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Happy 85th Birthday, Bob Morgenthau

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On the issues, she attacks Morgenthau’s special interest in Wall Street, mentions the “internecine conflicts” inside the D.A.’s office, and suggests that in the age of terrorism, quibbling over turf with other agencies could cause a case to fall through the cracks. “If the D.A. cares more about getting the headline, then New Yorkers’ lives are in danger,” she says. (Asked for examples of Morgenthau’s doing this, she says, “I don’t feel I could say anything about that.”)

Morgenthau refuses even to say Snyder’s name out loud, but he is mindful enough of her to defend his record, even without my asking. His commitment to take on white-collar crime, he says, springs from his career-long desire not to simply put poor minorities in jail, but to prosecute wealthy white criminals as well. And his money-laundering investigations into New York banks, he says, extend his white-collar work to the war on terror. “We know they’re going to some of the hot spots in the world,” he says. “We’re trying to figure out who’s getting it.”

Not that he’s ignoring street crime, he insists, mentioning several times that murders are down 85 percent since he took office. Where Manhattan used to be the most dangerous borough, now it places fourth. “We’re duking it out with Staten Island now,” he says.

Age and experience, as Morgenthau spins it, can be a strength. His inner circle has been with him for decades; he calls Nancy Ryan “the best investigator in the United States.” Delegating to such people, he argues, is the way the job should be done. “It took a long time to build up the kind of staff that we have now,” Morgenthau says. “I want to hold those people together, and I don’t know if anyone from the outside can do that.”

While Snyder says Morgenthau’s not a team player, he boasts that he’s beholden to no one. “Yeah, I’m independent and stubborn,” he says. “If I think a case can be brought, I’m gonna bring it. I don’t worry about what any of the power groups or the public think.” Few D.A.’s, for instance, would have been able to agree so quickly to vacating the sentences of the five men convicted in the Central Park jogger case. “It took guts,” says Barry Scheck, who helped bring the new DNA evidence to the D.A.’s attention. “Because he’s in such an esteemed place, he can make decisions on big cases without worrying about the consequences. Because what are they gonna do to him?”

Morgenthau’s last line of defense on the age question is self-deprecation. At a recent press conference where, with multiple-sclerosis sufferer Montel Williams by his side, Morgenthau advocated the use of medicinal marijuana, the D.A. was asked point-blank if he’d ever smoked pot. He blushed and stammered, but never really answered the question. “What I was trying to say was I was too goddamn old to have been doing that,” Morgenthau says with a smile. “I mean, I got out of college in 1941.”

Leslie Snyder’s challenge is the first serious threat Morgenthau has faced in years. His last real fight was against C. Vernon Mason in 1985, and even Mason got only 30 percent of the vote. Just about anyone from the political Establishment would say Morgenthau—better known, better funded, and better connected—has a big edge next year as well.

Some believe Snyder’s real motive might be to tee herself up for the next time around—an idea that clearly offends her. “You mean, like, I’m not really thinking of this seriously?” she says. “This is my love. I’m going to be a hands-on D.A., should I be fortunate enough to win. I’m not going to sit on the eighth floor letting someone else run the Trial Division.”

“I’m not gonna get into a debate with her,” says Morgenthau. “I think people know how I run the office. There’s no office in the city and probably the country that’s reduced crime as much as we have. And we continue to do that.”

That’s Morgenthau’s greatest trump card for the age question. If he’s still stuck somewhere in the sixties, then so is the crime rate. Who’d want to go back to the future?


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