One Police Plaza

Richie Hartman's Redemption

October 12, 2015

Just a sprinkling of police people attended the funeral of Richie Hartman, who single-handedly was responsible for raising the salaries of cops throughout the metropolitan area to among the highest in the nation.

Yet the death of the former Patrolmen's Benevolent Association counsel went largely unnoticed and unremarked upon by the city’s media. “Nobody knew he had died,” said former PBA president Lou Matarazzo, one of the few police people who attended his funeral in August. “He didn’t want any publicity.”

Rather, the largest contingent of mourners were kids from Christ The King High School in Queens, where Hartman taught math for the past 10 years.

Teaching high school students might seem a remarkable change for a man who had represented nearly 100,000 cops in the metropolitan area, and who also had served five years in federal prison for a union kickback and bribery scheme. Yet in a certain way he hadn’t changed at all. He was as devoted to his students as he had been to cops decades earlier.

Although Hartman’s death and funeral in August was observed by few, his story is timeless — one of redemption, and worthy of attention for the lessons it teaches.

In the 1970s, Hartman, a Long Beach native and graduate of M.I.T. and New York Law School, was in love with cops. He worked out of a two-story, wooden-frame walk-up in Mineola, making personal loans to cops and making calls on their behalf each night until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. At least twice a week he slept on his office couch.

When he represented the Nassau County PBA in contract negotiations, Nassau became the highest-paid police department in the country. When, the following year, he represented the Suffolk County PBA, Suffolk became the highest-paid department.

In 1978, he came to New York City as general counsel to PBA president Phil Caruso. He never achieved the same financial success he had on Long Island. And in his zeal to protect cops, he hired Walter Cox, a felon, as the union’s chief investigator. Cox turned up witnesses who lied in court. More cops were acquitted of crimes than ever before. Eventually, Cox was arrested on bribery charges. He died of a heart attack in Rikers Island in 1986.

By then, Hartman was deep into a gambling addiction. He owed $800,000 to Atlantic City casinos and used a PBA escrow account to pay his debts. Then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau investigated but brought no charges. Instead, Hartman returned the money and was forced to give up his law license.

He then became the union’s $2-million-a-year labor consultant and made another $2 million in commissions by selling cops MetLife insurance policies. Current PBA president Pat Lynch said Hartman pitched the policies to him. Lynch wasn’t impressed. “I’m not a fan of Richie Hartman,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hartman hooked on with Ron Reale, president of the city’s transit police union. In 1998, he and Reale were convicted of conspiring to defraud the city’s campaign finance board as Reale made a run for public advocate. Also indicted was the Long Island law firm of Lysaght and Kramer, which had assumed Hartman’s practice. Hartman was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

There, Hartman began teaching math to inmates. Upon his release, some police unions outside the city tried to lure him back as a labor consultant. He wouldn’t do it. Through former Queens State Sen. Serphin Maltese, he got a job teaching math at Christ The King, where Maltese is currently chairman of the board. It was there that his life changed.

Or, rather, reverted to what it had been 40 years before.

“He was the first one here in the morning and the last one out of the building,” said Veronica Cokley, the school’s assistant to the president and executive assistant to the board of trustees. “Sometimes he would sleep in the principal’s office. After a long day, you’d literally have to throw him out of the building.”

“He would be there so that, if the kids came in early, they could go to him for help,” Cokley said. “He’d meet anybody, anywhere. After school, if the building wasn’t available, he tutored kids at a nearby Arby’s or Wendy's.”
He took over the school’s math team. “They competed in a league with Stuyvesant and Bronx Science and tied for first place,” Cokley said.

He lived in a basement apartment in Middle Village. “He didn’t have a television,” said Cokley. “He didn’t want one. He said he’d rather read. He said, ‘I’m better off here.’ If there was a big game, he’d come to our house to watch it.”

“It bothered him not to practice law,” she said. Just as he had with cops years before, he put it all into the kids.


Copyright © 2015 Leonard Levitt