THE UNTOUCHABLES: MAURICE NADJARI
“The Road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Coming of age in New York City in the 1970s with Jimmy La Rossa as your dad wasn’t too shabby. The drinking age then, though rarely enforced, was 18. AIDS was still a bad dream on the horizon. Young women went out carrying nothing other than cigarettes and a diaphragm. The club scene in those days was out of control, which was just fine and dandy with me.
When Dad was a Marine Corps officer, his weekly rations includ- ed two cartons of cigarettes and a bottle of Johnny Walker, and he pretty much stuck with that his entire life. It seemed as if everyone other than Dad was high on something in the ’70s and ’80s. Cocaine, still thought of as a non-addictive alkaloid by the National Institutes of Health, was in ready supply. Weed was never my thing, but my mother had a delivery service bring it to her at the apartment. Dad, who wouldn’t take an aspirin unless you forced him, was apoplectic. “Gayle, I have a bull’s-eye on my back,” he used to say to my mother, to no avail.
Mom wasn’t feeling well one night, so Dad took me with him to a party at Mortimer’s. As usual, I was the only “kid” there. I was standing in the middle of the room, chowing down with both hands, when someone nudged me in the ribs and offered a freshly lit joint. I ignored the invitation, not daring to look up at my dad. But the person was insistent, nudging me harder and harder. Finally, I switched both plates to my left hand, grabbed the joint, and took a long pull. When I turned to return the joint and thank the person, I was staring into the rummied blue eyes of the sitting New York governor, Hugh Carey. The room broke into laughter. Even Dad laughed. It was a complete setup.
“Thank you, Mr. Governor,” I said, coughing and turning a bright shade of red. “You certainly have my vote.”
The New York Post the next day had a full-page picture of Carey urinating on the side of Mortimer’s building. He received more than a little grief about that, and I got the last laugh.
Dad kept more than a few club owners out of trouble, which gave me select entry into most any nightclub in the City. Jimmy went so far as to charge the government with a civil rights violation when Bruce Mailman, the owner of the largest gay nightclub in New York (The Saint), was indicted. For a short while, Jimmy was the heroic savior of the gay rights movement. They couldn’t get enough of him.
My favorite club, bar none, was the Mudd Club on White Street in Tribeca. I was dancing with some friends one night when a squirrelly, white-haired little dude with an entourage motioned me towards their couch. Finally, I went over, more than a little wary. There was Andy Warhol in the flesh. Warhol didn’t speak much and had the affect of a person floating on hallucinogens.
With a box of expensive-looking pastels in his lap, Warhol asked me to take my shirt off. He wanted to paint a picture on my chest. I let the numbnut go at it and he started to frame this large pastel across my chest. A crowd grew. When he was done, he invited me to sit. His crew made a big spot for me. “Let me use the bathroom first,” I begged my new bud and was out the side door in a shot.
When I awoke the next morning, my sheets looked more like a Jackson Pollack than an Andy Warhol. I stripped the bed and begged Angela, our housekeeper, to get rid of the sheets. She looked at me and said what she always said. “You a bad boy.” I realized that I had never once looked at Warhol’s personalized painting on my chest.
Not everyone was as fortunate as yours truly in the 1970s.
In 1972, in what would be heralded universally as the most fool- hardy prosecutorial appointment in decades, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller appointed Special Prosecutor Maurice Nadjari to investigate corruption in the city’s criminal justice system. Rockefeller’s appointment of Nadjari was the equivalent of letting a wolf, fox, AND a skunk into the hen house at the same time.
In a four-year odyssey that began with the goodwill of the entire City behind him, Nadjari ruined careers with baseless charges. He attacked the integrity of anyone who questioned his tactics. He misused vast government resources in his quest to get convictions at any cost. In those four years, Nadjari spent $14 million (in 1970s dollars), had 175 employees, and was running more wiretaps than anyone in the City.
Jimmy set his sights squarely on Nadjari and took on the defense of some of the task force’s biggest cases. Though it was almost always just business with Dad, I am quite sure Dad took personal offense at Nadjari’s over-the-top efforts, and set out to expose and discredit his very operation.
Under Nadjari, every judge or lawyer seen in the same steam room or restaurant with a “made man” was suddenly indicted. It was a fucking free-for-all, and many of Nadjari’s targets made a straight beeline to Jimmy’s office.
Nadjari indicted eleven judges, but not one was convicted. He never proved in a court of law that one senior public official took one dollar in graft. Nadjari, Jimmy proved, obtained “defective indict- ments” with “inaccurate testimony” and illegal wiretaps.
Jimmy was a master at proving that Nadjari improperly leaked grand jury testimony to the media. Dad not only set out to acquit his clients, but he would render Nadjari a mere footnote and send him back to solo practice on Long Island.
In a case covered in length by The Village Voice, Jimmy was pictured with the headline “JIMMY LA ROSSA: MEANER THAN A JUNKYARD DOG!” It was the Nadjaris of the world who made him that mean.
In other cases, Dad made Attorney General Edwin Meese hang his head in his hands in the witness box, and Jimmy actually got so far under former Mayor Robert Wagner’s skin that he broke into tears in open court.
Until the era of the “free tabloids” of the 1990s, the Wednesday edition of The Village Voice was required reading for all informed New Yorkers. The Voice broke new journalistic ground almost every week thanks to three great writers: Jack Newfield, Nat Hentoff, and Wayne Barrett. One of The Voice’s most popular whipping boys in those days was a “mini-mogul” named Donald Trump.
In a feature article exposing Nadjari for what he had become, Newfield tried to explain the phenomenon: “The roots of Nadjari’s excesses can be traced to his own personality and character. He seems to believe the end justifies the means. He sees the world in black and white, without doubts, without ambiguities. He is very am- bitious, and this has made him intensely concerned with personal publicity in a job in which he had no boss to hold him accountable.”
Nadjari’s indictments were always front-page material and were usually reported as the first item on television news programs. “Months later, the appellate dismissals of these charges would be reported in the back of the papers and toward the end of the news shows,” wrote Newfield.
In four short years, Maurice Nadjari managed to roil the entire City. Luckily for the Big Apple, there was one guy meaner than he was, and that person was my old man. Nadjari was the kind of guy who made Dad work especially hard to become what he was—a bully-killer of epic proportion.
Ross DiLorenzo, a well-liked Brooklyn Civil Court judge, was the first of the judges indicted as the result of evidence presented to a grand jury by Nadjari. DiLorenzo was a graying sixty-six-year-old former Democratic leader. He was accused of eight counts of first- degree perjury, alleging that he had lied during removal hearings conducted by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, Second Department in 1970-71.
Dad liked the professorial-looking judge. During the early summer of 1974, they spent many hours at a large table on a stone patio overlooking our orchards in Connecticut, crunching through papers. DiLorenzo was going to take the stand, so they did a lot of rehearsing. They were very animated—the two of them—and as the sun set and Dad’s booming baritone fell silent, I used to bring them gin and tonics with big chunks of lime, just as I had been taught. Most of Dad’s Nadjari-era defendants were lawyers, who did not always make the easiest of clients, but DiLorenzo was an exception.
DiLorenzo’s case was particularly thorny, since it took two full- blown jury trials and an appellate court appeal before the judge was fully vindicated.
In July 1974, DiLorenzo was acquitted of two counts of an eight- count indictment. One count was dismissed by Supreme Court Justice John M. Murtagh, who set a new trial date for the following October for the remaining counts. Not until April 29, 1976, did a jury of seven women and five men find DiLorenzo not guilty on every count of their first ballot.
According to Edith Evans Asbury, writing for The New York Times the next day, “The verdict yesterday marked the second setback in a month for Mr. Nadjari at the hands of Mr. La Rossa, the lawyer for Judge DiLorenzo. Mr. La Rossa represented Norman Levy, a former president of the City Tax Commission, in obtaining a dismissal of traffic fixing charges on April 1. Mr. Levy…was in the courtroom yesterday as the verdict was brought in, and joined the group of friends congratulating Judge DiLorenzo.”
Norman Levy and his wife were at the house often during this period. They were “salt of the earth”—easy to root for kind of people. The normal practice when someone is indicted for a nonviolent white-crime is for the prosecutor to notify the defendant’s lawyer and arrange for the defendant’s appearance in court for arraignment. In this case, Dad called Levy at 5 a.m. after he got wind of Nadjari’s decision to send detectives directly to his door at 5:30 a.m. Levy’s four-year-old daughter woke up in hysterics. She and her mother watched as Norman was loaded into a squad car. In a final fit of petulance, Nadjari appealed the Levy dismissal by testifying that the original judge, John M. Murtagh, who had died in the meantime, had blocked Levy’s retrial. Nadjari claimed that Murtagh, who could no longer defend himself, had postponed the retrial because he was anticipating his elevation to the Appellate Division and wanted his successor to preside at the retrial. This was a disgusting example of Nadjari lawyering, and Dad went so far as to take the stand himself to testify about communications dur- ing the trial.
Later, Nadjari took aim at yet another Civil Court judge. Judge Bernard Klieger was charged in Federal court with perjury and con- spiracy involving a scheme to induce several corporations to make disguised campaign contributions to the mayoral campaign of City Controller Abe Beame, who would become the mayor of New York City in 1976.
During the Klieger trial, in front of Federal District Court Judge Milton Pollack, Dad adopted a unique strategy by putting Klieger on the stand. He read aloud from Klieger’s grand jury testimony from 1970, in which the judge denied disguising contributions from corporations. Dad’s simple, direct examination of Judge Klieger put the prosecution on defense:
LA ROSSA [referring to the 1970 grand jury testimony just read]: Were your answers true then?
KLIEGER: They were.
LA ROSSA: Are they true now?
KLIEGER: Yes, sir.
LA ROSSA: Are there any answers you would like to change today?
KLIEGER: Not one. The jury acquitted Judge Klieger in under two hours. “I’ll be back on the bench tomorrow morning by ten o’clock, if my doctors allow it,” he said.
Following that, Leonard B. Sand, a judge “revered for his integrity and balanced judgment,” dismissed four separate in- dictments brought by Nadjari against Bronx Democratic leader Patrick Cunningham.
In a last, desperate, bad-judge grab, Nadjari made the fatal mistake of insisting on an unconditional waiver of immunity from State Supreme Court Justice Irwin (Bobby) Brownstein. Brownstein was a model judge. He had moved his courtroom into the Brooklyn House of Detention during Christmas week to hold hearings for hundreds of men awaiting trial, in detention solely because they couldn’t afford to post bail. He was the judge the Brooklyn DA’s office trusted with the most sensitive wiretap orders on organized crime members. “His reputation was for fairness, diligence, and compassion,” wrote Newfield in The Village Voice.
Brownstein was not only considered one of the stellar judges in the City. His attorney was his former law partner, Jimmy La Rossa, who happened to be on vacation when Nadjari had Brownstein served. In a New York Times article dated March 28, 1974, Brownstein was quoted as saying that he wasn’t doing anything until his lawyer, Jimmy La Rossa, returned from vacation. Jimmy went so hard at Nadjari that Brownstein was never indicted.
The special prosecutor gradually lost the respect of his friends in law enforcement and the judiciary. Unbeknownst to Nadjari, Jimmy was building a case against him. He intended to deliver his findings in person to the highly respected U.S. attorney, David Trager.
I was eating with Dad and some of his colleagues one night in a favorite restaurant. Nadjari knew the party was almost over for him, so he had decided to run for district attorney in Queens County. Nadjari’s chief of staff, whom I could only guess knew little about Jimmy, approached him in the restaurant to ask him to come to a fundraiser for Nadjari the next week. Without missing a beat, Jimmy uttered the single, rudest sentence I ever heard from his lips. “Yeah, I’ll cum,” he said to the unwitting staffer, “in his mouth.”
By 1976, Nadjari was done. He fled to Long Island, where he was, almost literally, not heard from again. Writing for The New York Times on March 19, 1978, Frank Lynn described Nadjari riding around Long Island in his “battered Triumph sport car,” virtually “boycotted by the legal establishment in New York City” (“Maurice Nadjari, After the Storm,” The New York Times, March 19, 1978).
U.S. Attorney David Trager was quoted as saying, “No prosecutor trusts or respects Nadjari, personally or professionally”
Following the failed Nadjari era, the federal government threw every resource it had into decimating organized crime. This included the drafting of the most deadly racketeering act ever imagined, known by the acronym RICO.
For the next twenty-five years, Jimmy would try to outwit the Feds during some of the most complex RICO prosecutions ever at- tempted. The timing could not have been better. Jimmy was at the height of his skills, in the right place, at the right time. He was ready.