Amnesia: The Only Defense in the Bess Case

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, June 16, 1987

Truth has become the principal casualty in the Bess Myerson scandal that has enveloped the Koch administration. So many lies are being told now by the participants, as they scramble for cover, that polygraph machines — even if they were reliable — would break down under the flood of falsehoods.

The Tyler Report serves as one road map to the fabrications, but this document, too, is flawed, for it would appear that former U.S. Judge Harold Tyler and his staff, who were commissioned by the entangled Mayor Edward Koch, were themselves, for reasons unknown, taken in by some of the humbug.

As an instance, the Tyler Report, on Page 46, credits the account of Herbert Rickman, special assistant to Koch, that he played no role in getting Sukhreet Gabel a job in the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

The procuring of this job is central to the scandal, because Bess Myerson headed that department and her boyfriend, Carl Capasso, was going through a nasty divorce. The divorce proceedings, at that phase, were being handled by Sukhreet Gabel’s mother, State Supreme Court Justice Hortense Gabel. Shortly after Sukhreet Gabel was hired as Commissioner Myerson’s special assistant, Justice Gabel’s rulings began to favor Capasso, a contractor who did major sewer projects for the city. For example, she reduced his maintenance and child-support payments to his estranged wife, which she had originally set at $1,850 a week, to only $680 a week. That’s a gift of $1,170 a week — or $60,840 a year.

Both Rickman and Myerson are old friends of Justice Gabel, who apparently asked the two of them to help find her daughter, who was floundering, a job. This was in 1983. Rickman apparently introduced Sukhreet Gabel to Myerson. During that period, Rickman was spending weekends with Myerson at the Westhampton estate of Myerson’s boyfriend, Capasso.

Yet Rickman now denies that he played any part in the hiring of Sukhreet Gabel. To believe that is to believe that frogs turn into princes.

The Tyler Report, curiously, accepts his denial about the particular job as assistant to Myerson. But at the same time, the report notes that Rickman had a faulty memory about several key events in the scenario.

On Page 24, the report observes that “Mr. Rickman did not recall” a dinner that Justice Gabel and her husband had with Myerson and Rickman. On Page 27, “Mr. Rickman has no recollection” of an evening when he and Myerson went to the movies with Sukhreet Gabel. And on Page 73, “Mr. Rickman could not recall” receiving a phone message from Myerson about the news that the payment on two of Capasso’s contracts had been suspended on grounds that he had evaded government rules requiring him to give a piece of his city road-repair work to minority companies. 

Rickman’s memory loss would seem to be a convenient one. He now recalls, and informs the press, that he warned the mayor not to attend a July 4, 1984, beach party at Capasso’s estate because of the minority-scam investigation, but that Koch went anyway. This is the same Rickman whose memory tells him that he never warned Koch about the hiring of Sukhreet Gabel, which was much more serious as a potential conflict-of-interest scandal. He says he didn’t bring his concerns to the mayor because both Myerson and Justice Gabel insisted that the hiring was based on merit and had been cleared at City Hall, where the mayor lives.

When the hiring was revealed in the press in October of 1983, the mayor saw this and chose to believe Myerson’s version that Sukhreet Gabel was chosen entirely for her qualifications after an exhaustive review of applicants.

More news stories came later and the mayor still believed Myerson.

How is it possible to believe anyone here? With criminal investigations continuing, the frightened animals are fleeing the sinking urban ship, leaving fish stories in their wake.

A lawyer for Capasso’s wife, Nancy, says he went to the mayor’s counsel in 1985 to raise the issue of Myerson’s hiring of Justice Gabel’s daughter. The counsel, Patrick Mulhearn, remembers the meeting, but of the hiring discussion, he says, “I have no recollection of that.”

The mayor’s commissioner of investigation, Kenneth Conboy, read the scandal stories in the paper last year and he didn’t investigate or even raise questions with the mayor. All the people who surround the mayor saw the same stories and they didn’t go to him, either. That’s what we are asked to believe.

Every person who reads newspapers in New York City knew something was wrong — everyone, that is, except the mayor and the people close to him.

Carl Capasso entered a federal prison yesterday to begin serving a 4-year term for tax evasion. And yet all the people in the Koch administration who committed malfeasance and nonfeasance of office remain free. Free to have memory breakdowns and to keep telling tales of bunkum and hogwash.

To make sense out of this nonsense, one has to understand that this is a circle-the-wagons time for a paranoid City Hall and its denizens. Truth is the enemy. The newspapers and all the other people asking questions, they are the enemy, too.

The only defense is amnesia.

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