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Civility
(Courtesy of Soft Skull Press, America’s Mayor, America’s President? edited by Robert Polner)

Jim Dwyer

ON THE EVENING of May 17, 1994, as the City Hall reporters for New York’s major newspapers and broadcasters were wrapping up their work for the day, they began to receive phone calls from the mayor’s press secretary, Cristyne Lategano. Heads up, she said. A big story was breaking.

The new administration—Rudolph Giuliani had come into office only five months earlier—had discovered a major scandal left behind by David Dinkins and his administration. It turned out that the city’s Division of Youth Services, an agency that served as paymaster for community organizations receiving public funds, had overspent its budget by $11 million. In an act of subterfuge, contracts had been doled out without being registered — a violation of ordinary procedures. And most of that spending, Lategano and other City Hall aides told the reporters, had taken place in September and October of the previous year. As the story went, at the height of the campaign for mayor the Dinkins people had run the government gravy ladle at maximum power, sending buckets of money to suspicious “community organizations” — breaking the budget and bending the rules to do so.

The story got juicier. Lategano and another Giuliani aide revealed that within the past few days, they had discovered a crude attempt to destroy records at the Division of Youth Services. Someone entered one of the agency’s offices and destroyed records on computer hard drives and other property. The only people with keys to the door were members of the agency’s staff — led by Richard L. Murphy, the former commissioner, who had overseen all those mysterious contracts, and who left office with Dinkins.

The picture, as the mayor himself would say, was very disturbing: millions of dollars handed out by Murphy through some kind of backdoor operation and records destroyed in a Watergate-style operation.

By the time Lategano called with these tidbits, local political reporters were already past or bearing down on their deadlines for the next morning’s papers. Even so, they moved quickly with her information. At the New York Times, the metro pages had already been laid out, but editors decided to pull a story from the first edition of the paper to make room for these developments from the mayor’s office. The new story ran under a headline that read, “Youth Agency Overspent, Giuliani Officials Charge.” Similar accounts appeared in the New York Daily News and New York Post. The story also made the 11 p.m. news broadcasts.

“My immediate goal is to get rid of the stealing, to get rid of the corruption, and to deliver better service to the children,” Giuliani told the News.

With the leaks coming so late in the day, none of the papers or TV broadcasters managed to get a countervailing version of events from Dinkins or Murphy to include in the first stories.

Then, of course, life rumbled on. Scandals arrive and depart in New York City like subway trains, barely remembered beyond their transporting effect on the people directly involved. The sordid affair of the Division of Youth Services would, however, have a round trip. After the splatter from the original stories dried, reporters tracked down Dinkins and Murphy and dutifully relayed their responses that they had done nothing wrong. One or two of the follow-ups even mentioned that Murphy had an impeccable reputation in the social services field in New York.

New York Newsday reporters Michael Powell, Nick Chiles, and Bob Liff and Times reporter Jonathan Hicks found holes in the Giuliani indictment, but at that point, the whole matter was turned over to the city’s Department of Investigation — an agency controlled by Giuliani. For good measure, the city comptroller’s office also got involved. Not quite a year later, in March 1995, the results of the investigations finally came out. No contracts had been awarded to help the Dinkins campaign. It turned out that there had been no excess spending. In fact, the city comptroller established that the Division of Youth Services under Murphy had actually underspent its budget by a few million dollars.

And the break-in and destruction of computer records? The ten-month investigation established that a clock radio and television might have been stolen, though even that was not entirely certain. Other than that, nothing had vanished or been vandalized. No records. No hard drives. Not a byte was out of place.

If nothing was amiss, where had all the tales of scheming, stealing, and skullduggery come from? It is not hard to imagine how some of the confusion arose. Indeed, Murphy had awarded more contracts than he had money for—but he knew from experience that at least some of the groups would not be able to carry them out, so that in the end, he would be on target to meet his budget. He was right. As for the destroyed disk drives, someone apparently had difficulty turning on a computer, and this unremarkable event, combined with a door that had been left unlocked, was turned into a black-bag operation of gravely sinister aspect.

Asked about the false charges he and his assistants had spread, Giuliani shrugged. “That happens all the time, and you write stories about those things all the time,” he said. “Sometimes they turn out to be true. And sometimes they turn out to be wrong.”

Allegations happen, the mayor was saying, and he was right. Yet given the gravity of the charges that were being made by Giuliani, perhaps the lesson was this: spend a few hours checking out the facts before going public. This would have spared the reputations of David Dinkins, his vanquished predecessor, and Richard Murphy, the alleged ringleader of the nonexistent scandal. But other matters of state were at hand, more urgent than someone else’s good name. At the very time that the story came out, the New York papers had been covering Giuliani’s own appointments at the Division of Youth Services. His first commissioner was a minister who turned out to have serious tax delinquencies. Moreover, Giuliani was larding the agency with patronage employees with no particular expertise in youth services—one was an airline mechanic—but who had been diligent in their service to his election campaign.

In fact, on the night that the Giuliani people were pushing the story of the missing money and records, the Times had a story set in type on Giuliani’s use of the agency as a political dumping ground. That story—which turned out to be true—was the one that the editors pulled to make space for Giuliani’s alternative account, a smear that turned out to be false, down to the last malignant iota. To those who first came to appreciate the former New York mayor in recent years—in the era of Giuliani Transcendent, aglow in his exemplary post-9/11 deportment—it may come as something of a surprise that political slime operations were standard operating procedure in the eight years that he ran City Hall.

From its earliest days, the Giuliani administration was famously tireless in shaping public discussion and image of the mayor and other figures who wandered within radar range of the news media.

Sometimes, the mayor and his aides dragged people like Richard Murphy by the scruff of their necks to make sure they got into range. In the beginning, Giuliani’s enthusiasm for his own image was taken as his due, the garden-variety narcissism typical of many powerful people. What came as a surprise, at least initially, were his fondness for filleting the reputation of others, his ability to conjure the unworthiest qualities in someone he saw as a political opponent or threat, and his regular discovery that even the mildest critic was someone who could serve as darkness to his light — in sum, his absolute genius at finding mirror opposite images for his generous self-regard.

***

For those who might think the example of Richard Murphy was an aberration, the folly of an inexperienced administration, the case of James Schillaci warrants study. To begin with, it had almost nothing to do with the political operations of City Hall. Schillaci was just a citizen with a reasonable grievance.

One morning in May 1997, Schillaci was driving east on Fordham Road in the Bronx, passing the long fence of the Bronx Zoo. Cars on that stretch of road often pick up a decent head of Steam — by New York standards, at least—because there are no traffic signals for about a quarter mile, except for a single blinking orange light. The orange light was set up outside a little-used driveway that served the zoo. And of course, it was there to urge caution, not to stop traffic.

As Schillaci drove past the zoo, the signal switched from blinking orange to a steady red. Schillaci, practically on top of the light when it turned red, blew right past it. In the next instant, a police car pulled out of the driveway. Schillaci was nailed with a summons for $125.

A limousine driver and native of the Bronx, Schillaci frequently drove that stretch of road and had never seen that light turn red before. He suspected that he had wandered into a small-town speed trap that somehow had been plunked down next to the zoo. The matter, he decided, bore further investigation.

Some days later, he returned to the spot and watched. Sure enough, a pair of cops were parked in the zoo driveway, back from the road. A few times, the patrol car crept forward, then rolled backwards, as if the police officers inside were peeking onto the road. It did not take long before they found people like Schillaci, running the red light. But how had they turned the blinking orange light to red? It seemed to go on every time they crept forward.

The answer, Schillaci observed, was in the driveway, where a pressure plate served as a switch. Because so few vehicles used that driveway to leave the zoo, there was no need for regular traffic control. But the weight of the car sent a signal to the blinking orange light, turning it red, eventually stopping traffic, and making it possible for a vehicle to exit that driveway. Using their patrol car, the police officers were turning the light red, then catching the drivers who almost never encountered anything but a blinking orange. For his little surveillance operation, Schillaci had brought along a videotape camera and recorded the officers as they issued ticket after ticket to people who shot through the red light just as he had. With evidence in hand, he called the Civilian Complaint Review Board. They referred him to the chief of department. That office passed him to the police transportation division. From there, he was directed to the Traffic Investigation Unit. Those officers referred him to the Internal Affairs Division. But that unit said it was a matter for the Bronx Borough Command.

On August 8, he took his complaints to Rudolph Giuliani himself, calling the mayor’s radio talk show and telling him about the red-light trap. The mayor said he would have someone look into it. Schillaci gave his information to a call screener. The police quickly decided that its officers had broken no laws.

Having wandered like a mouse in a maze, Schillaci brought his videotape to public advocate Mark Green, an eternal nemesis of Giuliani. In short order, Green delivered Schillaci to the Daily News. The story of the “traffic signal switcheroo” ended up on page one of the August 26, 1997, paper.

At noon that day, Schillaci answered the door of his home and found two sergeants looking for him. They had a warrant for his arrest. Somewhere, a record had turned up that showed he had not paid two traffic tickets from 1984. Now, on the very day he complained in public about a police red-light trap, he found sergeants at his door, eager to address a thirteen-year-old infraction.

They put him in handcuffs.

“Isn’t there a statute of limitations on this?” Schillaci asked. “If you committed murder, we could go after you forever,” he remembered one of the sergeants saying.

These were old traffic tickets, though, not murder. Later that day, when Schillaci was brought in front of a judge, he did not have a chance to open his mouth before the judge spoke. “Dismissed,” he said.

“I was walking out the door before the two cops who arrested me got out of their seats,” Schillaci recalled.

The city was not through with him. The arrest on the old tickets had set off another wave of stories, none of them flattering to the police department. The next day, the mayor’s press secretary called an editor at the Daily News and portrayed Schillaci as a career criminal with a long rap sheet. Her suggestion was that a reporter should ask about it. So a reporter was assigned to ask about the rap sheet of James Schillaci. Not surprisingly, the chief spokeswoman for the police commissioner just happened to have it handy when asked.

She read off a list of convictions — bad credit cards, burglary, sodomy—that were pretty serious. At a press conference, the mayor waited for the first question about Schillaci, then launched into an attack on him, the press, and anyone who believed their stories. He waved the rap sheet in front of the cameras. He accused the journalists of “police bashing” for reporting Schillaci’s account of the red-light trap. They were taking the word of a disgraceful career criminal over the police officers who put their lives on the line every day. There was one problem. While Schillaci did have a record for credit card fraud — it was nearly twenty years old — the sodomy and burglary charges, which also were nearly twenty years old, had been dropped after his arrest. They turned out to be the residue of an unhappy breakup with a girlfriend, and prosecutors never even put them before a grand jury. And even if he had been convicted of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Schillaci had a videotape that proved he was telling the truth about the red-light trap. Schillaci’s mother called for Giuliani to retract his claim that her son was a convicted sodomist.

The mayor scoffed. “There is nothing to apologize for,” Giuliani said.

Schillaci sued. Giuliani scoffed again. He said that writers at the Daily News had developed “a romantic attachment” to Schillaci and were ignoring the facts. After Giuliani left office, the city paid $290,000 to settle Schillaci’s case. “What was he doing? He wasn’t urging the overthrow of the government,” said Michael Spiegel, the attorney for Schillaci. “He was complaining about a red light. And they pulled out the howitzers.”

***

Asked once about his habit of taking what were, by New York standards, extreme positions, Giuliani launched into an exposition of his theories on government reform. In order to move the dead weight of the status quo even an inch, you had to set dramatic, perhaps unreachable goals. Nothing about his extremism was irrational; it was all, he explained, a carefully honed and logical approach to a world mired in old and unproductive ways of doing things. Yet his attacks on individuals often seemed as much a product of temperament and impulse as any tactical forethought.

One winter night, a man named Patrick Dorismond walked out of a bar near the Port Authority bus terminal and was approached by an undercover cop seeking a drug deal. Dorismond angrily rebuffed the officer. A scuffle broke out, and Dorismond was shot dead. He was twenty-six. The death of Dorismond — not long after the shooting of Amadou Diallo, twenty-two, killed by undercover officers as he stood in the doorway of his own building, holding a wallet — created enormous tensions for Giuliani. Nothing negative could be said about Diallo, who appeared to have no criminal record of any kind; indeed, after he was shot, police officers went into his apartment and upended his room, pulling curtains off the windows and emptying drawers. What they were searching for was never clear, but it is a safe bet that if Diallo had secreted a marijuana cigarette, crack pipe, or gun in his room, he would have been portrayed not as an unarmed man at whom police officers had fired forty-one shots, but as a shady, violence-prone figure involved in the drug trade. (The search, the mayor said, was part of the “normal, investigative things” done in such cases.)

Dorismond, on the other hand, did have a juvenile criminal record — all of it from more than a decade in the past, when he was 13. In theory, juvenile criminal records are sealed. Their relevance to an episode more than a decade later was debatable. But just as the police officer who shot Dorismond was issuing a statement of regret and condolences to the family, Giuliani made his juvenile rap sheet public.

“I would not want a picture presented of an altar boy, when in fact maybe it isn’t an altar boy,” he said. A few days later, a television newsman from New York 1 News, Dominic Carter, had a memorable exchange with the mayor:

Q. He was an altar boy, in fact. On reflection, do you regret not going to see the Dorismond family?

A. I think that’s not a correct juxtaposition of statements, nor intended for any, any kind of decent or useful purpose.

Q. Why not? You said he was [not] an altar boy?

A. Let’s not, let’s not, let’s not get into a dispute over it. I don’t desire to do that.

Q. But, Mr. Mayor . . .

A. Next question, please.

Q. Mr. Mayor, it’s a legitimate question.

A. No, no.

Q. Either he was an altar boy, or he wasn’t.

A. The question wasn’t . . .

Q. His mother says he was.

A. I’m not going to get into an intellectual parsing of that question. That is not a fair question.

Q. [Garbled]

A. The question is intended, the question is intended to create a dispute, not to elicit intelligent information.

Q. Do you not owe an apology to the family?

A. As I said, the question was intended to create a dispute. It’s an argumentative question. It doesn’t really mean what it says. And I’m not going to answer in that fashion.

***

Perhaps the mayor’s temper when it came to the shortcomings of other people really was just another wrench or screwdriver in the toolbox of political reform. Still, it was hard to understand at times.

At 2:00 a.m. on the coldest night of the winter of 2000, the police raided several homeless shelters across the city. They arrested 149 people on outstanding warrants. Virtually all of the warrants were for offenses below misdemeanors, such as drinking on the street, urinating in a subway tunnel, and so forth. And many of them were seven or eight years old. Most of those arrested had afflictions, such as mental illness and substance abuse, common to those who end up on the street. A good number were pulled out of small shelters that had been set up precisely to make sure they were taking their psychiatric medicines and to keep at least a modicum of regularity in their lives. When an article by New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein recounted the arrests, the mayor exploded.

“There’s no immunity in the law that says if you are homeless, you then get away with committing a crime,” Giuliani said. “You can ignore the problem and say, ‘Gee, I’m such a big, fuzzy-headed liberal that I’m going to walk away from it.’ That’s New York in the 1980s. That’s New York City with 2,000 murders.”

This was zero tolerance of crime, he explained. People needed to understand that was how he had made New York safe. Even these pitiful individuals, with their pathetic offenses against public order, warranted simultaneous raids on the coldest night of the year to drag them from their beds. They were a potentially lethal threat to hundreds or thousands of people.

It is dangerous for anyone to speculate on what is truly inside the head of another person, yet Giuliani compulsively disclosed his state of mind, and often enough, it seemed to be a state of rage. Why and how this should be so is beyond guessing. Only toward the end of his second term as mayor did a biography called Rudy!, by Wayne Barrett, the investigative journalist for the Village Voice, reveal that during the Great Depression Giuliani’s own father, Harold Giuliani, had robbed a milkman at gunpoint on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He was sent to prison, then paroled, just in time for his wedding. All this was long before Harold Giuliani’s only child was born, and that son responded to the revelation by saying that he did not know anything about the matter.

There was, however, another case involving Harold that Rudolph Giuliani surely was aware of. As a teenager, Giuliani was with his father during a peculiar episode in a park restroom that resulted in Harold’s arrest for loitering. The charge was dismissed, but the episode took an emotional toll on Harold, according to Barrett.

“The influence my father had on me was to drill into my skull from the time I was a little boy that you had to be very honest,” the mayor said of his father. It is plain that Giuliani loves the memory of Harold Giuliani, but life with father did not seem to burden the future mayor with much empathy.

When the police physically ripped mentally ill homeless men out of their beds for unpaid summonses of the sort that Harold Giuliani once was served with, the mayor could not have seemed more eager to publicly endorse the raids and to portray these men as potential murderers. Yet with a bad turn of luck, one of those men jailed for public drinking or urination might have been Harold Giuliani.

It hardly seemed to matter. The homeless could just get in line behind the ousted public servants, the whistleblowers, the dead citizens. For so many of the wounded, the Giuliani City Hall had a fresh supply of mud handy. Failing that, there was always salt.