The Bloom’s Off His Rose
December 7, 2009
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s store-bought third term has not yet begun, yet he has picked a fight with someone no one in his right mind wants to fight: outgoing Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.
Supposedly, the fight is over money.
Why did the mayor — who prides himself on getting along with such louche characters as Al Sharpton — decide to pick this fight with perhaps the most respected public official in New York?
Why didn’t Bloomberg wait a few short weeks to try and get more of the millions of dollars in legal fines, settlements and forfeitures regularly collected by the DA’s office from Morgenthau’s, no doubt, more pliant successor Cyrus Vance?
Morgenthau may be 90 years old and soon out of a job, but, as an old City Hall hand put it last week, “Morgenthau is the wiliest person I know, even at age 90.”
Indeed, people close to him joke that if you cross him and he passes, he will reach up from the grave and get you back.
Some observers say the Bloomberg-Morgenthau feud began when the DA nearly indicted the city for the deaths of two firefighters in the Deutsche Bank fire.
Less known is that, back in 2002 when he became mayor, Bloomberg rejected Morgenthau’s request for city funds to go after rich tax-evaders hiding money in off-shore bank accounts. Long an irritant to Morgenthau, he rightly believed his tactic was a no-brainer for the always cash-hungry city.
In 2007, when Morgenthau announced he would probe the city’s liability in the Deutsche Bank fire, Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo told Morgenthau the mayor was surprised. Morgenthau replied: “I’m surprised the mayor is surprised.”
Last year, as Morgenthau closed the Deutsche Bank investigation, his office was deciding whether to indict the city on manslaughter charges. Upset, Cardozo came to him, but, when asked by the Times if the DA was considering indicting the city, Cardozo denied it.
Last year, too, Morgenthau’s office turned over $181 million to the city in settlement money — nearly double the DA’s entire annual budget.
In January 2009, Morgenthau settled a case with Lloyds of London in which the bank paid $350 million. Half of that — $175 million — went to other claimants. Of the remaining $175 million, Morgenthau gave the bulk of it — $109 million — to the state, and $66 million to the city.
When Morgenthau next saw the mayor, he told Bloomberg he had a gift for him of $66 million. Morgenthau suggested he give the mayor a check for that amount at a news conference in City Hall’s Blue Room.
Cardozo, however, told Morgenthau the mayor did not want a public announcement about the $66 million. Instead, Cardozo told Morgenthau the city wanted the entire $175 million.
During the past year, John Feinblatt, Bloomberg’s Criminal Justice Coordinator, hinted to the DA that, if Morgenthau gave the city all the money from various settlements, the city would be good to Morgenthau on his annual budget quest.
Instead, Morgenthau sponsored a bill in the legislature to institutionalize a 50-50 split of money between the state and the city. For 24 years, there had been a de facto 60-40 split, with the state getting the bigger share.
Although Bloomberg knew about Morgenthau’s bill, he did not raise it during this year’s mayoral campaign or the Manhattan District Attorney’s race.
However, tensions remained between Morgenthau and City Hall because several Bloomberg staffers aided the campaign of Morgenthau’s rival and arch-enemy, Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder.
Incensed by Snyder’s criticism of him as “too old” and needing “to be propped up” at news conferences, Morgenthau at one time during the campaign said he was backing Vance because he had the best chance of defeating Snyder.
Last month, the mayor was a no-show at the farewell gala he threw for Morgenthau at Gracie Mansion.
Bloomberg had skipped the event to attend the White House state dinner made famous by the two party crashers.
The next day, Cardozo called Morgenthau and told him the city had discovered 59 separate accounts held by Morgenthau’s office. He added that, if Morgenthau withdrew his Albany bill, the city would not publicly disclose the existence of all these accounts, holding an estimated total of $83 million.
Morgenthau said he didn’t care, and refused to withdraw the bill.
So what’s next? Don’t be surprised if Bloomberg goes after Morgenthau’s favorite charity, the Police Athletic League.
At least at this point, it appears that Bloomberg is waging an unwinnable campaign. He’s not going to get more money from Morgenthau and he’s already taking a drubbing in the media.
On Saturday the Post weighed in, saying in an editorial that Bloomberg “seems more intent on embarrassing Morgenthau than actually retrieving vast amounts of cash — a goodly portion of which doesn’t belong to the city anyway.”
On Sunday the News editorialized that, in attacking Morgenthau, “City Hall went way over the top.”
Bloomberg’s sole defender has been has been the dour Michael Goodwin, who wrote in the Post of Morgenthau: “It’s clearly time to go.”
Morgenthau, meanwhile, has fired back, calling Bloomberg’s complaints “chicken shit” and rubbing it in that Bloomberg shelled out more than $100 million for an election he barely won.
Could this mean a role for Brazilian expert John Picciano, the Corrections Department aide to former police commissioner Bernie Kerik, who lammed it down to Sao Paulo back in 2007 after ducking creditors in New York? Pitch returned last year, and is living in an undisclosed location on the East Coast.
And what about Kerik, whom Giuliani appointed police commissioner and who served during 9/11?
Both he and Pitch then went to work for Giuliani, who in 2003 landed a $4.3 million contract to reform the Mexico City Police. Bernie and Pitch took on that project, but it’s unclear what, if anything, they accomplished.
Kerik is to be sentenced in February to up to three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges. Let’s see — three years. That would make him available for Rio in 2016.