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Profile: Robert M. Morgenthau

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-02-14

Taking lunch with Robert M. Morgenthau, the most powerful prosecutor in America, the reporter is immediately conscious of the fact that he's a living legend -- and has been so since he became Manhattan district attorney 30 years ago. Other famous people in this pricey Midtown Manhattan restaurant discreetly stare. Some come up to shake his hand. Others wave at him, and he waves back. Still others avert their eyes.

But when a reporter asks what it feels like to be a living legend -- he's the second-longest serving DA in American history (one of his predecessors, Frank Hogan, was Manhattan DA for 32 years); he's had cumulatively the longest prosecutorial tenure in any country; he's been the scourge of international money launderers, murderers and Wall Street fraudsters -- Mr. Morgenthau doesn't seem particularly inclined to respond to the question.

It was a natural question to ask of him. It's not just his record as DA that's the stuff of legends. Mr. Morgenthau was a celebrated U.S. Attorney for the Southern District for several years before he became DA, having prosecuted the socialite lawyer Roy Cohn and also having created the country's first securities-fraud bureau. If New York corporations are more vigilant today with regard to their books, and if their CEOs are less inclined to raid their treasuries, and if shareholder interests are better served, it's substantially because of the tough standards of vigilance and scrutiny that Mr. Morgenthau has brought to the financial community -- and to the severe penalties he's sought for white-collar criminals. Just last week, for example, Arab Bank closed down its Madison Avenue branch after the DA's office found a damning trail of money from its premises to terrorist organizations in the Middle East.

So the reporter asked again: "Well, do ever think of yourself as a living legend?"

"Living legend?" Mr. Morgenthau said in his dulcet voice, chuckling ever so slightly as he carefully worked his way through a salad and scallops at lunch, as though he was somewhat amused by the question. "Those aren't my words. I would never use those words."

Of course he wouldn't. He's a remarkably modest man, almost painfully reluctant to talk about his accomplishments. His work has been validated not only by a lengthy strong of convictions obtained over five decades in public office, it has been honored by awards and memorabilia that fill his office, spill over into his Upper East Side home and occupy yards of shelves and walls in the homes of some of his seven children.

The reporter persisted. "But a lot of people look up to you as a role model," he ventured, also noting that many movies, and the long-running "Law and Order" franchise on television have featured characters clearly based on Mr. Morgenthau.

"Role model?" Mr. Morgenthau said. "Well, I leave that to others to decide, too."

That verdict, in fact, has long been in. He has inspired and encouraged at least two generations of lawyers and prosecutors, including New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who was part of Mr. Morgenthau's rackets bureau. Former mayor Rudolf Giuliani, who was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, is another figure who acknowledges the Morgenthau influence on his prosecutorial pathway. Two other U.S. Attorneys also served under Mr. Morgenthau, as did four federal judges in the Southern District and 30 current criminal-court judges. The late John F. Kennedy Jr. worked for him. If a man's life work is to be assessed by how he shaped the careers and professional sensibilities of those who served under him, then it's certainly no hyperbole to say that Mr. Morgenthau is a living legend.

His downtown office, at One Hogan Place, is legendary, too. With nearly 500 lawyers, it is the busiest DA office in America, handling more than a thousand cases each year. When Mr. Morgenthau first became district attorney -- after defeating Richard Kuh, who'd been appointed by then Governor Malcolm Wilson when Frank Hogan died in 1974 -- Manhattan was Number One in murders in New York's five boroughs. Each year, nearly 700 murders occurred in Manhattan, or almost 40% of the city's total. Last year, that figure was down to 71, representing just 16% of the city's murders annually.

Mr. Morgenthau is quick to share that success with the city's Police Department and to the men and women he calls "indefatigable enforcers of the law." He's always liked cops, even though his office has put a few corrupt ones behind bars. Cops have liked him, too, not the least because of his intense involvement with the Police Athletic League, which organizes educational and sports programs for more than 70,000 minority-group youths and other boys and girls -- ages 5 to 18 -- from the less privileged of New York's neighborhoods. He became president of the PAL in 1962 and held that office until 10 years ago, when he was elevated to chairman. Rare is the PAL event or NYPD ceremony where Mr. Morgenthau isn't present.
Rare is the occasion, too, when he doesn't attend the games of the baseball league that the Manhattan DA's office has put together. Mr. Morgenthau, a spry, wiry man who could be easily taken for a man decades younger, is especially attentive to the importance of physical fitness: when he talks to young people about looking after themselves, he's alluding to his own daily regimen of an hour on the treadmill, of lifting weights, and watching his diet.

On a different plane, rare, too, is the occasion when Mr. Morgenthau doesn't speak out forcefully about two social issues -- among others -- which he deeply cares about: the hiring of women and minorities, and tackling domestic violence.

'When I became district attorney, the office had 10 minority staff members, and 19 women," he said. "Now we have 110 minority-group staffers, and 244 women."

Indeed, 50% of the lawyers who work with Mr. Morgenthau are women -- by far the best percentile representation of women in any law-enforcement agency in America. Nearly 50 lawyers attend exclusively to domestic violence and spousal abuse cases. Mr. Morgenthau may be a man of extraordinary social tolerance, but tolerating domestic violence isn't that he does. "Women, and all those who find themselves vulnerable in domestic situations, must feel that they are protected at all times," he said.

But how much of his hiring and the emphasis on issues such as domestic violence and women's rights is a result of social activism on his part, the reporter wanted to know, how much of it flowed from a desire to be politically correct?

"Our hiring is done by a committee of 30," Mr. Morgenthau replied. "We hire strictly on merit. We don't vet people for their social beliefs. We hire people to uphold the laws that are on the books."

That means, above all, that he wants people to be committed to public service. It means that he wants them to work long hours. It means that he wants people who display humility, not arrogance. "I want my staff members to never abuse the power and authority that come from being a prosecutor," Mr. Morgenthau said. "I give all staffers heavy responsibility early on."

"Unlike in a law firm, where you have to slog for years before you become a partner, in my office everyone's a partner from the day he or she is hired," Mr. Morgenthau said, recalling his own long and grueling years after World War II as an associate at Patterson, Belknap & Webb (where he eventually became a partner).

Of course, that doesn't mean that there isn't a seniority system in the Manhattan DA's office. Nor does it mean that different units within the office aren't competitive with one another. Indeed, some staff members have even been known to shout at each other over the question of grabbing big cases. (Top prosecutors in his office get about $90,000 a year, far less than starting associates fresh out of law school, who many big law firms hire at $150,000 annually; starting lawyers in the DA's office get $48,000 a year.)
But Mr. Morgenthau's emollient personality -- and his status -- doesn't invite anyone shouting at him. And unlike several top prosecutors around America, he's not one to grab major cases from his subordinates.

"I'm not one for grandstanding," he told The New York Sun. "I don't do showboating. I pick good people, I give them lots of responsibility, and I don't take away the big cases from them."

"I believe in mentoring," Mr. Morgenthau added. "I believe in sharing my experience with young people."

That belief surely stems from the fact that he himself benefited from wisdom and guidance of mentors early in his professional life. One mentor was Robert Porter Patterson, another legendary figure in legal and government circles. "He was an absolute straight arrow," Mr. Morgenthau said of him. "But if he liked you, you couldn't do anything wrong. Because of his own tenure in government, he left an extraordinary impression on me about the importance of public service. It's an impression that I always relay to the young people who I hire. It's important for older lawyers to take interest in developing the careers of younger lawyers. I've always tried to do that."

Mr. Morgenthau's professional relationship with Mr. Patterson -- who also served as U.S. secretary of war, as a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and of Freedom House -- was such that the older lawyer would take Mr. Morgenthau on virtually every business trip around the country. On January 22, 1952, Mr. Patterson went on a trip to Buffalo, but Mr. Morgenthau begged off because he was preparing a brief for a Supreme Court case. That evening, the plane that Mr. Patterson had boarded to take him back to New York, crashed in a driving snow storm in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Mr. Morgenthau almost surely would have been among the fatalities.

It wasn't the first time that he warded off an encounter with death. During World War II, when he was the 23-year-old executive officer of the USS Lansdale, a Nazi torpedo sank his ship. He drifted in the Mediterranean on a lifeboat for fours hours off the shores of Algeria before he was rescued. "I didn't have much of a bargaining chip, but I made a deal with the Almighty in those hours -- the deal was that if I survived my ordeal, I'd give something back to society. Everything that I've done in life since has been a payback."
Some months later, he got an opportunity to renew that deal. Serving aboard the USS Harry F. Bauer just north of Okinawa in the Pacific, the American fleet was attacked by 1,900 Japanese kamikaze planes. Some 700 of those planes met their targets; Mr. Morgenthau's ship took a torpedo and a 500-pound bomb, but neither detonated. During the lunch, Mr. Morgenthau recalled that one of the day, May 11, 1945, was the birthday of his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Secretary of War.

"I didn't want to get killed on my father's birthday," he said. He wound up shooting down 17 Japanese planes. For his bravery in action, he and his fellow sailors were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

"Of all the awards that I've received in life, I'm proudest of this one," Mr. Morgenthau said, quietly. "I really am. Those aboard my ship were incredibly brave. You learn very quickly what team work is all about, how important it is in life to support the people you work with."

That support manifests itself in the manner in which Mr. Morgenthau ensures that his staff is insulated from the political pressures that inevitably come from the Establishment.

"I never tell my assistants about the political calls I get," Mr. Morgenthau said. "They must always feel free to do what is right in the cases that they handle. I believe in approaching every case without fear or favor, and my staff members share that thinking."

When those political calls come -- usually to ask for deferring or delaying an investigation -- Mr. Morgenthau's typical response, as he put it, is: "I ask my assistants to expedite the case. By now people know better than to try and muscle me."

His response to unseemly political pressures from important members of New York's Establishment has, in fact, resulted in a long parade of prominent indictments and convictions, including those of State Senator Guy Velella. A powerful Bronx Republican, Mr. Velella pleaded guilty to a felony -- which involved influencing state agencies -- lost his law license and was sent to prison. He also resigned from the New York State legislature. Mr. Morgenthau has been equally unyielding about prosecuting errant Democrats, including the former chairman of the City Council's public safety committee, and the former chairman of the Bronx Democratic county committee, Richard Gidron who was indicted for evading more than $2 million in sales taxes (and who wound up paying the money).

But being an elected official -- Mr. Morgenthau is up for re-election in November -- who must depend on political fundraising, isn't it hard to resist political pressures?

"It gets easier each year," the district attorney said. "You have fewer pressures put on you to grant favors. People know I don't grant favors."
Have there ever been physical threats against him? Has anyone every tried to bribe him?

"Never," Mr. Morgenthau said. "Not once. And I don't worry about these things either. I don't get paid to worry." (His salary is $140,000 a year.)
Some have suggested that Mr. Morgenthau's indifference to political pressures as well as physical threats that a high-octane prosecutor might attract, flows from his remarkable family history. His father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., not only served in FDR's cabinet with distinction, he was also the president's confidant. His grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, was President Woodrow Wilson's ambassador to Turkey, the creator of Israel bonds and a founder of the United Jewish Appeal. The ambassador also helped stop the genocide of the Armenian people. Streets in Greece -- in Salonika, Piraeus and other places -- have been named after Ambassador Morgenthau, who remains a much revered figure in the worldwide Armenian community.

"I was extremely close to both my father and grandfather," Mr. Morgenthau said at lunch. "They were certainly role models. But I also realized early in life that I didn't want to ride on my father's back all my life. I had the need to establish my own independent identity."

That need propelled him through Amherst College and Yale Law School. It drove him through the ranks of Patterson, Belknap & Webb. It fetched him an appointment by President John F. Kennedy as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. It has driven him to participate in humanitarian activities ranging from the chairman of the Museum of Jewish Heritage -- A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, to being a trustee of Smith College.

The influence of his father and grandfather, above all, has meant a continuing emphasis by Mr. Morgenthau on probity in public and corporate life.

"New York City has a special obligation to be an exemplar," the district attorney said. "We are the financial capital of the world. We want our citizens -- and the world's citizens who come here -- to feel safe, to feel that they don't get caught up in corrupt transactions."

But doesn't his emphasis on prosecuting crimes in the financial and corporate communities dampen their enthusiasm for doing business in New York?

"It's important to pursue these cases because corporate -- and political -- behavior has an impact on the cost of living in the city, and on the cost of doing business," Mr. Morgenthau said. "As financial pressures mount for companies and CEOs to perform, too many tend to look the other way when improper things are going on.

"My concern is for the economic viability of the city. Some 79% of payroll jobs are in Manhattan. If companies and individuals don't pay sales and other taxes, then somebody else -- usually the common citizen -- winds up making up for the slack. My office has brought in $125 million in uncollected sales tax revenues for New York. I also like to think that my office has made a positive impact on generating better corporate governance."

His office has also had setbacks in some high-profile cases. The much-publicized moves against Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz ended in mistrial. Tyco counsel Mark Belnick was recently acquitted on all counts.

He's surely upset by such setbacks, the reporter asked?

"I never look back," Mr. Morgenthau said. "I'm an incorrigible optimist. You're always going to win some and lose some. -- there's always that risk. Even Ted Williams had a batting average of .406. That meant 60% of the times he wouldn't even get to first base. I always do the best that I can, I always want to be satisfied that my office has put in its best efforts. Then let the chips fall where they may. Judges can make mistakes, too. But I'm a firm believer in the jury system. I believe that there's no place like America."

That is why he's especially concerned about the country's -- and city's -- security. As he seeks another four-year term, Mr. Morgenthau says he will stress anti-terrorism measures even more, developing stronger ties with federal and state authorities.

"We will devote more resources to interrupting the money going to Middle East terrorist organizations," he said, recalling earlier successful campaigns against Arab Bank, Hudson United Bank, and others.

Then there will be greater emphasis on the use of DNA in cases, particularly if such evidence can exonerate those wrongfully convicted. "I believe in total fairness," Mr. Morgenthau said. "That also happens to be the basis of American jurisprudence."

There will be greater scrutiny of alleged wrongdoing the financial community, and there will be greater examination of how public officials conduct their financial affairs.

"It's always got to be a level playing field," Mr. Morgenthau said. ""Everybody's got to play fair, everybody has got to pay their taxes -- and everyone from the bodega to the hallowed corridors of money and poor need to be treated the same in t eyes of the law. I want people to have confidence in their government, and in their law-enforcement apparatus."

As much as anything Mr. Morgenthau said over a three-hour lunch, this last bit seemed to capture his ethos. But there remained an important question to ask him: He's being challenged this year by Leslie Crocker Snyder, a 62-year-old former judge, prosecutor and television commentator. Implicit in her challenge is the question of the district attorney's age -- whether he was physically fit for the rigors of the job.

But the reporter got his answer without even having to ask the question.

It happened this way: Mr. Morgenthau offered to drop him at his office, which isn't very far from the district attorney's downtown headquarters. On the way to Mr. Morgenthau's car, which was parked near the restaurant, the prosecutor walked so briskly that it was the reporter -- admittedly portly but considerably younger than his guest -- and not Robert Morgenthau, who was left short of breath.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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