Ever been queried by the FBI? I can tell you, it’s not a pleasant experience; not for me, not for anyone I know. Talking to a couple of G-men can be awfully disagreeable. And being lectured by even one can be positively revolting. Read on and I’ll explain).
About 25 years ago, my company had almost completed construction of a new wing to our manufacturing plant in the Bronx. A fairly simple affair; a lot had to be cleared of old structures, the ground and excavated and a new basic and plain design out of beams, purlins and prefabricated walls and roof erected in its place.
As a small manufacturer, based in the Bronx and Manhattan since 1921, the company was desirous of state and city certification as an Industrial Development Authority (IDA) project, which would afford us loan terms generally unavailable to firms of our size, as well as exemptions from sales tax on construction-related materials. The process involved meeting with the then-constituted Community Planning Board whose check-off was required before the IDA would grant certification and a certificate of occupancy obtained for use of the space. Turns out that one member of the panel, let’s call him Tony Salerno (name changed to avert complications and expense) required a closer inspection and a meeting with the principals. Introductions were made and when questions became too technical for the owner-family’s understanding, he saw the general contractor in charge of the project day-to-day.
We learned second-hand that the builder would be forced to do his part for minority employment and hire a sufficient number of local-area residents and a stated complement of minority-group members. After further consideration of the bureaucrat’s concerns, apparently a deal was struck to ensure a satisfactory number of Bronx residents of diverse backgrounds were achieved.
Shortly later, amidst the bustle of workers and humming of industrial equipment, two well-dressed men entered our main building seeking the company principals. Representing ownership, I introduced myself, and led them to our offices. After being requested their identities, they produced badges and business cards issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. After offering the barest niceties, they asked if we had ever heard of Tony Salerno. I answered, Yes, and then proceeded to tell what I knew about him. This seemed the proper course as I had learned that the Community Board member so named had caused the general contractor unbudgeted additional costs, considerable uncertainty and delay and not inconsiderable grief in complying with his unanticipated laundry list of concerns. As in the movies, the carefully groomed lawmen spoke in clipped sentences and answered my questions about the target individual with assiduous equivocation.
After a considerable time relating the now-obviously sordid tale, the interview ended and I returned to my duties running the plant. I felt relief, having unburdened the company of satisfying requirements that seemed to have no basis in New York City/New York State rulebooks or official texts. As applicants to the state Industrial Development Authority, we had been obligated to complete an array of applications conveying our legal and financial worthiness, committing us to remain in the Bronx for the life of the loan, making good faith efforts to retain employees and transmit regular accounting data. Salerno’s new demands seemed to emerge from nowhere other than his fevered and fertile imagination.
Barely a week later, we received a Certified letter from the office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, directing us to contact them regarding an ongoing subject of their investigations.
What followed was a five-week ordeal relating our honest attempt to expand operations in the Bronx and take advantage of government incentive programs designed to encourage increased employment of semi-skilled and unskilled borough residents. Informal contact with the office proved to be inadequate, so we hired a law firm made up of ex-prosecutors of the state and federal bars. There is a long-standing tradition of prosecutors working for the feds or state offices; the sharpest and most financially-orientated opt out after a while and go to work for an over-priced partnership like the one we engaged. Those sharpest and most politically ambitious prospects stay in the public sector and hope to run for public office. More on this later.
We were obligated to retail the origin of the construction project and how we came to know Salerno, who, it turned out, had been a target of law enforcement for some time. Staff members lost work time visiting the lawyers and explaining their roles. Others lost sleep, concerned that their honest work complying with seemingly legitimate government requests was being misconstrued by an overly zealous U.S. Attorney’s office.
Altogether, it was a lonely and mildly terrifying time. More than once, one of the prosecuting office’s young pups really lost his head (or at least his sense of perspective) and threatened to send my colleague up the river unless he agreed to cooperate according to our attorney. Specifically how any of us had failed to cooperate fully with the investigators was never explained, as every question posed to the employees was answered in full. Another petulant prosecutor offered serious hard prison time to staff members who failed to give up the goods on the errant civil servant.
(Not once, however, were any of us referred to as a scum bucket; this was years before the proliferation of the CSI and SVU series on television and their limitless proliferation of spinoffs, sequels and prequels, and their parodying in the media).
The case ended with a whimper and not a bang. No phone call clearing our company or finally disposing of the investigation. I do not know if Tony Salerno got nailed, did time or even if he is still plying his trade intimidating and holding up legitimate business in New York for his ticket to the play land. One thing is certain however; the $10,000 retainer that we coughed-up to the law firm matched precisely their billings in the case and no refund was obtained.
And how to divine the terrifying torrent of threats, verbal brickbats and B-movie lawyer jibber-jabber? That was nothing more than prosecutor oratorical excess over the invariably Democratic party city machines and their complex networks of subsidiary boroughs, wards, precincts, water districts and community planning boards. And the cold, heartless re-delivery of such threats by our defense team? Hard to say, but one attorney-friend not related to the case said this was just more or less returning a favor by a lawyer to a law school classmate. And perhaps also, a bit of Kabuki-theater necessary to justify the great expense of criminal defense, courtesy of grand traditions of the legal profession.
(Ultimately, the building was completed and integrated into the factory’s production system to our profit and the benefit of our unionized workforce in gainful employment and decent salaries and benefits for nearly three more decades.)
Westchester Guardian publisher Sam Zherka has tasted another version of the state prosecutorial mechanism, one of a different nature and more caustic than we sampled in the Bronx decades ago. But similarly, his case exemplifies the pitfalls of placing so considerable an amount of latitude and discretion in the hands of lawyer posses.
According to the local Gannett outlet and the Westchester Guardian, Mr. Zherka has been held without bail in pre-trial detention since September 18, 2014, despite the recommendation of the federal Pre-trial Services office that he not be detained. Charged with submitting false bank loan applications, filing fraudulent tax returns, failing to file and witness tampering, he has denied the claims, attributing them to the political establishment’s opposition to his editorial independence and pursuit of malefaction by Westchester County’s Democratic District Attorney Janet DiFiore and Yonkers former Republican Mayor, Phil Amicone, among others.
While the validity of the charges is beyond the purview of this article, it is clear that political machines do not mourn his misfortune or begrudge the uncustomary denial of bail; this is not surprising. What does cause wonder is the failure of the daily broadcast and print media to raise alarms about the plight of so prominent an advocate of First Amendment rights, one who has obtained judgments against those who have tried to extinguish the distribution of the very newspaper you are now holding in your hands.
How to explain their silence? Do these paragons of New York’s media establishment types disdain Mr. Zherka’s consistent advocacy of conservative and free-market views. Perhaps they begrudge his successful entrepreneurial career, which has included stints in real estate, restaurants and strip clubs. Whatever the cause, the conduct of local federal law enforcement and the indulgence of their excesses by the established seems like more business-as-usual in the five boroughs and the suburban counties of Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk New York and perhaps the New Jersey ones of Bergen and Passaic.
Our last example in the annals of law enforcement Fear and Loathing in the metropolitan area emerges from the fervid imagination of FBI Director James Comey, a Yonkers native.
In remarks at Georgetown University early last month, he let loose with his analysis of the relationship between law enforcement and the diverse communities we serve. Pledging a laudable honest discussion about the disconnect between police agencies and many citizens, he then veers into the miasmic wasteland of sociological speculation and psychological demon dispossession. Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias and people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases, he reports.
To this outbreak of latent biases he proposes to design systems and processes that overcome that very human part of us all. This new approach to law enforcement is supposed to stamp out flavors of cynicism and mental shortcut(s) that compound the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color. He acknowledges that young men of color are responsible for a disproportionate percentage of street crime and then lambastes a hypothetical police officer for turning toward one side of the street where minority kids are present and not toward one where whites are.
Does this compel him to conclude that law enforcement work is difficult or impossible in today’s atmosphere of critically spotlighted and second-guessed police behavior? Does he suggest that new resources may be required to assist the lonely, imperiled individual officer in his Herculean physical and Solomon-like ethical and intellectual responsibilities? Might some cutting-edge enhancement of computer hardware and Artificial Intelligence software be suggested to these sorry and doleful tasks? He doesn’t say.
Blessed by a great and considerable public office with an unparalleled platform for public reflection and speculative problem solving, he cops out. Against considerable evidence to the contrary, he decides that the wholly understandable (if scientifically imprecise) practice of ethnological and racial profiling complicates the relationship between police and the communities they serve. What is his conclusion? (C)onversations – as bumpy and uncomfortable as they can be help us understand different perspectives.
Un-oh! Here we go again with the conversation business. Favored by amateur Dr. Phils and Ruths: reliant on suspect, theoretical socio-political conflict resolution; blandly dismissive of the overwhelming evidentiary incidence of minority-on-minority violence and decades-long welfare dependency and joblessness. Where anecdotal and statistical evidence point to the saliency of family cohesiveness and favorable job-creation policies for empowering persons of color, this would-be national executive department crime-fighting boss morphs into an excuse-peddling Twinkie!
For ignoring fundamental lessons of economics and resorting to moral scolding (resist bias and prejudice), Comey reveals his thorough unsuitability to the challenge. Stating We have spent the 150 years since Lincoln treating a whole lot of people of color poorly. (W)e must account for that inheritance and speak to each other honestly about these hard truths he displays an almost childlike preference for amiable weightlessness. For what hard lessons can law enforcement take from Comey’s hectoring? Nothing of a curriculum for an improved course of police training and certainly no guidance for minorities seeking a way out of a troubling history of self-fulfilling self-defeat.
The leftist guilt-ridden board and staff at the New York Times must have been impressed by the Director’s descent into self-flagellation and societal chiding, but it is doubtful that the public or police rank-and-file could have comprehended any useful remedy or course of conduct therein. Comey may have earned himself a shot at nomination for higher future political office (and the accolades of Democrats seeking that moderate Republican ideal, so mythologized by the metropolitan political chattering classes), but those seeking solutions for the continuing tensions in minority community policing will have to search elsewhere.
Residents of New York and New Jersey have seen a parade of aggressive Alpha Male prosecutors over the years. From Thomas Dewey to Rudolph Giuliani, Jeanine Pirro to Janet DiFiore, Chris Christie to Eliot Spitzer to Eric Schneiderman. The best have led with principle, through crime waves to terrorist attacks. Others have undertaken more benighted missions, through personal and family scandal, to brazen political glory and office seeking. Some with dignified resolve, others through simple bullying.
In pursuit of the loftiest of objectives, it seems Director Comey has neglected the lawyerly craft of factual research and mastered only intellectual bullying.