New York's No. 1 Lawyer
He didn't win his high-profile BCCI case. But for District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, 74, that was just a temporary setback
To: President, Reality TV Inc. From: LJ, Creative Task Force Have great concept for new-season law-and-order series: Shy scion of wealthy, powerful family, son and grandson of presidential confidants, becomes uncompromising DA of crime-ridden Gotham. Takes on everyone from yuppie sex killers to crooked bankers laundering billions for drug lords and terrorists. Wins some, loses some. For a real twister, we make the guy in his 70s, with young, second-marriage family. Will appeal to teens, boomers and seniors alike! Hal Holbrook? Greg Peck? Lunch?
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Hands casually folded behind his silver-maned head, Robert Morris Morgenthau leans back on the legs of his chair looking more like a mild-mannered prep-school master than the sharpshooting district attorney of the toughest town in America. His voguish tie sits unvoguishly outside the back of his shirt collar.
It is the eve of one of the most important trials of Morgenthau's 18 years as district attorney of New York County: his charge that lawyer Robert Altman and Democratic Party giant Clark Clifford helped conceal the rogue Bank of Credit and Commerce International's secret ownership of First American Bank. It is the latest chapter in the multibillion-dollar BCCI scandal. And the man whose army of almost 600 assistant DAs never calls him anything else but "Boss" tries to explain why he jumped over federal foot draggers to pursue and prosecute the biggest, most complex international banking scam of all time.
"We're talking about the credibility of government," says Morgenthau as he fiddles with the morning's third mug of coffee. "How do you justify prosecuting a 19-year-old who sells drugs on a street corner when you say it's too complicated to go after the people who move the money?"
Five months later, his high-profile case against Altman tossed out by a jury, Morgenthau is far from contrite: "I believe in the jury system, but that doesn't mean I agree with every jury verdict. Anyway, you don't win them all. And we tried this one with one hand tied behind our back--the bulk of records were overseas, the key guys in the transaction we couldn't [get to]."
Nor does he react meekly to the buzz that his humiliating loss dims his stellar reputation. "Bull----!" says Mr. DA. Besides, staffers point out, it was Morgenthau's determination to go after BCCI that forced federal pursuit of the case and has already resulted in $750 million in fines and settlements. Now, despite advice from friends to "drop it," Morgenthau seems determined to press on with BCCI-related cases. His autumn calendar of other major investigations is also crammed; everything from mob influence on the plumbers' union to counterfeit-designer-clothing rings.
At 74, after almost 50 years in politics and law, America's best-known district attorney shows no sign of throttling down. He is a world-class networker with five Rolodexes full of the names and numbers of every power broker worth knowing. Critics say he is a "closet czar," not above using his considerable clout. "Ask him how he influences the choice of judges who hear his cases--or even who gets to become a judge," urges one New York lawyer. Morgenthau critics also complain that his self-demurring is merely skin-deep, that beneath the retiring veneer lurks a publicity glutton whose choice of high-profile cases--such as BCCI--is based as much on an appetite for press as for justice. Morgenthau dismisses that as just so much carping. Still, he is fabled for his accessibility to the press and for an uncanny ability to place a story.