The NYPD Corruption Scandal: Leading by Example
July 4, 2016
How did this happen? How did the NYPD lose its way? How did businessmen Jeremy Reichberg and Jona Rechnitz allegedly entice senior NYPD officials with fancy dinners and expensive trips to perform personal favors? The scandal has led to the indictments, transfers, modifications and and/or retirements of a dozen police brass — numbers that exceeded even those of the Knapp Commission corruption scandal of the early 1970s.
Virtually everyone has a theory for the NYPD’s ethical and moral breakdown, except perhaps Mayor Bill de Blasio, who in a speech Friday to police academy graduates made no mention of the scandal.
The breakdown is in part a result of the poor example set by police commissioners over the past 25 years.
Let’s begin with Bill Bratton in his first tour as commissioner in 1994. Unless you were around then, it’s hard to imagine the scope of his accomplishments in two years. He and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani reversed decades-long NYC crime increases, an overall reversal that continues today. Equally important, Bratton altered the culture of the department, which had all but given up on fighting crime.
Bratton also altered the role of commissioner, transforming himself into a celebrity. He and his merry men — then-Chief of Department John Timoney, the late great Jack Maple and current anti-terrorism chief John Miller — commandeered a regular table at Elaine’s, the Upper East Side restaurant favored by many of the city’s literati. Sycophantic reporters made the men the toast of the town.
Bratton reveled in his publicity and in rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. This included free trips and vacations on private jets paid for by prominent Wall Streeters, such as Henry Kravis and Johnson & Johnson executive Robert Johnson. When the trips became public, Bratton wrote reimbursement checks totaling $12,000. No matter. Despite all he had accomplished, Giuliani used those trips to force Bratton’s resignation in 1996.
Bratton’s successor, Howard Safir, also enjoyed mixing with the rich and famous. This culminated in 1999 with a three-day jaunt to Hollywood with his wife, Carol, to attend the Oscars – all expenses, including hotel and a flight on the Revlon corporate jet, paid for by George Fellows, then-president of Revlon U.S.A.
The trip occurred just days after the fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx, perhaps the single worst incident of brutality in NYPD history. The City Council had scheduled a hearing on the shooting the day after the Oscars, at which Safir was to testify. Safir, however, cited a “scheduling conflict.” But when he was seen on TV at the Oscars, Giuliani, sensing political trouble, ordered him home on the red-eye in time for the hearing. Carol returned on the Revlon corporate jet.
Under pressure from this column, which then appeared in Newsday, the Conflicts of Interest Board fined him the cost of the trip, $7,000.
Safir’s successor, Bernie Kerik, became King of the Freebies. With the city reeling from the 9/11 attacks, New Yorkers looked to him as a savior and protector. The New York Post editorialized that he should remain commissioner “for life.”
Amid the adulation, Kerik accepted a rent-free apartment from a Manhattan realtor and a penthouse suite overlooking Ground Zero, paid for by the real estate moguls Paul and Seymour Milstein. Kerik used the suite to bring his girlfriends, including the genius publisher of his best-selling book, Judith Regan.
Kerik was ultimately undone when he was nominated as secretary of Homeland Security and his past was exposed. In 2009 he pleaded guilty to tax fraud and making false statements and served four years in federal prison.
Re-enter Ray Kelly in 2002. Before Giuliani’s appointment of Bratton, he had served a short but successful 14-month stint as NYPD commissioner under then-Mayor David Dinkins from 1992-93. Succeeding Kerik in the wake of 9/11, Kelly was viewed by traumatized New Yorkers as the lone individual standing between the city and another terrorist attack, as the department’s unofficial official historian Tom Reppetto put it. Mitchell Moss, NYU’s Henry Hart professor of urban policy and planning, expressed the feelings of the city’s body politic, calling Kelly “our secretary of defense, head of the CIA and … chief architect rolled into one.”
Kelly apparently believed his press clippings. With then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg turning a blind eye, Kelly pressured the non-profit and supposedly independent Police Foundation to pay his membership dues, and meal and drink expenses at the Harvard Club. Cost at the club for his 12 years as commissioner: about $40,000.
When Kelly considered running for mayor in 2009, the Foundation allowed the job of its consultant Hamilton South to morph into that of Kelly’s personal public relations man. Between 2006 and 2009, the Foundation paid South nearly $500,000 to work for Kelly. The Foundation had been created after the Knapp Commission scandal as an anti-corruption measure to raise private donations for police work — not as a vanity charity for NYPD commissioners.
Then, with the election of Blasio in 2013, Bratton returned. He, too, wanted to join the Harvard Club. The Foundation paid the bill.
At a recent news conference where U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced the arrests of two top cops after they allegedly accepted free meals, hotels and plane trips — one on a private jet that included a prostitute — I asked Bratton whether he felt that his and Kelly’s freebies at the Harvard Club set a tone for the current scandal. Bratton appeared to dismiss the suggestion, saying, “That’s your issue, Lenny.”
Twenty-five years ago, during the drug-related scandal in the 30th Precinct, unearthed by the Mollen Commission, Bratton appeared at the precinct when the first of some three dozen arrests occurred. He tossed one of the corrupt officers’ badges into an ashcan, suggesting, in this dramatic and symbolic gesture, that corruption would not be tolerated.
Last month, Bratton lectured the top brass on ethics and their responsibilities. The public is still awaiting a similarly grand and symbolic gesture. Maybe he could lead by example and withdraw from the Harvard Club.
Copyright © 2016 Leonard Levitt