By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, July 25, 1986
The citizenry has come to identify those public figures whose lofty pronouncements must be interpreted more as theater than truth, but lately these figures, sweating in the crucible of the municipal corruption scandal, have carried the art of blather — and the art of avoiding the witness stand — somewhat beyond the community’s very tolerant level of indulgence.
Take Stanley Simon, the borough president of the Bronx, whose perspiration is understandable. He has been asked to testify before a Bronx grand jury about virtually everything that transpires in the sticky web of Bronx politics — from cable television contracts to economic development projects to his campaign fund-raising tactics.
On May 12, just over two months ago, Simon surprised many who know the Bronx man by saying, winningly: “I’ll testify. I’m not going to ask for immunity. I’m anxious to get this over with.”
Tuesday of this week was his date to testify. He wasn’t there. He had decided not to waive his immunity — that is, he would testify only if he could be protected from prosecution for whatever he revealed in his answers to the district attorney’s questions in the grand jury — one that is trying to find out why the same companies keep getting the same, plummy no-bid contracts for towing disabled cars off the city’s highways.
Yesterday, the mayor decided to resolve the Shaw matter by having him questioned in private by his superior, the transportation commissioner, Ross Sandler. Under the mayor’s arrangement, Shaw could be fired if he refuses to answer questions. He could also be fired “if his answers reveal improper conduct or ineffective performance.”
But — and this is the complicated part — Shaw’s specific responses in this civil inquiry could not be used against him in the Bronx district attorney’s criminal investigation. This would not prevent the district attorney, Mario Merola, from developing a criminal case against Shaw using other sources of information, but he could not use Shaw’s testimony before Sandler in gaining such an indictment.
The memorandum released by Mayor Edward Koch yesterday that described this arrangement — which was prepared by Corporation Counsel Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr. — cited legal precedents for the city’s course of action. But the memo left many questions unanswered.
For example, suppose Shaw reveals to Sandler that the towing contract procedure was corrupt. Will the public ever be told what Shaw said? Will the answers — or the gist of them — be revealed to us so that we can make a judgement about the operations of the Transportation Department, regardless of whether Shaw is ever prosecuted?
What is troubling about the mayor’s solution is that it proposes to resolve the problem in camera, outside the public’s view. We must take his word for the result.
The Schwarz memo says this arrangement is necessary to protect the individual’s right — under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution — not to incriminate himself in a criminal prosecution.
Yet one can endorse and uphold that right while at the same time asking if the community does not have a parallel right to ask public officials for explanations. Public trust has to be earned. It does not diminish the Fifth Amendment if we say to Shaw: You have our support in refusing to waive your immunity before the Bronx grand jury, but we would like you to come forward and answer questions — at a press conference or other public forum — about the towing contracts. A public forum is not a criminal proceeding.
But Shaw chooses to remain silent and private, even though he is a public official and is paid $67,046 a year in public money.
And Stanley Simon chooses to remain silent and private, even though he is a public officials and is paid $80,000 a year in public money. (The only difference is that Simon — unlike the appointed Shaw — is an elected official and therefore cannot be taken to the woodshed by the mayor.)
The Simon who said he was going to breeze into the grand jury room and answer all the questions without immunity has suddenly gone into hiding. His office says: “He won’t talk to you. He doesn’t do interviews for the time being.” His lawyer, Maurice Nessen, won’t return telephone calls.
Other boroughs have contributed, in an equal opportunity fashion, to the scandal, but the Bronx has our attention this week. We have the spectacle of Simon and Shaw and, in the background, their mentor, Stanley Friedman, the county’s Democratic leader who has been indicted both by the state and the federal government on charges that include bribery and racketeering. (The federal prosecutor, Rudolph Giuliani, is working as a partner with the Bronx district attorney.)
Another strong, silent, Friedman type from the Bronx is Theodore Teah, under investigation for alleged hanky-panky with cable-television contracts and for his relationship with a reputed mob figure he represented in real estate transactions.
Last month, Teah resigned as a member of the city’s Planning Commission. His departure statement, striking for its absence of comment about these criminal probes, rivaled — for comedic quality — Simon’s cheery promise to testify without strings. He was leaving, he said, because he had “decided that it is time to pursue personal and family goals.”
It may be good theater, but it has nothing to do with the truth.