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?
To: LJ From: SK Eating alone. Smells no-go. Who'd believe it?
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.
Yet there is something refreshingly old-fashioned about him and about the criminal-justice ethic he espouses. Both seem to have come straight out of a Ben Hecht movie script. "Bob believes there are good guys and bad guys," says an old friend. "You help the good ones and you go after the bad ones, even if they happen to include your favorite aunt. He's a genuine hero."
Tough start. Morgenthau swept into office in 1974 at a thankless moment: The city was so broke there weren't enough telephones for his senior staff. Working with what funds he had, Morgenthau restructured the DA's office, increasing its efficiency in handling New York's torrent of criminal cases. Since then, he has been able to attract a steady stream of bright, heavy-hitting young lawyers to his nine-story headquarters on the edge of Chinatown. One New York defense attorney dismisses the Morgenthau team as "a crowd of snot-nosed Ivy Leaguers." Others, among them nationally known criminal lawyer Brian O'Dwyer, charge that the ethnic and social mix among Morgenthau's senior staff doesn't "reflect this county as it is now." (Morgenthau's staff says that almost half his assistant DAs are women and that, on average, one quarter are black, Hispanic or Asian.)
No one, however, denies that Morgenthau's team is effective--the Altman case notwithstanding. Last year, it filed criminal charges against 103,635 people (24,193 drug-related) and won 68,423 convictions. Morgenthau leads investigations but almost never appears in court. Admiral of the fleet, he commands, directs and exhorts from the upper deck. His staff is fiercely loyal. "He's the only person who had the vision to go after the BCCI case," says First Assistant District Attorney Barbara Jones.
Few things outrage Morgenthau more than what he calls "crime in the suites": white-collar assaults on law by those who abuse the power with which they are entrusted. Morgenthau denies there was any righteous vindictiveness in his pursuit of Clifford and Altman. Nonetheless, as one insider puts it, "Bob sees Clifford as a traitor to the public. It makes him angry."
Noblesse oblige. Morgenthau almost always masks that sort of anger with the courtly manners learned in the privileged parlors of the "Our Crowd" German-Jewish family in which he was raised. For the Morgenthaus, propriety was a way of life, public service a patriotic noblesse oblige. Grandfather Henry Morgenthau, a lawyer who made a fortune in real estate, became Woodrow Wilson's ambassador to Turkey. Henry Morgenthau Jr., the DA's father, was Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of the Treasury. And both his father and his mother, Elinor Fatman Morgenthau, a niece of New York Gov. Herbert Lehman, were among FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt's closest confidants.
That friendship afforded the young Morgenthau a Zelig-like place in history. The Morgenthau family's Hudson Valley apple farm was a revolving door of New Deal luminaries. FDR, whose Hyde Park home was only a short drive away, was a constant caller. When Eleanor Roosevelt hosted the king and queen of England at a picnic, young Bob was enlisted to roast the hot dogs. While Winston Churchill lectured about the war effort, Morgenthau mixed the Lion his first mint julep. One summer, the family vacationed with the Kennedys. Years later, Bob Morgenthau was with Robert Kennedy when the staggering word came about the assassination in Dallas. Until recently, John Kennedy Jr. was one of his assistant DAs.
The war years gave Morgenthau his own first shot at public service. Joining the Navy the day after graduating from Amherst, he became a lieutenant commander and was torpedoed twice--once in the Pacific, once in the Mediterranean, where his ship sank. "It sounds corny," Morgenthau admits, "but when I was swimming around out there, I made a couple of promises. One of them was that if I got out alive, I'd devote myself to public service."
Discharged in 1945, he earned a Yale law degree, then went to work as a corporate lawyer. "When my father left the government," says Morgenthau, "he was really lost. So I wanted to be sure that I had a profession I could always go back to." Former colleagues remember him as an earnest young man who often roller-skated to work. He soon became active in Democratic politics. When childhood pal Jack Kennedy became president in 1960, Morgenthau was named U.S. attorney for New York's southern district. He quickly won headlines with racketeering and corruption convictions.
Zest shortage. No one has ever accused Bob Morgenthau of charisma, at least not the kind needed to be elected governor of New York. But in 1962, he ran against incumbent Nelson Rockefeller. It was a monumental flop. Another try in 1970 was no more successful. Often painfully shy, and a wooden public speaker, he wasn't made for campaigning, recalls Mike Cherkasky, former chief of the DA's investigation division, who handled Morgenthau's successful re-election campaign for DA in 1985. "We'd bring him to a street corner to shake hands with passersby; within 20 seconds, he'd wander off."
But Morgenthau looks back with no regrets. Any larger public role, he says, would cut into the small amounts of free time he spends with his wife, journalist Lucinda Franks, and their two children, son Joshua, 9, and adopted daughter Amy, 3. Morgenthau's first wife, Martha Pattridge, with whom he had five children, died of cancer in 1972.
Endorsed by Republicans and Liberals, as well as Democrats, the DA remains unchallenged for re-election this November. He plans to stay on the job "as long as my health is good and the public wants me." That said, he lights up his first cigar of the day.
The walls of his office are decorated with a lifetime of eclectic trophies: photos with FDR, young Bob leading his shipmates in parade, two counterfeit "Dufy" gouaches confiscated from a forger, the old Stars and Stripes that stood by his father's desk during the New Deal days. The flag is never far from his mind. When the BCCI case broke and Morgenthau asked his friend Harry Albright, a partner in his old law firm, to become a court-appointed trustee of First American, Albright says he hesitated. "It was going to be a tough job. But Bob really leaned on me. He told me, 'Your uncle needs you.' Uncle? I asked. What uncle? 'Your Uncle Sam,' he told me. 'Your Uncle Sam needs you.' "
This story appears in the August 30, 1993 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.