Police commissioner Howard Safir has just told a packed room of reporters that the city's most notorious rapist, who may have attacked 51 women in six years, has been caught. The room erupts in questions. Was he wielding a gun? Is there DNA evidence? Why did it take so long? Safir, flanked by fourteen beefy detectives, fires off his answers. Lost in the noise is a striking woman in three-inch stiletto heels, standing just to Safir's right, nervously tilting toward the microphone. Though just one of the rapes occurred in her jurisdiction, Westchester County district attorney Jeanine Pirro rushed here to help out. Too bad not a single question has come her way. The exercise has eaten three hours of her day; it will amount to a twenty-second sound bite on the evening news, Pirro thanking the NYPD for its hard work. "It was Safir's show," Pirro says later as her Crown Victoria sits in rush-hour traffic on the FDR, two veteran investigators, each of whom earns more than $60,000 a year, idling in the buttery leather seats up front.
But as it turns out, this is Jeanine Pirro's show -- plying the photo-op circuit, face tinted slightly orange with TV makeup, skirt riding dangerously high on her gym-toned thighs. A short while later, she stands in a low-ceilinged Italian restaurant in White Plains, delivering a rambling 30-minute "spiel," as her press rep calls it, on her causes of choice -- domestic violence, child abuse, and rapes of the elderly. Her gutsy voice peppers the room with images of penetration, penises, and vaginas. Her hosts, 28 members of the Westchester Smith College Club, prim matrons in fat diamonds and tweed, exchange worried looks. "There are crimes occurring against senior citizens in this county," says Pirro, working herself into a passionate, political anger, "that are horrendous, that we don't hear about."
It is Pirro's self-appointed mission to let the public hear them. Intelligent, articulate, a future contender for governor, say people in and out of her Republican party, Pirro, 47, has forged a national reputation as an avenger of victims. With glamorous good looks (People magazine named her one of its 50 Most Beautiful people in 1997) and crime-fighter demeanor, she is an all-but-inescapable presence on Geraldo, Nightline, Larry King Live. She feels your pain.
But now, as she works the Smithies with after-dinner drama, she seems oddly deaf to one man raising his voice a few feet away: "My wife and I sit by the TV and watch her and her husband and say, 'How can she stay with this guy?' " As Pirro approaches, a second man tries to quiet his friend. But the first man wants Pirro to hear: "I'd kill the bastard."
That "bastard" is Albert J. Pirro, Westchester's most influential real-estate lawyer, a man Donald Trump keeps on retainer -- for when he wants to develop an island off New Rochelle or build a $100 million golf-course community in Briarcliff Manor -- a man whom Republicans like Governor George Pataki count on to feather their campaign nests with his clients' money, and a man who was recently indicted on 66 counts of federal tax fraud. The Feds say Pirro hid $1 million in income between 1988 and 1997, claiming dozens of personal luxuries as business expenses, from his $123,000 Ferrari to his wife's Mercedes-Benz.
Though federal tax law allows spouses to claim ignorance of their other half's business dealings, Al's list of exemptions raises real concerns -- at least about Jeanine's lack of curiosity. "She's a bright lawyer," says a former assistant U.S. Attorney who worked in the office now prosecuting Al. "How could she not know? You're going to see some things in her husband's case that shows she's ethically blind." Jeanine Pirro refuses to discuss the matter, except to call the investigation "invasive and hostile."
Though she co-signed several of the couple's joint tax returns (she earns $136,700 a year as D.A.), she has offered no explanations. Not about the Mercedes, which she drives each day past the $40,000 electronic gates of her $1.7 million Harrison home -- gates Al claimed as a business deduction -- or about the deductions of a $3,700 backyard awning; $10,000 in furnishings for a West Palm Beach vacation home; another Mercedes, for Jeanine's mother; cruise tickets; stereos; fine wines; cigars; toys; and even salaries for workers who baby-sat the Pirro children, picked up the dry cleaning, and took the family's pot-bellied pigs to the vet.
If Al Pirro is convicted, the scandal could derail the political future of New York's brightest Republican star and Westchester's top vote-getter, a woman who served as master of ceremonies at Pataki's second inauguration, a woman who -- until the indictment -- was a contender for the Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 2000.