By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, June 6, 1986
Just when we need him to be bold, with corruption menacing all around us, Mayor Edward Koch has suddenly turned timid. Time was when he would rise up blazing, point a finger at a malefactor and say right out that “he engaged in being a crook.” But these days, the first is gone from the crime-busting mayor.
Compare the Koch of January, when he made that accusation about Queens Borough President Donald Manes “being a crook,” with the Koch of June, who said this week that newspaper reports about investigations into Meade Esposito, his ally and former Brooklyn Democratic leader, were not fair. “Do you think that’s fair?” he said. “Let’s assume that he is never indicted. Do you think that he will ever recover from that story?”
But back in January, he wasn’t talking like a wimp. Back then, he was the old Ed Koch of brimstone and candor. Some excerpts: “In the case of Donald Manes, we clearly know he was corrupt…in the court of public opinion.” “It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s been proved or not.”
What’s happened to the mayor? Has he lost his gumption? Surely he knows that with so many investigations having now blossomed in the garden of his city government and so many people of his acquaintance either under indictment or inquiry, the citizenry needs him more than ever to sort the wheat from the chaff and tell us who’s a crook and who isn’t.
For example, in late January, when Transportation Commissioner Anthony Ameruso decided to resign because of scandals in his department, the mayor said Ameruso himself was not involved in the mess but was stepping down merely because it happened on his watch. “He’s first-rate, impeccable,” Koch said at a news conference, the commissioner at his side. “He’s honest. I recommend him without reservation.”
Shortly after this news conference but before Ameruso’s actual departure from office, the Village Voice reported that the commissioner had violated the spirit of the financial disclosure laws. The mayor expressed displeasure but did not fire him — an act that would have reduced Ameruso’s city pension. Now Ameruso — a protege of Meade Esposito — is under investigation by federal authorities.
It would be helpful if the mayor could tell us what category Ameruso fits into. Is he just another low-grade cutter of corners or is he an out-and-out crook?
Some people have opined that Donald Manes’ suicide in March is what dampened the mayor’s ardor for making judgements about criminality. But that’s not convincing, because Koch keeps saying he did the right thing.
Just two days ago, he said of Manes: “But wasn’t I right? Wasn’t I right? Presumption of innocence is a court matter for the jury. There is no presumption of innocence outside of the courtroom.”
In that case, let’s have the straight poop about all the others being investigated.
But the mayor seems, sometimes, to lose his heart for the chase after the crooks, or maybe it’s that he has a very individual definition of what a crook is.
Perhaps he could devote one of his myriad news conferences to this vocabulary lesson.
For example, when the city’s Board of Ethics and his own Department of Investigation found that Staten Island Borough President Ralph Lamberti had broken the ethics law by using his public office for private gain, the mayor pooh-poohed the news. He said Lamberti had made “a dumb error” but was an “honest man” and a “partner” and a “friend.”
And sometimes, when newspapers write stories about investigations of people close to him at City Hall, he says this smacks of “McCarthyism.”
Then there’s Stanley Friedman, the Bronx Democratic chief, who has been indicted for all sorts of alleged wrongdoing. And the mayor simply won’t give us the word as to whether the charges are a crock or Friedman is a crook.
Crock or crook, we have a right to know. And surely the mayor is in a position to tell us. He has done a lot of business over the years with Esposito, Friedman, Lamberti, et al. Speaking of business, last year’s Koch re-election campaign gave Esposito’s printing company $117,884 worth of work.
The mayor does not deny his history with these good old boys. In fact, in a recent speech, he said: “A candidate’s dependency on party leaders and their political organizations in order to win an election renders the candidate susceptible to undue influence even before assuming office. Certainly, it is naive to think an officeholder who needed the political party organization to get on the ballot wouldn’t, at the very least, be accessible to county leaders after the election and throughout his or her term of office.”
Being accessible, the mayor must have gotten to know these characters pretty well. Don’t hold out on us now, Ed. You must realize that the average Joe is always dying to know what goes on behind those scenes. You told us that’s why you wrote your two books — to give us an honest, inside look at how government works.
So what do you say now? What are these guys really like, the ones being investigated and indicted? Did you suspect all along, from their sly looks and innuendos, that they would eventually end up in trouble? Or were you impressed with their honesty and impeccability?
There are those who think you’re being shy because you still need these guys to keep the wheels of government moving and to get re-elected.
Tell us that’s a crock, Ed. Tell us who the crooks are.