A Machine Divided

| 17 Feb 2015 | 02:10

    A prosecutor who for five years worked under Brooklyn District Attorney Charles "Joe" Hynes, who in next month's election faces a balls-out fight for his seat, described the experience thus: "Hynes wants to be loved, and if you show so much as an inch of disloyalty, his wrath comes down in a shit storm. He only hands out raises to his top people who are unthinkingly loyal-yes-men who are terrified of him, abused but still loyal, a collective battered-wife syndrome." That his staff compares him to a wife-beater is no small irony, for Joe Hynes grew up in a house shattered, physically and mentally, by an alcoholic father. Joe Hynes, overseer of one of the largest public law offices in the country, first made his name as an outsider and crusader taking on the cases that no one else wanted and getting convictions that no one else could. Hynes as a young comer investigated New York's calamitous nursing home scandals of the 1970s, establishing the national model, adopted by the federal government, for probing Medicaid fraud. He prosecuted, in the face of enormous public pressure, the race-tinged 1987 Howard Beach murder case, winning convictions in a celebrated trial that led to a book deal and a tv movie. Hynes today, at 70, has for the last 16 years flourished as the most powerful elected insider in Brooklyn's one-party Democratic regime, known for its shady cronyism if not outright corruption.

    So what happened to the man whom the pundits once hailed as New York's Kennedy? He achieved the office, kept the office, and got himself a nice house on Breezy Point by the sea. And then he wanted higher office. He built a war chest as D.A., ran for attorney general in 1994, came in a respectable third. In 1998, running for governor, he told the Daily News, "Do you think that I could be the [Brooklyn] DA for the rest of my life?" Ticket sales for his gubernatorial fundraisers were so slow that staffers were commanded to fill the empty seats, which augured Hynes' rotten showing: He ended up taking only 16 percent of the vote statewide.

    But now he owed favors-he had degenerated, by degrees, into a stooped creature of the establishment. The Brooklyn machine, after all, had backed him at every step. "If the definition of tragedy is a good man who is destroyed by his ambition," says a longtime observer of Brooklyn politics, "then Hynes is a tragedy." Facing three contenders for his seat in the Democratic primary this September-the strongest challenge to his seat in 16 years-Hynes may be writing his last act.

    Tragedy, Stalin, Joe Hynes: They sound ridiculous in the same sentence, and yet this is the kind of bathos that renders Brooklyn politics such fun to watch, something like a World Wide Wrestling match among mafiosi, complete with incestuous realignments and tag-team assassinations.

    Four years ago, Hynes appeared not to have a worry in the world: Not once had he been challenged for his seat. This was due largely to the courtroom trickery of the Brooklyn machine under street boss Clarence Norman, a state assemblyman known for his affectionate relationship with expensive suits and his ability to bring money and big legal guns to bear where needed in election law cases. When the ambitious D.A. ran for governor in 1998, Norman carried the Hynes name on his literature. When in 2001 a grassroots insurgent, civil rights attorney Sandra Roper, emerged from the wilderness of Bedford-Stuyvesant to challenge Hynes for his seat, Norman and his lawyers spearheaded a month-long election law case to toss Roper from the ballot. Ultimately Norman failed in the courtroom, but so did Roper at the polls, taking only 37 percent of the vote-a nonetheless astonishing figure, given that Roper was under-funded and unknown.

    Then a wondrous thing happened in 2003, following a wave of widely publicized judicial corruption scandals that broke on Hynes' watch: Hynes began distancing himself from his benefactors in the Brooklyn Democratic Party, chief among them boss Norman. So it was that Joe Hynes in 2003 became the hack reforming the hacks, and like an angry father announced the impaneling of two grand juries to look into the matter of the buying and selling of judgeship appointments under Norman. The editorial pages of the big dailies didn't buy it. They hammered him to step aside, to allow the appointment of a special prosecutor free of Brooklyn influence-the kind of prosecutor that Hynes in another age had exemplified.

    The grand juries rooted around Brooklyn for five months, but the much ballyhooed charges looked to most observers like the stuff of a witch-hunt, and a lot less than the sweeping corruption case Hynes had promised. According to Joe Hynes, Norman's terrible crime was that he'd appropriated $5,000 from party coffers, for personal use, and double-billed gas for his car-arguably minor campaign infractions.

    Clarence Norman seemed to enjoy the spectacle. On the day of his surrender, the county's 42 district leaders met in the backroom of a plastic diner off Court Street in downtown Brooklyn to vote whether Norman should step down as county boss-in effect, whether they should hitch their futures to Joe Hynes. Clarence, who in lieu of jail was to stay the night on a cot in the D.A.'s downtown tower, showed up blithe in a tailored suit, surrounded by supporters, smiling broadly; for he knew that the district leaders would back him. The civil war was thus begun: Joe Hynes against Boss Norman. The press swarmed, the cameramen knocked each other, and Norman, at 53 looking 10 years younger, gave a giant thumbs up and wondered aloud if Hynes would order Chinese for the sleep-over. A reporter turned to me: "Sweeney Todd! 'The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.' That's what's happening here."

    At Norman's indictment the next day, Hynes gave a press conference in a bright room on the 19th floor of his tower. The press pool, seated, was gently skeptical. What about the probe into judicial corruption? A grand jury, Hynes replied, had been impaneled to continue investigating just that into 2004. "What I am pushing is a change of culture," Hynes would later tell reporters, "and that's what they are terrified of. It's about jobs, it's about influence, it's about lawyers getting assignments." Then he added, "Quite frankly, the current system embarrasses me as a lawyer."

    On the streets outside the D.A.'s office, where Norman's supporters had gathered, the righteousness was not appreciated. "Hynes is a fucking hypocrite," said a young black man in a billowy black suit who had campaigned for Hynes in 2001. "He's out in 2005-mothafucka is out!" Still, it appeared then that Hynes' gamble would pay off: Norman had become a liability, and so Norman was to be purged and replaced, his blood a kind of show-trial cleansing.

    In the end, there was no trial, no cleansing, no big win to offer the editorial pages. Clarence Norman nearly two years after his indictment has yet to be tried; the Brooklyn machine chugs on. A trial date was tentatively scheduled for earlier this month, on August 1, but Hynes postponed the big event at the last minute. Ostensibly the delay was due to a sudden lung infection that Hynes claimed struck the lead prosecutor on the case.

    Behind the scenes, something else was going on. Norman's lawyers in the run-up to the trial discovered that Hynes had committed some interesting campaign infractions of his own, related to the desperate defense he mounted against Sandra Roper following the failure of Norman's lawyers to whack her from the ballot in 2001.

    On September 7, 2001-four days before the primary that year-a group called the Committee for a Golden Future began writing checks to Democratic clubs across Brooklyn, checks that eventually totaled $26,000. The group's sole reason for being was the reelection of then borough president Howard Golden, a machine hack and ally of Hynes'. But Golden was not facing reelection that year. In fact, term limits forced him out. So where was the money going? It was being illegally funneled, in part, into Hynes' campaign-which by primary day was $25,000 in debt from the Roper challenge-for street operations. Hynes' campaign spokesman, Mortimer Matz, was paid directly by the Committee for a Golden Future with five checks totaling $20,000.

    Meanwhile, Hynes' campaign disclosures show no payments to Democratic clubs for campaign operations and no payments to spokesman Matz. Howard Golden, meanwhile, received a $125,000-a-year no-show job with Hynes upon terminating his employment at Borough Hall in 2001. He was quickly forced to step down when newspapers questioned his purpose in the DA's office. It's notable that election law violations on Hynes' part are no anomaly. In his 1998 bid for the state house that ended so miserably, Hynes received a bag of $12,000 in cash from now deceased Williamsburg rabbi Liebish Lefkowitz. Under New York State election law, unfortunately, it is illegal take more than $100 in cash as a campaign contribution.

    Sources close to Norman suggest that the sordid information about Golden's bankrolling of Hynes' operations in 2001 had a dulling effect on the prosecutor's zeal. Indeed, Clarence Norman's case is not expected to go to trial until after the September 13 primary.

    In the meantime, Norman is busy planning his assault. The effort has benefited in no small degree from the whirlwind stirred four years ago by Sandra Roper, the one-time Norman enemy whose groundwork now proves to be his best strategic asset. Roper, after all, had crashed the door and shown the way: no one before her in 12 years had dared to challenge Hynes. African-American but born and raised in Panama, Roper lay claim to both the growing black and Latino franchise, which together comprises an estimated 60 percent of the vote in Brooklyn.

    Of the three challengers now on the ballot against Hynes, Clarence Norman's candidate is State Senator John Sampson, a former Legal Aid lawyer from Canarsie who appears to be gaining ground with endorsements from 14 labor unions and 19 elected officials who in 2001 did not dare to oppose Joe Hynes. There are even rumors that the Borough Park Hasidim, normally a solid Hynes bloc, may defect to Sampson.

    And if the race comes down to a white Hynes versus a black Sampson, most observers agree on the outcome: Hynes gets eaten.