest of America’s collars. They’re freight drivers, warehouse workers, trash haulers, even cops. If they went looking for a Democrat in the early primaries, they were more likely to go for John Edwards, who at least tried to speak their language.

And when it comes to Teamsters, the Democrat part is hardly a given. This is the union that backed Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. A short-lived liberal era under ousted reformer Ron Carey ended abruptly with Hoffa’s election in 1998. The new union chief made a big point of saying that the Teamsters would no longer be an “ATM for the Democratic Party.”

Hoffa gave a late and half-hearted endorsement to Al Gore in 2000. But by Labor Day 2001, Bush and Hoffa were chummy enough for the president to chow down some ribs at a big Teamsters Labor Day barbecue in Michigan. There, Bush praised the union leader, who was helping lobby Congress for a pet GOP project to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But that was then. Bush’s refusal to heed the union’s complaints about allowing low-paid Mexican truckers to haul NAFTA-spawned goods across the border soured relations badly.

Hoffa went looking for a winner in 2004 with his friend, ex-Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt (whose old man was a Teamster milkman), then signed on with John Kerry after Gephardt faltered. But again, there was no full-court press by the union.

This time, with an endorsement right on the eve of crucial primaries in blue-collar-heavy states, the Teamsters finally seem to have settled on someone they actually like. And wouldn’t you know it, the union that’s long served as a national stereotype for beer-drinking Archie Bunker types has picked a jug-eared black lawyer from Harvard who looks like he couldn’t find the air brake in an 18-wheeler.

And if that kind of irony gets you giddy, consider that Obama’s most constant comparison these days is to the Kennedy brothers: That would be Robert F., who once tried to take a swing at Hoffa’s dad outside a Senate hearing room and later helped send him to prison, and John F., whose assassination, according to claims by Hoffa Sr.’s own late lawyer, was co-engineered by the late Teamsters big.

Not that anyone believes that stuff.

Whatever the unlikelihood of this labor-latte alliance, Obama’s 10 straight wins and his rock-star rallies have made Hoffa a believer. “He is the candidate in the best position to lead our movement to restore the American dream to working people in this country,” said Hoffa last week.

An unspoken factor in the endorsement may also have been some lingering suspicion among Hoffa and his aides from the days when the Clintons were closely aligned with Carey, Hoffa’s hated predecessor, who was forced out in a campaign-funding scandal. There was also pressure to make a clean sweep of the big unions that, along with the Teamsters, broke away from the AFL-CIO three years ago to form the rival group Change to Win. SEIU, the service employees’ union, has already gone for Obama, as has UNITE-HERE, the clothing and hotel workers’ union, along with the United Food and Commercial Workers.

But Hoffa insisted that the endorsement followed the results of internal union polling that showed Obama was well-liked by his members. The union declined to give specifics, but several people familiar with them said the surveys found that local officers went heavily for Obama and the membership gave him more than 60 percent approval ratings. Both McCain and Clinton registered substantially lower.

Still, the decision wasn’t easy. “I gotta tell you, there was a fierce debate on the executive board,” said Dan Kane Jr., who heads a Bronx trucking local. “It wasn’t anti-Hillary—she’s our senator, and we’ve supported her before and will again. It was just who we thought could win.” Kane, a second-generation Teamster whose father is a close Hoffa aide, said he wrestled with his own vote in last month’s primary, ultimately opting for Obama. “I am thinking the only times the Democrats have won has been when someone energetic ran. I think we need some excitement now. If the young people show up for this one, I think we have a good chance.”

Gregory Floyd is the new leader of Local 237 in Manhattan. His is the largest Teamster local in the country, with 24,000 members, many of them city employees, and another 8,000 active retirees. As with most New York labor unions, Hillary Clinton looms large in his world, but he said that his local was still going with Obama. “We know that we need to defeat the Republicans and turn the country around,” said Floyd last week. “The endorsement of Barack Obama is a good one. We are going to be a political powerhouse in this fight.”

The endorsement has also bridged the Teamsters’ long-standing divide between those who once backed Carey and the Hoffa forces. Sandy Pope, leader of a Queens-based local that represents warehouse workers, ran two years ago on an anti-Hoffa slate. But last week, she praised his endorsement in the presidential primary. “I think it’s great,” she said. Pope noted that Obama had proved himself with wins in states like Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota where the Teamsters have many members. “My argument to Teamsters is that when you see the states Obama took in the Midwest, it makes a stronger argument for winning our members in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania.”

The union is no small presence in those battleground states. It has some 60,000 members in Ohio, which votes on March 4. Assuming that the race is still on by April 22, when Pennsylvania votes, the union has 80,000 members there, along with a long tradition of playing a big role in local and statewide races.

Despite the union’s endorsement, Clinton still retains the loyalty of New York’s most powerful Teamster, Gary LaBarbera, who heads both the council overseeing local Teamsters affairs as well as the million-member New York City Labor Council. “He’s sticking with Hillary Clinton, who he thinks is a great leader,” said Carolyn Daly, a council spokeswoman.

Members of LaBarbera’s Local 282 haul construction material and debris, and last month, the union’s name surfaced in the big Gambino crime-family case in Brooklyn. Some of the schemes charged in the indictment stem from trucking employers who allegedly used mob muscle to scam the union out of benefits owed on behalf of employees.

But unlike the bad old days when John Gotti’s gang ruled the roost at the local, LaBarbera helped squelch the scammers. He did so by retaining an independent, court-supervised investigator who helped break the case. The investigator, Robert Machado, was first to spot the schemes, tipping off federal investigators at the Office of Labor Racketeering. “I got nothing but cooperation from LaBarbera,” said Machado.

Like this year’s presidential race, it’s another one of those things that would baffle Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa Sr. if they were around to watch.


Blood Brothers

Murder was just a cost of doing business in the Bensonhurst household of late mobster Greg Scarpa Sr. And as Linda Schiro, the winsome brunette with the button nose who shared the mobster’s home for 30 years, matter-of-factly explained on the witness stand last month, Scarpa’s many homicides were just that—simply business.

Except one.

Asked about the murder of her late son Joey’s 18-year-old best friend, Patrick Porco, Schiro’s voice grew faint and she plucked anxiously at a gold locket she wore around her neck. Inside was a photo of her son, who was himself killed in 1995.

“Patrick Porco is my son’s friend—was my son’s friend,” Schiro said, correcting herself. “They were like brothers.” She recounted in trembling tones how on May 27, 1990—Memorial Day weekend—FBI agent Lindley DeVecchio had called Scarpa, his secret and much-prized FBI informant. DeVecchio, she testified, had an urgent warning—that Patrick Porco was talking to the police about another murder he and Joey had committed.

She told how Scarpa had furiously ordered his son to accompany his cousin, John Sinagra, to find and kill his friend. And she told how Joey had returned home from his murderous mission and fled upstairs, where he collapsed in wails. “He was in a fetal position in the hallway,” she testified. “He kept saying, ‘I loved Patrick.’ And I say, ‘I know, Joey. I loved Patrick. We all loved Patrick.’ ”

Of all the stories Linda Schiro told over the years—to the writers with whom she met, as well as to the rapt courtroom she appeared before last month—her account of the slaying of Patrick Porco has been the most consistent and compelling, hence the most believable.

When the Voice reported two weeks ago that Schiro had told dramatically different versions in 1997 about three of the four murders she alleged DeVecchio had helped her mobster boyfriend commit, charges were abruptly dropped.

But Schiro’s account on the witness stand of the murder of Patrick Porco was essentially consistent with the way she told it to me and reporter Jerry Capeci 10 years ago. Which left an important question dangling in the air: Was the district attorney’s star witness telling the truth, at least about this one crime that was so painful to her?

“Patrick Porco was like my son,” she testified. Which could be a very good reason to believe her. Or not.

The prosecution’s theory of the Porco slaying was that DeVecchio had used his law-enforcement connections to find out that Porco was being leaned on by detectives seeking to catch the killers in another murder, that of Dominick Masseria, a 17-year-old who was gunned down on 15th Avenue in Bensonhurst on Halloween night, 1989.

“Linda will tell you she was there in 1990 when DeVecchio alerted Scarpa that Porco was weak, and had to be killed,” is the way assistant District Attorney Joseph Alexis put it in his opening statement to the court.

But even before Schiro took the stand to tell that story, another witness for the prosecution had already testified otherwise. Reyes Aviles, a convicted drug dealer who had been buddies with Joey Schiro and Patrick Porco, testified that Porco told him “two or three times” that he had informed Joey and his notorious father about his conversations with the cops.

“Patrick told me he had told Joey, and most likely told his father,” Aviles testified.

A police memo that never made it into evidence because of the trial’s abrupt conclusion told the same story.

In a handwritten note written on May 28, 1990—the day after Porco’s murder—NYPD detective William Powell stated that he and another officer had interviewed Porco’s sister Donna at her home in Bensonhurst.

“Donna Porko [sic] stated that after her brother Pat left the 62 Pct. on 1/24/90 he told Scarpa that he had been in the 62 Pct. & had spoken to the detectives, but that he didn’t say anything,” Powell wrote.

The January 24 date is most certainly a typo. In a hearing last summer concerning the murder indictment of Joey Schiro’s cousin, John Sinagra (that case was later dismissed as well), veteran Detective Al Lombardo testified that he had a separate meeting with Porco at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. Lombardo wasn’t sure of the date, but he said he was certain it was after April of 1990.

Lombardo testified that Porco told him he was “from the neighborhood” and didn’t want to talk about the Masseria killing.

“And what did you tell him?” asked Sinagra’s attorney.

“I said they’re going to kill you,” Lombardo responded.

Detective Powell’s memo, along with Reyes Aviles’s testimony, suggest that if, as Schiro claimed, DeVecchio reached out to Scarpa on May 27 to warn him about his son’s friend, it was already old news. Scarpa already knew about it from a better source than even his FBI handler: Porco himself.

There was another piece of Linda Schiro’s tearful version of the Porco killing that didn’t mesh with testimony from a prosecution witness. During the trial, the D.A. called Lori Porco Wagner, another of Patrick Porco’s sisters, to the stand. Linda Schiro had insisted—to Capeci and myself, as well as on the witness stand—that her son Joey was so inconsolable about having been forced to kill his best friend that he’d stayed in his room sobbing for days.

But Lori Wagner said that on the day of her brother’s death, she had learned about his murder in a phone call from her sister Donna. Wagner said she immediately went looking for answers from Patrick’s best friend, Joey Schiro.

She testified that she found him not crying in his room at home but at Romano’s Restaurant, an old-world neighborhood favorite on 13th Avenue and 71st Street. Wagner said Schiro was dining with three other members of the gang that he and her brother ran with.

“I walked in and he was sitting there having dinner,” Wagner testified. “And I just said to him, ‘You killed my brother. You’re sitting here having dinner and my brother is dead.’ ”

Joey Schiro didn’t say anything in response, she said.

There was one more piece of testimony about Joey Schiro’s behavior immediately after he’d killed his best friend that also doesn’t seem to square with his mother’s description. A friend of Joey Schiro’s named John Novoa, who was partners with Schiro in a cocaine and pot sales business, took the stand during the Sinagra hearings last summer.

Novoa, who was with Joey Schiro when he was killed five years later in a drug deal gone bad, testified that he’d encountered Schiro and Sinagra in a corner store in Bensonhurst immediately after Porco’s murder. Sinagra, claimed Novoa, who testified under a cooperation agreement with the government, was standing there playing a Joker-Poker video game, presumably one of the many illegal, mob-controlled devices that can still be found in Brooklyn shops. Joey Schiro was “pacing up and down the store, looking outside,” Novoa testified. “They were panicking all over the place, and Joe was just screaming that he wanted to get out of there.”

Novoa said that the pair told him about shooting Porco. “That they clipped Pat,” as Novoa put it. “They thought he was a rat.”

Much later, Novoa said he heard separate and competing accounts of the murder from the killers. He said Sinagra told him that Joey had been driving, while Sinagra sat in the front passenger seat, with Patrick in back. Sinagra told him he’d “spun around and shot Pat,” Novoa testified. “Pat was pleading for his life, and he shot him in the mouth.”

A couple years after that, Novoa testified, Joey Schiro insisted to him that he was the trigger man, not Sinagra. Novoa said their stories jibed on one ghoulish aspect: that they’d had a hard time throwing the body out the door onto a Sheepshead Bay street.

“[Porco’s] foot got stuck on the seat belt,” Novoa testifed. “And they were pulling and pulling and they couldn’t get him out.”


Steve Parrino at the Gagosian, Non-Declarative Art on Wooster Street

Here are Eros and Thanatos to beat the band—large, black-enameled canvases that have been painted while tautly stretched, then wrenched off and loosely stapled back on, creating shadowy valleys and gleaming ridges. These works combine the stiffness of erection with the frenzy of the “little death,” followed by the flaccid realization that you didn’t flame out at the height of ecstasy after all but are left to grub around for your next wild ride. In this scrumptious show of slashed, bent, and twisted canvases, you can feel Steven Parrino manhandling postwar art movements—Pollock’s gestural dance, Stella’s monochromes, Warhol’s fabulous fatalism—with a lover’s passion. Spin-Out Vortex (2000) is a six-foot-square canvas that has been yanked off its bars and then reattached with a four-foot-wide hole in the center; the black surface sags and gathers like an oil spill draining into the white void. If Parrino’s paintings are anonymous sex—dark, unknown thrills with the possibility of a nasty end—his drawings suggest tortured relationships: The outlines of four high-steppin’ gals converge into a Busby Berkeley–like swastika; thick drips of enamel on crinkled vellum sheets are juxtaposed with photos of vintage vixens in tightly cinched bondage gear. Let’s give the artist—who died at age 46 in a motorcycle crash on New Year’s morning, 2005—the last word: “Art of this kind is more cult than culture.”

‘Non-Declarative Art’

The work in this typically well-selected group show, while materially abject—interoffice envelopes, crossword puzzles clipped from newspapers—delivers smart abstractions and conceptual jousts. Jeff Feld hews small but densely textured vistas from interoffice mail, as if journeying to landscapes far off a Manhattan messenger’s usual route. Jered Sprecher paints gouache on yellowed newsprint; in one piece, a white globe obscures a crossword grid, the circle cropped flat on one side while bulging out of others, eclipsing the puzzle. Steven Lowery brings a logorrheic frenzy to his mixed-media works, cramming colorfully lettered words and phrases onto every centimeter of the surfaces. These are further enlivened by titles such as I’ve Got the Plan C and Step Out of the Space Provided, which features thousands of tiny words piled up in chromatic bands like a millennia’s worth of silt. The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster, 212-219-2166, through October 18.

Chelsea: Subway, Street, and Shatters

I once heard a sculpture teacher ask, “What is art?” A lively collegiate debate ensued, and those open to accepting the most ephemeral of gestures outnumbered the conservative cohort who wanted objects on pedestals or in frames. Then a pungent stink wafted through the studio—a student’s dog had shat behind a row of acetylene tanks—and the instructor chortled, “According to some of you, that dog just squeezed off a work of art.” For me, art, like crime, requires intent, and you can find both at the 24th Street exit on the downtown side of the 23rd Street C and E stop. Swing through the iron-maiden turnstile and marvel at the lovely decay and occasional graffiti-tagging of the poster remnants ranged along the dirty walls. Whatever they once advertised has long since been shredded or painted over, lending them a sense of organic wonder similar to that found in the erosion of a canyon that exposes beautiful sediment. It’s doubtful these anonymous taggers know of Mimmo Rotello and the ripped posters he hung in Rome’s galleries in the mid-20th century, but they’d surely appreciate his emphatic gesture. Lately, the black shards and blue swooshes of the antediluvian ads have been hit with vibrant pink splatters; populated with a changing cast of scrawled characters, this serendipitous public mural would maybe make the cut even with those purists from back in the day. What, though, would they think of an ongoing performance at the Eleventh Avenue end of 24th? Carpenters’ union pickets have been ensconced there, protesting a luxury condo that features individual garages accessible by an automobile elevator—units range from $2.5 million to $14 million per—being built by workers who receive no health coverage, vacation, or benefits of any kind to accompany their substandard wages. (See Tom Robbins’s “Low Wages in High Places” in the September 26 Voice.) At one point, a concrete pour gone awry caused beams to list dangerously toward the Hudson.
Patrick Hill, on the other hand, uses the same materials that characterize rapacious development for his beguilingly bracing sculptures at Bortolami, one block north. His mobile of concrete blocks and steel rods slowly drifts with the air currents, endangering panels of glass hanging from the same slightly arched supports. Other panes are balanced atop concrete pedestals with only delicately stained linen straps holding them upright. The fabric stretches and strains against the leaning weight, adding the possibility of catastrophe to their elegant poise. Indeed, one corner of the gallery is littered with shattered glass—the cloth in 2007’s Erect hangs limply down the side of its pedestal, having failed to support what looks from the exhibition checklist to have been a three-foot-tall pane. In art, unlike condos, it can be exciting when materials don’t behave the way you expect them to. Bortolami, 510 West 25th Street, 212-727-2050, through October 20.



I was warned against writing this column.

“You might think twice about doing that judges story,” were the exact, ominous words.

OK, the threat came from my editor, who added: “Nobody cares how judges get picked. Where is that S&M piece you promised?” I did not knuckle under. As you may know, this paper is currently owned and operated by out-of-towners and recent transplants, so I was able to convincingly argue that, aside from rent hikes and Alex Rodriguez, there is no subject New Yorkers get more passionate about than the selection of appellate judges. Please do not cross me up on this.

Here, then, is the unvarnished truth—which only the Voice will tell you—about how New York came to select a rookie judge with a powerful ally as the presiding justice for the busiest and most powerful appeals court in the state.

Already you’re thinking, “Appellate court? Presiding justice? Alex Rodriguez?” Bear with me. Part of the problem here is the purposely obscure nomenclature employed by lawyers, who are the only ones who really do care about judges. They care so much that they see the judges’ faces in their Grape-Nuts every morning. They address their cereal, practicing small, obsequious remarks like: “Heard Your Honor hit a par four last week. Nice.”

Many people erroneously assume that the state’s most important court is the Court of Appeals in Albany, which supposedly settles all the big cases. See? You’re already the victim of legal obscurantism. Albany? Are you kidding? The state’s most important court is right here where it belongs, in Manhattan, at the
corner of Madison Avenue and East 25th Street, where is found the magnificent marble headquarters of the Appellate Division, First Judicial Department.

The few non-lawyers who stumble across this structure are immediately struck dumb by the big Greek columns and the statues of half-naked men and women on the roof. This is a building for judges and lawyers only; jurors are not allowed, not only because no jury trials are held here, but because they would befoul the building with dark splotches of chewing gum and half-completed Sudoku puzzles. Oh, yes, there is a also a cadre of heavily armed court officers who are
charged with keeping jurors out and making sure there are parking spots for the 16 appellate judges who work here.

You are wondering: Why do they need to drive? What are they, firefighters? This is another sad example of reader ignorance. The former governor, George Pataki, a Republican from Putnam County (I can only tell you it is near the Taconic Parkway), recognized after taking office that New York City’s appellate courts were severely segregated. Local judges, overwhelmingly Democrats, held most positions. To remedy this outrage, Pataki commenced a bold integration scheme in which he bussed in judges from upstate to sit on the city’s appeals courts. Surprisingly, most of his choices were white Republicans like himself. Opponents of this measure complained (quietly, so as not to be seen as bigots) that the imports were generally of a lower IQ than the locals. Plus, they took up all the parking spots because, of course, they didn’t really take a bus to work.

This was the situation that greeted newly elected governor Eliot Spitzer (a
Democrat from Manhattan, though he also has a residence in Columbia County, apparently farther up the Taconic). It was day one and everything had to change, so he got right to work on the appellate courts, starting with the First Department in Manhattan, because it handles all the most important cases. Would you want some hick court in Elmira ruling on the likes of High Risk Opportunities Hub Fund Ltd. v. Credit Lyonnais? Of course not.

Spitzer’s first task was to appoint a new presiding justice, an opportunity that made the governor’s people ecstatic. This plum had fallen into their laps thanks to a display of stunning ingratitude by one of Pataki’s own picks. Everyone knew that Pataki had intended, on his way out of office, to name his pal and former counsel, Justice James McGuire, to this top job. McGuire had been especially helpful to Pataki when a federal grand jury in Brooklyn began asking why his administration had granted parole to felons whose parents gave a lot of money to his campaign. McGuire did well: Only a couple of Koreans and some low-level parole aides were convicted.

If he’d been appointed, McGuire would have held this post until 2018, making him Pataki’s proudest legacy. (OK, his only legacy.) Sadly, this plan fell apart when the then-presiding justice, one John Buckley, an import from Oneida County (no idea, look it up), refused to step down. Buckley was reluctant to do so because he would’ve had to go back to wherever Oneida County is. December 31, 2006, came and went. Buckley was still there. This gave Spitzer the right to choose the new presiding justice when Buckley turned 70, which he soon did.

(To quickly recap: The presiding justice runs a big building with Greek columns where many important legal cases are heard and where you, in all likelihood, will never enter.)

Because he wanted to do things properly, Spitzer appointed a special panel to advise him on whom to appoint. This is called “merit selection.” It is preferable to elections, because voters are notoriously ignorant (see Bush, George W., Election of). Choosing a new P.J. (common vernacular for “presiding justice”—please memorize) is especially important because he also gets to pick the watchdogs who penalize wayward attorneys. Since Manhattan’s hordes of attorneys all live in terror of being cited for wrongdoing, this causes the P.J. (see above) to be viewed as somewhere north of God. His jokes are the funniest ever heard, his wisdom unfathomable.

Unfortunately, Spitzer’s panel didn’t fully grasp the “merit” part. It selected five candidates as “highly qualified,” yet somehow neglected to include two of the First Department’s most distinguished members: Richard Andrias, a Vietnam vet with a Bronze Star who is considered such a stellar judicial performer that he has been nominated five times for the Court of Appeals, and David Saxe, another appellate Hall of Famer who is widely considered the best writer on the bench since the late William O. Douglas.

Cynics maintain that the absence of stars like Andrias and Saxe made it easier for the governor to select the judge he ultimately chose, Jonathan Lippman. An amiable insider, Lippman was for many years the court’s able administrator and served as a loyal deputy to the state’s top judicial officer, Chief Judge Judith Kaye of the Court of Appeals. As for actual judging, Lippman had a late start in the business: He never heard a case until 2004 and wasn’t elected to the bench until 2005.

While this may seem an unlikely résumé for someone selected to head the state’s busiest court, Lippman’s many fans insist he is otherwise superb. The fact that he and his boss, Judge Kaye, have failed to get a raise for the state’s judges for nine years should not be held against them, the fans say. And Judge Kaye’s reluctance to go along with demands from scores of irate judges who want to sue the governor’s ass to get that raise is also irrelevant.

Moreover, Lippman is so good that he is already being touted as a likely successor to Kaye when she has to step down late next year. Recommendations for that post will be made by another special gubernatorial panel.

That is how merit selection works. Who else are you going to trust to pick judges—editors?


He Shot the Sheriff

Entertaining as they may be, most of those over-the-top tirades exchanged this month between Eliot Spitzer and Joe Bruno can be dismissed as just that: schoolyard taunts launched more for effect than accuracy.

Say what you will about Bruno, those who deal with the state senate majority leader hardly find him “senile”—as the new governor hasn’t denied calling the 78-year-old Republican. And while there’s a nasty little nugget of truth when Bruno refers to the governor as a “rich spoiled brat” (the full private phrase, Bruno friends attest, is “spoiled
fucking brat”), no one believes that Eliot Spitzer got where he is today solely because of his dad’s fortune and some snotty Horace Mann-bred attitude. (See Stein, Andrew, and Lauder, Ron, for true specimens of the political limits of inherited wealth.)

But there has been at least one volley in the Spitzer-Bruno air war that has landed dead center in the political truth zone: the charge that whatever it was the governor’s people did with the state police to track Bruno’s helicopter travels, it hasn’t exactly burnished Spitzer’s reputation as a straight-shooting, nonpartisan guardian of ethical principles. And the next time Spitzer or his appointees decide to level allegations of ethical misconduct against anyone he’s not terribly fond of, they’re going to appear that much more suspect. For a young, ambitious governor who rode into office on a pledge to bring ethics back to an integrity-crippled state government, that could be a disabling injury.

You might be able to brush off those concerns as the unfortunate consequence of a zealous governor a little too eager to show who’s boss in the New Albany. But the Bruno affair comes at the same time that Team Spitzer has also apparently decided to dispense with the services of the one guy at the state capitol who’s earned a reputation for effectively nailing ethics transgressors. That would be David Grandeau, 48, the feisty director of the state’s lobbying commission, whose state employment is currently slated to come to an end on September 22 when his agency goes out of business, subsumed by Spitzer’s new (and wholly controlled) Commission on Public Integrity.

Since taking over the state’s Temporary Commission on Lobbying in 1995, Grandeau has managed to make enemies on both sides of the political aisle, infuriating many of the state’s most powerful lobbyists. Under his leadership, the lobbying commission levied $300,000 in fines against a powerful private correctional-services company that was closely aligned with Assembly Democrats. It hit Republican favorite Donald Trump and his Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts with a $250,000 fine for what Grandeau’s investigation found was a secretly funded anti-Catskills-casino push. It slammed the New York Yankees not once but twice, for a total of $225,000 in fines, for doling out tickets and perks to lawmakers and officials. It fined tobacco giant Philip Morris $75,000 for lobbying violations and slugged Madison Square Garden for $75,000 last year for its own transgressions.

In 2005, Grandeau called for a criminal investigation of former state attorney general Dennis Vacco after the commission investigated a consulting contract that promised Vacco’s lobbying firm a $5 million “success fee” if it landed a casino deal for an out-of-state Indian tribe.

In the interim, Grandeau also managed to enrage hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons by questioning his expenses in pushing for Rockefeller drug-law reforms, and the New York Civil Liberties Union for insisting that a billboard it put up in Albany should be considered a lobbying expense. He even slapped a fine on one of his most stalwart supporters, the good-government group Common Cause, when it was late filing its own lobbying reports one year.

If that doesn’t establish his independence bona fides, consider this: Grandeau, a Republican, originally got his job through the intercession of his former employer, one Joseph Bruno, for whom he formerly worked both as a legislative aide and as a counsel for Bruno’s private telecommunications company. That was then. These days, Bruno loyalists view the lobbying watchdog as the devil incarnate—an ungrateful wretch who is primarily responsible for the current FBI probe that is digging into possible improper ties between Bruno-steered state grants and private businesses.

Oh, and there was also a mutually acrimonious exchange between Grandeau and then-state attorney general Spitzer back in 2000, when Spitzer didn’t like the way Grandeau was handling a tobacco lobbying probe. Back then—shades of the Bruno tempest—Spitzer allegedly said he’d “pillory” Grandeau in the press if he didn’t fall into line.

Clearly, this is not your average Albany insider going along to get along as he works the corridors of power.

“He was the real sheriff of Albany,” says Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the New York State League of Women Voters. “He went after lobbyists big and small, and everyone knew he was going to do his job, whether you were a Democrat or a Republican.”

Grandeau, says Russ Haven, legislative counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group, “was the most effective public-integrity policeman on the beat in the 13 years I’ve been in Albany. Many would say he was the best ever. He brought the lobbying commission into the modern era.”

Grandeau’s gritty independent streak is going to be most sorely missed once the new public integrity commission opens its doors, Bartoletti says. The commission will have 13 members, with the governor appointing a seven-member majority. “Even though the governor’s choices so far are beyond reproach, in the current food fight we’re seeing here, I’m not sure anyone’s going to believe that anything they do against the other political party isn’t simply tit-for-tat,” she says. “They’re going to have to prove they’re being even-handed.”

So how come a smart guy like Spitzer didn’t decide to give himself a leg up in the ethics wars by enlisting someone considered too independent to be corralled? You won’t find out from the public comments of the governor’s advisers.

“David Grandeau has stood for ethics and integrity,” says Richard Emery, the civil liberties attorney and Spitzer adviser. “He was a lone voice in Albany for a long time.”

John Feerick, the former Fordham Law dean who headed a prominent 1980s panel on government ethics for Governor Mario Cuomo—and who has been tapped by Spitzer to serve as chairman of the new integrity commission—calls Grandeau “very important to the transition,” adding that his designee for the new executive director of the integrity commission, a veteran litigator named Herbert Teitelbaum, was already drawing on Grandeau’s knowledge.

Privately, Spitzer’s crew has a different spin. “David Grandeau was the greatest friend to journalists in the history of Albany,” says one gubernatorial pal. “He played a very dangerous game, but his constituency has always been the media, as opposed to even his own board. He used his leverage to get good stories out there to perpetuate his own interests.”

What? A public official using the media? No wonder Eliot Spitzer doesn’t want anything to do with him. The man who enjoyed the greatest press in a generation of attorneys general—thanks in no small part to the uncanny way the newspapers got the inside story of his own investigations—could never run the risk of having loose lips on his team.

And besides: There’s room for only one sheriff in town.


Mike vs. Rudy: The Smackdown

Regardless of whether he ever gets down to the bare essentials, Michael Bloomberg, presidential pretender, is performing a wonderfully tantalizing fan dance. His maverick-billionaire status makes it all the more pleasingly risqué. But despite the high entertainment value, most who know the mayor don’t actually expect him to run for commander in chief. Phrases like “only if the stars are in perfect alignment” pop up regularly when Bloomberg’s counselors are queried about his intentions. This is an unlikely astronomical occurrence, made more so should the Republicans somehow manage to make Rudy Giuliani their nominee. As starkly different as their backgrounds and management styles may be, the distinctions between two ethnic New Yorkers who served as back-to-back mayors of Gotham get blurry real fast when the audience being pitched is sitting in, say, Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

“What’s he going to run as: America’s other mayor?” sneers Team Rudy about its potential opponent.

Political operatives who have sat with Bloomberg’s top proselytizer, Kevin Sheekey, the $196,000-a-year deputy mayor for presidential politics, say the current thinking is that a Giuliani nomination reduces the likelihood of a Bloomberg presidential bid to about nil.

This is too bad, because a full-blown, in-your-face Giuliani-Bloomberg contest could be most helpful in airing a lot of unspoken animosity that has built up in the past six years between the two camps. We know this because of the cheap shot that Mayor Bloomberg casually offered across the asparagus plate at a recent Gracie Mansion dinner party, when he told guests that his predecessor had really crossed the line by having meals cooked by city staff delivered to Giuliani’s elderly mother at her apartment a few blocks away. Now there’s an ethics transgression worthy of investigation. One and a half terms in City Hall, and Mike Bloomberg is still ticked off at a special meals-on-wheels program for the exmayoral mom?

This graceless mansion repartee is a sure indicator that there’s a lot more resentment backed up where that came from. And while we may never make it to the main event—Mike in this corner, Rudy in that one, pick-your-favorite-Dem in a third—these preliminary bouts could yet prove exciting.

For one thing, it has been quietly but widely touted for years among City Hall cognoscenti that the incoming Bloomberg crew found not a little genuinely dirty linen stuffed in drawers all over the place. This is in addition to the policy and funding decisions that Bloomberg quickly and publicly reversed: Upon arrival, he snuffed lucrative deals for two new baseball stadiums, pulled the plug on a billion-dollar project for a new stock exchange building, and deep-sixed a plan to create a big new TV studio in Staten Island when it didn’t pass the smell test.

Those are the ones that made the papers. Others may not have. “There was some kind of outrageous giveaway to a big Giuliani supporter, a piece of property near the Brooklyn Navy Yard,” whispers one Bloomberg insider. “They had to get rid of that right away.” Really? Do tell. Was it anything like the way Giuliani shoehorned his pal Joseph Spitzer—the real estate developer who drove the streets with his City Hall-provided “I’ll park wherever the hell I want to park” placard—into a lucrative residential project in Williamsburg in the last months of his administration? Alas, minus a Rudy-Mike showdown, we’re unlikely to learn more.

Part of the logic at work here is the normal mutually-assured-destruction principle that keeps a lid on most official secrets. Any smut attack from Bloomberg’s City Hall would quickly be met with incoming missiles from Giuliani’s militia. Don’t think for a minute that when Bloomberg’s top deputy, Dan Doctoroff, was handing prime Bronx real estate deals to his pal and former business partner, developer Steven Ross, that Giuliani’s crew wasn’t taking careful notes. (If interested, see “Terminal Solution,” April 13, 2004, and “Market-Rate Giveaway,” March 22, 2005.)

But even if they never get to the rolling-around-in-the-mud act that is a main ingredient of presidential contests, there are many other things that Rudy and Mike could debate that New Yorkers and the wider New York diaspora might find entertaining.

Education? Giuliani’s main course of study while mayor was inflicting agony on schools chancellors. (“Precious” was the word he used for the neatly attired and ever-polite Ramon Cortines before driving him out of office—hmm, what exactly was that supposed to imply?) Rudy threw regular darts at the bloated educational bureaucracy but somehow never got around to tackling root causes. Bloomberg’s approach? Inside of six months in office, he managed to win Albany legislation giving him control of the system. He followed that victory by relocating the new Department of Education to the venerable Tweed Court House, right behind City Hall. Giuliani had spent millions renovating the old wreck, with plans to make it a museum. No, said Bloomberg, this is more important. Ouch!

Health? Giuliani’s strongest initiative was trying to sell city-owned hospitals, which provide general care to New York’s poor. Blocked in the courts, he switched to padding the hapless Health and Hospitals Corporation with patronage appointees. Self-avowed health nut Bloomberg used much of his political capital in his first year in office to win a smoking ban in bars and restaurants, a move that didn’t exactly endear him to the outer-borough Marlboro-and-Bud crowd that helped elect him.

A believer in preventive health care, he restored city hospitals to prestige, and they now get top ratings.

Housing? Giuliani never even bothered to hatch a policy. As the numbers of homeless rose around him and an affordable-housing crisis crunched the middle class, Giuliani gave the job of running the city’s housing-finance agency to the son of his political mentor, Liberal Party boss Ray Harding. Russell Harding had no background in the business and lacked a college degree. A Voice series later helped send him to prison for stealing $400,000 from the agency (official scheduled release date: May 29, 2008). Giuliani’s housing commissioner, Richard Roberts, pled guilty to federal perjury charges in the same scandal. Still in his first term, Bloomberg launched a major initiative to build and preserve housing—one that doesn’t take nearly adequate account of the need to hold onto current low-cost housing, but one that is helping to make up for eight years of inaction.

Welfare? Backed by new federal laws limiting welfare eligibility, Giuliani launched a crackdown that cut the rolls by half. Score one. But he also managed to put a seamy team of Midwest hucksters angling to cash in on the new policies in charge of city operations. Bloomberg caught flak for letting the rolls rise modestly. At the same time, complaints of ruthless inequities all but disappeared.

Crime? Here may lie the nub of the matter. The two mayors can square off, citing stat for stat proving lowered crime rates. A key difference is that the steep drop in the Giuliani years paralleled a national decline; Bloomberg’s continued low crime numbers go counter to a rising national trend. Then there are their top-cop comparisons: the already once-convicted Bernard Kerik (now facing an ongoing federal probe) and the buffoonish Howard Safir versus rock-jawed Ray Kelly. Kelly did lock up antiwar protesters on a whim, but don’t expect that to generate too much heat in Keokuk, Iowa.

A Rudy-Mike smackdown? We can only wish.