Nineteen eighty-six was a wild year in the County of Queens. The Mets, powered by a clubhouse of reputed coke snorters, won the World Series. It was also the year of the so-called Parking Violations Bureau case, easily the most Grand Guignol of recent New York City political-corruption scandals. In many ways the PVB scandal fit the usual pigs-at-the-municipal-trough trope: The taxpayers’ money was stolen, lower-level operatives were caught and squeezed by the authorities, formerly powerful individuals were disgraced and sent to jail. What set the PVB affair apart were the outsize characters, with Ed Koch as the arrogant, shrieking mayor; a pre-imperial Rudy Giuliani as the dogged, incorruptible U.S. Attorney; and Jimmy Breslin in the role of the ultimate Big City columnist. But Donald Manes, the 52-year old Queens borough president, was the star, the doomed, tragic figure.
At 27, the youngest assistant D.A. in the Queens office; at 31, the youngest person ever elected to the City Council (a record later beaten by two other scandal-touched Queens pols, Anthony Weiner and John Liu), Donny Manes was always a comer. In 1985, when he was reelected for the fifth time as borough president with 85 percent of the vote, he was widely considered the second-most-powerful politician in New York, a likely successor to Koch as mayor. The highly public unraveling began soon after midnight on January 10, 1986, when two cops found a blood-covered, barely coherent Manes in his car near Shea Stadium. With his left wrist bearing a large Y-shaped wound, Manes claimed to have been attacked by two hoodlums who had hidden in the back of his car outside the Queens Borough Hall. This canard was swept away only days later, as Breslin’s columns on the breaking PVB scandal began to appear. A key player in the scheme was Manes’s longtime friend Geoffrey Lindenauer. A former small-time operator on the edge of the seventies self-help movement—he once ran the Institute for Emotional Education—Lindenauer was Manes’s bagman at Parking Violations, largely in charge of collecting bribes from various private companies engaged in the always-booming New York City parking-ticket business. Although the money involved ($400,000 is the usually quoted figure) palls by today’s standard, news of Lindenauer’s impending cooperation with Giuliani’s office was apparently enough to help push Manes over the edge.
On the evening of March 13, 1986, having stepped down as borough president only weeks before, a severely depressed Manes was in the kitchen of his house in Jamaica Estates speaking on the phone with his psychiatrist, Dr. Elliot N. Wineburg. Wineburg asked Manes to hang on a moment. It was during this time that Manes opened a kitchen drawer, pulled out a fourteen-inch Ekco flint knife, and jammed it into his chest, killing himself. Manes’s body was discovered by his 25-year-old daughter, Lauren. As noted in City for Sale, Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett’s classic account of the Koch-era scandals, Manes’s demise came three decades after the doomed politician found the body of his own father, who also committed suicide.
Hundreds, including the mayor and Governor Mario Cuomo, attended Manes’s funeral at Schwartz Brothers-Jeffer Memorial Chapel, in Forest Hills. The eulogy was given by then-Assemblyman Alan Hevesi, another close Queens County associate of Manes. “I must tell you there may be some confusion because of recent events, but it doesn’t have to be. That’s not the reality. Forget that image. The real Donald Manes was an outstanding public figure,” said Hevesi, now incarcerated on corruption charges himself.
More than 25 years after the fact, Donald Manes may be just one more footnote in the vast saga of New York City public corruption, but the afterimage of his deeds still rerun on cable channels all over the globe, every day. A fictionalized version of the Manes story was the basis of the pilot episode of the original Law & Order series.