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Crooked Cop Bill Phillips: The Perils of Testifying

September 24, 2007

Here are three lessons we can learn from the case of crooked cop William Phillips, who is to be paroled in November after spending nearly 40 years in jail.

bulletLesson One: Beware of testifying before an outside agency investigating the police department if there is evil in your past.
bulletLesson Two: Make sure to express remorse.
bulletLesson Three: Do not embarrass the big boys.

Phillips, now 77, a cop from 1957 to 1974, violated all three tenets.

Back in the day, he cut quite a figure as a plainclothes cop on the east side of Manhattan, holding court at P.J. Clarke’s. Caught on tape by an electronics genius employed by the Knapp Commission (officially known as Commission to Investigate Alleged Police Corruption) taking a payoff from east side madam Xaviera Hollander, he became a star witness.

Before the TV cameras, he described how cops like him shook down store-owners, hotel managers, construction foremen and tow-truck operators, and took bribes from gamblers, loan sharks and drug dealers.

In three weeks of hearings, the Knapp Commission revealed how the department’s systemic and institutionalized corruption worked: how the top brass, starting with the police commissioner, had ignored and actually abetted corruption.

The Chief Inspector, the department’s highest uniformed officer, admitted accepting gifts from businessmen. The Chief of Detectives refused to turn over the files of suspect detectives to the Chief of Internal Affairs. The First Deputy Commissioner refused to help federal authorities investigate cops suspected of dealing drugs.

Worse, it seemed that all this occurred under the revered nose of the Manhattan District Attorney, Frank Hogan — “Mr. District Attorney,” as he was known — whose office was but a stone’s throw from police headquarters.

Other corrupt cops testified but, unlike Phillips, they appeared penitent. Edward Droge described how, as a young cop, in just weeks on the job, department veterans sucked him into corruption. He ended up at Yale Law School, courtesy of the Knapp Commission’s counsel.

Phillips, though, remained unbowed. Two years after he testified, he wrote a memoir, brazenly entitled “On the Pad.” The term “pad” stood for systemized payoffs.

Then, guess what? Law enforcement authorities said someone who had seen him on TV testified that he recognized him as the killer of a pimp and a prostitute in 1968. The pimp had supposedly refused to pay Phillips off and the prostitute had supposedly witnessed the event.

Phillips maintained the department had framed him in retribution for his testimony, but in 1975 he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life. The parole board turned him down four times.

Two decades after the Knapp Commission, history appeared to repeat itself. In 1992, Mayor David Dinkins appointed former judge Milton Mollen to investigate police corruption. In those 20 years police corruption had changed. It was no longer systemic and institutionalized, but confined to high crime, high drug trade pockets like West Harlem’s 30th precinct, where 33 cops were convicted of drug-related crimes.

But the three lessons of testifying remained, as Internal Affairs undercover Barry Brown discovered.

Brown became the Mollen Commission’s star witness, wearing a hood over his head and testifying under the name “Officer Otto.”

But he, too, had a past. Arrested “Dirty Thirty” cop George Nova told prosecutors that Brown, Nova’s former partner, had lied at numerous drug trials.

Meanwhile, Mollen was feuding with Hogan’s successor, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Morgenthau felt Mollen had poached his investigation of Nova and given it to the U.S. Attorney, who then indicted Nova, leaving Morgenthau out in the cold.

After learning that Brown and Officer Otto were one and the same, Morgenthau indicted Brown for perjury and crowed that the Mollen Commission had done more harm than good.

But, unlike Phillips, Brown expressed remorse, maintaining that as undercover he had no choice but to testify as he did. Morgenthau agreed to drop the perjury charge if Brown left the department.

Sticks and Stones.
Police Commission Ray Kelly nearly created a momentary world-wide flap when he mentioned that the NYPD was considering a request to allow Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Ground Zero. That lasted about a nanosecond.

Politicians, the editorialists at the News and Post, the Anti-Defamation League, Mayor Bloomberg and rest of the right wing's Amen Corner started braying, and Kelly backed off. He used his and Deputy Commissioner David Cohen’s bugaboo, “security,” to veto the visit.

Yes, Ahmadinejad is a nightmare. He is ignorant and venomous, and his assertions that the Holocaust didn’t occur are the most offensive and hurtful insults one can give to Jews. That said, what do we fear by allowing him to visit Ground Zero [or, to speak at Columbia University for that matter]?

We’re not a state run by mullahs. We can tolerate objectionable characters. Let him stand at Ground Zero where the public can. Maybe he’ll learn something. Or even feel something.

If he doesn’t, what do we as Americans lose?

Yes, Iranians hate us. Yes, Iran is a potential nuclear threat. But just remember this. In the 1950s, Iran had a democratically elected government. We — the C.I.A. — overthrew it, boasted of it, and put the Shah in power for the next 20 years.

And one more thing. It wasn't Iranians who piloted the planes into the World Trade Center. The pilots were our friends, Saudis and Egyptians.

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Copyright © 2007 Leonard Levitt