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Saint Morgy? Not Quite

March 2, 2009

While the newspapers deify 89-year-old Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who just announced his retirement after nine terms in office, let us remember that even a saint can have an earthly flaw or two.

Just ask Judge Milton Mollen, who had the misfortune to go up against Morgenthau while prosecuting police corruption in the early 1990s.

In 1992, Mayor David N. Dinkins appointed Mollen to chair a panel, known as the Mollen Commission. Working with Manhattan federal prosecutors, Mollen helped convict 33 police officers on the midnight tour of West Harlem’s 30th precinct of drug-related crimes. That amounted to about one-sixth of the entire precinct.

The takedown was quite an accomplishment, considering that the crooked cops had operated for years beneath the radar of the police department’s Internal Affairs Division, staffed with hundreds of investigators, while Mollen’s commission made do with just a few.

Since West Harlem lies in Manhattan, it was also part of Morgenthau’s bailiwick, and the nation’s foremost prosecutor has never been shy about fighting for his turf. That meant fighting off perceived law enforcement rivals.

After an April 1994 news conference, announcing the first of the 30th precinct’s arrests, Mollen and Morgenthau got into a shoving march. The way the two white-haired septuagenarians shoved each other was not friendly.

The trouble had started the year before with the arrest of police officer George Nova, whom the feds maintained was the key to the 30th precinct case.

Nova had more than two dozen civilian complaints filed against him, most of them from drug-dealers. He had allegedly broken into their dens, stolen their drugs and money, then sold the drugs at discounted prices to rivals. He stole so much that Morgenthau’s investigators began tailing him — for two years.

Unknown to Morgenthau, the Mollen Commission also began following Nova. Its investigators learned he was shaking down dealers for $2,000 a month in protection money, which he picked up at a bodega on Amsterdam Avenue. Mollen investigators also discovered that this bodega owner was involved in a food stamp scam. Food stamps are a federal program, run by the Department of Agriculture.

Ignoring Morgenthau, Mollen notified the U.S. Attorney’s office. The feds arrested Nova before Morgenthau did.

Explaining his decision to bring his case to federal authorities, Mollen said that, while Morgenthau had been investigating Nova for two years, he had failed to come up with enough evidence to make an arrest.

On Sept. 23, 1993, the feds arrested Nova. In return for a reduced sentence he agreed to give up his partner and secretly wear a wire and record fellow officers. Later, federal prosecutors would say that, after Nova, the arrests of dirty cops came like falling dominoes.

Morgenthau never forgave Mollen for poaching his case. It would take him two years to exact his revenge. But exact it he did.

How? It turned out that the Mollen Commission’s main informant had been an Internal Affairs undercover named Barry Brown, who had been placed inside the 30th precinct years before. So embedded was Brown that for a time he had been Nova’s partner. At the Mollen commission’s public hearings in the fall of 1993, Brown had testified with a black hood covering his face, giving his name as “Officer Otto.”

Meanwhile, in his plea deal with prosecutors, Nova promised to come clean about a former partner who, Nova said, had committed perjury at trials, leading to the tainted convictions of at least two drug dealers. That former partner was Barry Brown.

Nova had no idea that Brown was also the Mollen Commission’s secret informant, Officer Otto. Neither, for that matter, did top officials in the police department, including its then commissioner, William Bratton.

Morgenthau then indicted Brown for perjury. He was allowed to resign in exchange for the charges being dropped. With that, Morgenthau trumpeted that the Mollen Commission had done as much harm as good.

Sharp of Mind, Weaker of Body.
While Morgenthau’s mind may have remained sharp, his body, like that of any human being, has weakened over time. In the last ten years and maybe more, he has not maintained the control over his staff that he had in earlier years.

Questions remain over how his office handled the brutal wilding attack on a female jogger in Central Park in 1989. The surprise confession more than a decade later of imprisoned rapist and killer Matias Reyes, backed by DNA evidence, led Morgenthau to dismiss the convictions his office had won against the five original teen-aged suspects, who had been sent to prison.

Many in the police department still do not buy the notion that the five are innocent, believing they played a role in the near fatal beating of the jogger. And while it takes courage to admit a mistake, one wonders about the machinations of Morgenthau’s top staffers in 1989 that led to the teenagers’ convictions in the first place.

Then, there is the 1990 Palladium nightclub murder, where Morgenthau’s apparent inattention led to a miscarriage of justice: two innocent men spent more than a dozen years in prison.

His office dismissed post-conviction evidence gathered by a Bronx detective that pointed to two others. The two innocent men were eventually freed but not before Morgenthau’s office stubbornly retried one of them and lost. In a further embarrassment, one of his own veteran prosecutors quit, publicly admitting he was so convinced of the men’s innocence that he had secretly helped the defense win their freedom.

The Future
. Already the in-fighting has begun over who will succeed Morgenthau. There are reports that he is seeking a candidate to defeat former judge Leslie Crocker Snyder, who ran against him four years ago and is running again.

Two months ago, Morgenthau’s campaign commissioned a poll, showing that none of the projected candidates, Crocker Snyder included, have significant name recognition.

Sources say the poll’s questions were skewed in favor of Morgenthau’s chief of staff Dan Castleman, with suggestions that he has fought police brutality, construction site abuses and political corruption. None of the other candidates were even mentioned in this regard.

In fact the questions were so skewed that Morgenthau scuttled the poll. He

alluded to this at last Friday’s news conference. While refusing to admit that he had commissioned the Castleman-centric poll, Morgenthau noted that the most important person in a poll is the one writing the questions, not the person asking them.

For now, the talk is that Morgenthau favors Cyrus Vance Jr., son of the former Secretary of State, believing he is best able to defeat Crocker Snyder.

Still, don’t write off the wily Castleman or the dark horse Richard Aborn, who has ties to Mark Green and former police commissioner Bill Bratton.

Finally there is Crocker Snyder herself, a hanging judge perhaps, but a tough bird and a fearless one. Her hope is that the three boys knock each other out so that voters elect the city’s first female district attorney since Elizabeth Holtzman.

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