Raking the Muck

Illustrations by Zohar Lazar

Which scandal did you have the most fun uncovering?
Wayne Barrett: The mob connections of Geraldine Ferraro. She was intimately involved in her husband’s business, and one of the key guys was Nicky Sands. He had mob ties and had been shot eight times—and he happened to chair a fund-raiser for her when she ran for Congress the first time. [William] Bastone was my intern in 1984, when she was nominated for vice-president.

We couldn’t find Nicky anywhere. Knowing that we’re tracking him, Sands puts himself in the hospital for voluntary surgery. Bill and I find out what hospital he’s in, and we go to Beth Israel. They tell me they have no such patient, but Bill goes behind the desk and he can see the room number on the computer screen. So we go up to the room, and Sands is lying in his hospital bed. He looks up and says: “You must be Barrett.”

Bill sticks a tape recorder under the bed, and we talked to him about two or three hours. We got some great stuff.

What happened to the story?
W.B.: The lawyers [at the Voice] said you invaded his privacy, you can’t use any of the taped interview. We never got to write the story. Ultimately, we wrote a story when she ran for Senate in ’92. By then it was like the 24 mob connections of Geraldine Ferraro. It probably cost her the Senate nomination.

Where is the best place you ever heard of someone passing a bribe?
Tom Robbins: They always said that the bathroom at the Old Homestead restaurant on 14th Street saw more cash change hands than the Citibank on the corner. It was right next to the old meat market.

Who was passing the money?
T.R.: Crooked union officials, city inspectors, wiseguys.

Tom, you broke one of the biggest scandal stories of the Giuliani era, which involved Russell Harding, son of Liberal Party leader Ray Harding. Why did you zero in on him?
T.R.: Russell was running this obscure but very lucrative housing organization called the Housing Development Corporation. Somebody called me and said you should try to get his spending records because the guy is traveling all over the world. So I filed a Freedom of Information request. They didn’t fill it, and they didn’t deny it; they just refused to respond for the longest time. Eventually, I get a letter saying all the records were lost in a move.

When a new administration came in, it occurred to me to refile the request. To its credit, Mike Bloomberg’s administration gave me the records, and they show that Russell had been on a spending binge. He had traveled literally around the world, staying at every place from San Diego to Hong Kong on the city’s dime. I wrote that story, and he ended up getting indicted. They found he had stolen more than $400,000. And they got into his computer and found child porn. He ended up serving nearly five years in prison.

Have you ever been assaulted by anyone you were investigating?
W.B.: The one that got a lot of press attention at the time was in the mid-eighties. Ramon Velez, who was the most powerful Latino in New York, had been a city councilman. He was the king of anti-poverty programs in the Bronx, made a fortune running anti-poverty programs. So much so that he had fourteen condominiums in Puerto Rico. I got all the records, went down to Puerto Rico, went from one to the other, and he was waiting for me in the last.

I have a photographer with me, Susan Ferguson, and we’re walking up the steps. It’s a very dark corridor, and when we get to the top, he is in the stairwell. Ramon weighed about 300-and-some pounds. His arm was about three or four times the size of my arm, and it was wrapped around my throat. He didn’t have a weapon, but he kept saying, “I’m going to kill you, Wayne! I’m going to kill you!”

Susan jumped on his back and dug her fingernails into his eyes. His grip loosened a bit, and we ran down the stairwell and jumped on the elevator. By the time we got down to the bottom, he was there too, and he had a broom. So Susan got a lot of pictures of him attacking me with this broom handle.

Which mayoral administration that you’ve written about was the most scandalous?
T.R.: Koch’s third term. The number of agencies, the number of commissioners, the amount to which they had left open the door for hoods and charlatans … I mean, the guy who was running the Parking Violations Bureau was a sex-therapy quack. Some of the stuff was just insane.

W.B.: The commissioner of the Department of Transportation actually put the sex therapist, Geoffrey Lindenauer, in charge of the Parking Violations Bureau because he was the bagman for Donny Manes. Manes had enormous power.

They were able to fix the award of contracts to private agencies that would collect parking fines. The award of these various contracts was on the basis of cash bribes in bathrooms passed to Geoffrey Lindenauer, and Manes would be stuffing the money in his basement. Geoffrey would give the money back to Donny, maybe keep a little himself, and that’s what brought Donny down. Then Donny stuck a knife in his own chest.

T.R.: I remember how horrified so many people were about his suicide. I think a lot of it had to do with everybody thinking how incredibly tortured he had to have been. That guy was one sad piece of work.

But you know, he was fun. I used to go to the Board of Estimate [meetings], and he once took his shoe off and pounded it on the table, which is what Nikita Khrushchev did at the U.N. He was unlike everybody else. He was colorful, and he understood theater. People liked him.

W.B.: Manes was one of the most pleasant guys in the world. Very funny, very loose. The gift of a great politician is false candor. Donald Manes had it. It’s an extraordinary talent, where you can sound disarmingly truthful and yet everything you’re doing is a lie.

But Manes had a way about him. He would sweat. I remember I had this confrontation with him. I can’t remember the questions, but he couldn’t answer them. I had him against the wall. I can still see the redness in his face. Manes was a very emotional guy. His father had killed himself. He had a dark, dark side to him.

Who is the most ethically compromised politician you ever covered?
W.B.: There’s no fucking competition for this: Al D’Amato. The greatest journalism honor I’ve ever received was being called a viper by him in his memoir. I don’t think anybody else can compete.

T.R.: Say what you will about the guy, Wayne. He walks between the raindrops. God bless him.

Download the Complete History of Scandals [PDF]

Interview by Jennifer Gonnerman.

Raking the Muck