Free Civics Lessons in Shakedowns and Bribes

Free Civics Lessons in Shakedowns and Bribes


Contrary to what you’ve been reading, John Zaccaro’s trial is not about bribery or extortion; it’s about the giving of civics lessons, a socially redeeming service.

Consider the testimony. Zaccaro, a middleman, phones a Cablevision Systems Corp. attorney back in 1981 for the sole purpose, his lawyer asks us to believe, of conveying the cautionary and helpful information that the franchising process in Queens was corrupt and that it therefore costs a lot of money to do public business in the county. That was the first civics lesson.

The second has come in court from Richard Flynn, the man Zaccaro phoned on that day six years ago. After the call, they met with urgency on a Manhattan sidewalk, for some reason preferring the discomfort of standing outside in showery, windy October weather to the ease of Flynn’s law office a few blocks away.

Flynn, on the witness stand this week in the Criminal Court Building in Kew Gardens, recalled that both over the phone and on the windy sidewalk Zaccaro had told him that “the franchise could be obtained for a substantial amount of money.” 

He elaborated: “My best recollection is that he said that the franchise could be taken care of, probably a reference that he knew someone could take care of it, and it would take a substantial amount of money.”

Assistant District Attorney Paul Pickelle asked Flynn: “What did you think his statement to mean?”

“That he was conveying information to me about a process that was corrupt,” Flynn said.

Pickelle: “Did you think Mr. Zaccaro was speaking of a lawful or unlawful payment?”

Flynn: “I felt Mr. Zaccaro was speaking about an unlawful payment.”

Now to most of us, that may sound like skulduggery or at the least modest sleaze. Flynn was testifying, was he not, that Zaccaro had asked him to pay a bribe in order to obtain a cable television contract in Queens for his client, Cablevision?

Well, not quite, Flynn weaseled, under cross-examination by Zaccaro’s attorney, Robert Morvillo. He didn’t exactly construe it as a bribe suggestion or a shakedown, he said. Well, what was it, then?

Zaccaro’s attorney was a big help here, for he provided the words that assisted Flynn in articulating distinctions so fine they are invisible to the ordinary eye.

“Did you,” asked Morvillo, “understand him [Zaccaro] to be simply conveying information to you that he had obtained from someplace else?”

“Yes, sir,” replied a grateful Flynn.

There it is again, the civics lesson. Good old John Zaccaro, Traveling Professor of Governmental Affairs, takes the subway to 51st Street to enlighten politically inept Richard Flynn, son of Ed Flynn, legendary Bronx County Democratic Leader, about the corrupt nature of Queens government.

Incidentally, Flynn has known Zaccaro for some time, having been involved in several property deals with the real estate and insurance broker.

Let’s go over all this one more time. Zaccaro — who was asked by Cablevision to help make its franchise case because of his connections with the late, corrupt Queens Borough President Donald Manes — calls Flynn and tells him his client can secure the contract if he pays someone a lot of money.

But, scout’s honor, he really isn’t talking about himself or Manes or anyone we know. He’s just helping Flynn out by telling him what he’s up against.

In any case, Flynn says he didn’t even ask Zaccaro for the names of those “who could take care of it.” Apparently he was too outraged.

“I immediately and instantaneously refused it,” he testified. Well, if he didn’t hear it as a bribe solicitation or an extortion attempt, then what was he instantaneously refusing?

It would seem that somewhere on his journey from the grand jury, where he waived immunity, to the more exposed open courtroom, Richard Flynn decided he wanted to reduce his own vulnerability.

After all, during that journey he might have heard voices which told him that if he had listened to a shakedown attempt and not reported it to the appropriate authorities, he might be putting his professional life at risk, either as a lawyer or as a state official. (In 1981, Flynn was a trustee of the State Power Authority, earning $12,500 a year. Now he is chairman of the Power Authority, which pays $62,573.)

So in that State Supreme Court trial chamber in Kew Gardens this week, Flynn metamorphosed from a prosecution witness into a hostile one — designated hostile by the judge because he had been less than forthcoming with his answers. Like some of the rest of us, Justice John Thorp was apparently having a hard time understanding Flynn’s civic lessons.

John Tatta, president of Cablevision, followed Flynn to the stand to explain that when Flynn came to him and told him about Zaccaro’s “information,” “I became very angry, violently angry” at Flynn, because “I was fearful that I was involved in something that in all my life I had never been involved in — a corrupt situation.” Why was he angry, one might ask, if Flynn had already turned down the situation?

In the end, according to the prosecution, Cablevision didn’t pay the bribes and as a consequence didn’t get any franchise in Queens.

That’s a different civic lesson from the one the Zaccaro defense is trying to impart in the courtroom. The future of John Zaccaro, friend and helper of Queens politicians, will depend on whether his jury can bring itself to believe that his service to Cablevision consisted solely of warning them about the reefs and shoals of dishonest politics in his hometown.

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