A Reformer Fallen From That ’60s Grace

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, September 18, 1987

The sun was shining brightly on Wednesday, but Manfred Ohrenstein was carrying a raincoat. He needed it to cover the handcuffs so that they wouldn’t show on television and in the newspaper photographs.

Freddy Ohrenstein, 62, the minority leader of the New York State Senate, whom I remember from the 1960s as a progressive challenger of the old politics, needed something to cover his mortification. He was being indicted and booked and fingerprinted, along with two other Democratic politicians, on charges that they used several hundred thousand dollars in state funds — money from the legislative budget — to finance election campaigns.

I don’t know how this case will turn out, but regardless of how a jury finds him, you could tell form Freddy Ohrenstein’s face in the news pictures that his life has been irretrievably altered. His shame at being in handcuffs, at being so far from where he started, was harshly manifest.

This reporter acknowledges experiencing a pang of sadness at seeing those pictures of Freddy Ohrenstein with a raincoat draped over his chained wrists. I realize that this may ring inconsistent with some of the strong remarks about political corruption that have appeared in this space regularly in the past. But one’s past exerts a strong pull, and my direct memories of Freddy Ohrenstein are of a man who fought for decent things.

Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps he was naive. Maybe there was a lot of naivete in the heady air of the ‘60s. I don’t want to romanticize my years covering the Legislature, but even for the so-called outside observer, the reporter, there was a good feeling that same of the old, encrusted ways were being shaken and changed. Objectively need not erase good feelings.

Ohrenstein was part of an informally allied group of assemblymen and senators who were the cutting edge of this push. They were called liberals or reformers. Mostly blacks and Jews in a traditional coalition. Jerome Kretchmer. Percy Sutton. The late Albert Blumenthal. Basil Paterson. And a dozen others.

They championed civil rights legislation, tenant protection laws, programs for low-income housing, improvements in health care for the indigent and elderly, liberalization of the abortion law and modernization of the penal code. The atmosphere of the ‘60s notwithstanding, the Legislature was a determinedly backward place and victories for this group of change-seekers were not automatic, but they had their share of them.

Freddy Ohrenstein was not a personal friend, but he was part of this group and its positive goals, and I saw him in that context and light.

Later, when I left for other assignments and he rose in the Senate’s hierarchy to his present post of minority leader, I heard people occasionally say, not in praise, that he had become part of the power structure he had once taken such gratification from his chauffeur and state care and the other comforts of his office.

“There was a feeling,” said one empathetic senator this week, in a reference to the anticorruption atmosphere that has been stirred by the city scandals, “that somehow the circumstances and rules had changed and that, ironically, Fred — of all people — found himself charged with abuse of the system which he had been committed to change.”

Ohrenstein’s colleagues generally, like this senator, have not been quick to judge him, for they know that the crimes he has been charged with sound very much like the ordinary manner of doing business in Albany. And this system, 27 years of Ohrenstein entered it as a decrier of the old customs, has still managed to cling religiously to its right to avoid accountability and outside purview of the ways in which it spends its money — which is public money. 

And there’s a lot of it. The Legislature’s annual budget for itself is over $122 million. The payroll has more than 5,000 employees. And there are virtually no guidelines or standards on how these people are to be hired, how much work they are required to perform and where they’re supposed to perform it. The guidelines lie, unwritten, in the hands of but a few men — and Freddy Ohrenstein was one of them.

Such a system not only nurtures the possibility of abuse, it guarantees it. Which is why the rush to judgement among Ohrenstein’s peers has been nonexistent, for they are not sure he crossed a line that they knew as forbidden. And the reason for their uncertainty is that no one has ever told them where the line is.

The prosecutor, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, will say that Ohrenstein clearly broke the law by misusing the public treasury for private campaigns. The defense will say that Ohrenstein was merely following long-standing Albany custom by using employees for political efforts to win legislative seats. The jury will decide.

But this case would appear to be only the beginning. Led by Morgenthau, other district attorneys have widened the investigation to reach into fresh corners and fiefdoms of the usually unscrutinized Legislature. The other leaders, Republicans as well as Democrats, have to be nervous. On the one hand, if they support Ohrenstein’s position that he was only observing custom, they virtually put themselves in his vulnerable shoes. And on the other, if they seek to isolate him and distance themselves, he may have a lot to tell the prosecutors about the mores of the state capital.

In the end, there could be a lot of wreckage strewn around Albany. For now, the wreckage resides on Freddy Ohrenstein’s face.


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