By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, November 14, 1986
The script might have played in cynical, world-weary, so-what New York City, but it could turn out to be a flop in this quieter and simpler venue where jurors may be less inclined to shrug at the mores of the big-city boys.
That is the irony of what has become known as the Stanley Friedman corruption trial. Friedman and his co-defendants figured that by getting their trial moved to Connecticut, they would avoid the heavy-duty publicity of their hometown, the world’s communications center. But now, whatever negative front-page headlines they may have escaped, they run the risk of having told their stories to a jury that speaks a different language and may not appreciate their lifestyles.
The narrative they have spun in a federal courtroom here, 75 miles from where it happened, is one of deals and fixes and payments of large tribute for such basic acts as making telephone calls to the right people to prevent any accidents on the path to savory city contracts.
When Friedman, the Bronx Democratic leader, was asked during cross-examination on Wednesday if he had been paid $10,000 for making just two phone calls to secure a city lease for a building owner, he sought quickly to correct the prosecutor for devaluing his price-scale. “Just for one phone call, to Donald Manes,” he responded.
And then he added, to make sure we understood the full worth behind the act of pressing seven touch-tone buttons: “I got paid $10,000 for 15 or 20 years of experience in government, for my knowledge of how the Board of Estimate works, of who pulls the strings. That’s what I got paid $10,000 for. It manifested itself in a phone call.”
This might seem normal, or at least tolerable, behavior in a city like New York where swindling never sleeps, but is it possible that it might not find so blasé a reaction here in New Haven, where the capacity to be offended by a municipal finagling may still be alive?
Stanley Friedman would not seem to be the one who conceived all the schemes being described at this trial, merely a participant in them, but apparently because he conveys the most sincerity, his fellow defendants chose him to be their spokesman on the witness stand. His sincerity has frequently become candor, and for this we owe him a debt. For through him we are getting the clearest picture of city government we have been graced with in decades. We could never expect the same from any of its other practitioners and manipulators in and around City Hall.
These thanks are offered to him with tongue only slightly in cheek. Whatever one thinks about the way Stanley Friedman has used government to enrich himself, his style now under the severest of pressure has to be admired. Facing the possibility of jail, he has not broken down, he has not given away his partners in enrichment, he has shown honor even if among thieves. He almost certainly has lied on the stand, but he has behaved better than most in doing it.
And, to repeat, he has instructed us in how the government of the City of New York really works, outside the civic books. And this has to be viewed as a service, even if unintended, for we can now act on his frank teachings, if we have it in us to care about ethics in our political system.
He said that all the monies he received from seekers of city contracts were legal fees, not bribes. But he acknowledged that these payments were sometimes made in a disguised fashion and that he never did any of those chores we normally associate lawyers with — researching statutes and regulations, drafting documents, representing clients in courtrooms and administrative proceedings.
“My job is to move things,” he said. “At least that’s what I get paid for.”
He did his moving of things with his political friends who sat, and in some cases still sit, in government offices. One “good friend” was Donald Manes, the Queens borough president and Democratic leader, who killed himself early this year when his role in the schemes was uncovered.
Friedman said of Manes, in reference to Manes’ vote on the crucial Board of Estimate, which rules on most city contracts: “I felt that he would help a friend if the situation warranted.”
When asked why he had not turned in Geoffrey Lindenauer, the man Manes apparently used to collect his bribes, when Lindenauer, according to Friedman’s testimony, solicited Friedman himself for a bribe, the candid witness replied: “There was no way I was going to blow the whistle on a good friend without talking to him first.”
So Friedman talked to Manes, he said, and Manes told him Lindenauer was “losing his mind” and “out of control” and Manes would “take care of it.” And no whistles were blown, because friends don’t do that sort of thing.
What Stanley Friedman seemed to be saying to this New Haven jury was that he may have made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by placing telephone calls and that they may find this sleazy and even reprehensible, but that it was not illegal and they should therefore find him innocent of the bribery and racketeering charges.
But these jurors seem to be the kind of people who make their money in more traditional ways and whose incomes are at a level where they might conceivably have to worry occasionally about putting away enough savings to finally get the roof repaired.
Will they understand this New York fixer who speaks in the accents of the Bronx and who might sometimes come across to these Connecticut people as a city wiseacre? Could it be that they will find it difficult to comprehend his distinction between sleaze and criminality?
Maybe the defendants should have kept the trial in New York City.