Begging Spitzer's Pardon: John O'Hara renews the effort to get his vote back
City Hall News
December 10, 2007
by David Freedlander
John O’Hara carries no cell phone, does not own a computer, and is not reachable by email.
But the political gadfly, perennial candidate and man with the distinction of being the first New Yorker since Susan B. Anthony to be convicted for voting says that he can be found Friday night at what he calls “an old-man bar” on the tattered edges of Brooklyn anytime before 4:00 a.m.
That is where he sits, nursing a bucket of Budweiser shorties and explaining why he is still relentlessly pursuing a pardon from Gov. Spitzer (D) as the Christmas season approaches.
“If this goes through, I’ll be the first guy pardoned in New York State since Lenny Bruce—and he was already dead by the time he was pardoned,” O’Hara says. “I’d kind of like to avoid that fate.”
As O’Hara sees it, an executive pardon by Spitzer would resolve one of the most shameful moments of New York City political history—and that, he insists, is not just because the case involves him.
O’Hara’s troubles with the law date to 1996, when he was arrested for election fraud. Four years earlier, in 1992, he had briefly moved out of his rent-controlled apartment in Sunset Park, blocks from where he had spent his childhood. He moved into a friend’s house with an eye on buying. Like all good New Yorkers, he was reluctant to let go of the rent-controlled one, but, in keeping with someone who had never missed an election, he dutifully registered to vote at the new place.
That decision led to his problems. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, whom O’Hara had made a career out of antagonizing, claimed O’Hara falsely registered at the new address so he could stay within the newly-restricted boundaries of the City Council seat he was seeking at the time.
Three trials, eleven appeals and 1,500 hours of community service later (on top of $20,000 in fines)—making his one of the most criminal expensive cases in New York history—and O’Hara is a convicted felon, the only one ever charged with the crime of voting under a false address.
The conviction has not much slowed the man who made a career out of running and railing against machine politics in Brooklyn. In 2001, his candidate for district attorney Sandra Roper, who is now his attorney for the pardon, won nearly 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote in a losing effort to unseat Hynes, shocking many. And several judges who O’Hara helped run for office have been elected.
His personal campaign against Hynes has continued as well. In 2005, O’Hara filed a complaint against the district attorney’s office with the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board alleging that a third of the lawyers in the district attorney’s office live outside the city in violation of the law, which he says is a far more serious residency requirement than the one which led to his own indictment.
O’Hara is often portrayed in the press as something of a tough talking Irish street brawler, slugging cans of beer and spitting in the eye of the machine. He looks the part, with a protruding lower jaw, burly frame and dressed like he’s on his way to do some yard work. But the description is a tad shallow, if not stereotypical. Perhaps the years—he is now 46—and the legal battles have mellowed him, but O’Hara comes across as a thoughtful person, one who can speak as knowledgeably about Pakistan as he can about the minutiae of New York state’s byzantine election statutes.
He spends most of his time these days plowing through the dailies and the 35 mostly political magazines to which he subscribes. He says that he speed-reads most of the books that he reads, going through them while standing up at the bookstore.
There also is an earnestness to O’Hara, a sincerity about the role of citizens in a democracy that seems all but stamped out in this ironic age. He supports North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in the Democratic primaries, though he confesses an admiration for the blustery former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.
“I think politics is the only thing in our life that matters,” he says. “Everything else is just a job.”
Personally, though, the consequences of his conviction have been significant. O’Hara was disbarred, leading to the loss of his job as a Wall Street lawyer. He now scrapes by to afford that rent-controlled apartment at the root of his problems. But perhaps most galling of all for this man whose life has been consumed by watching, managing and running campaigns since his first experience handling out flyers for George McGovern—since he is a felon, he is barred from voting in New York State.
All of this helps explains why he has been haggling for a pardon ever since the Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 2004. He wants the pardon to get his life back. And he wants the pardon because he believes it would be a huge rebuke to Hynes, whom O’Hara says pursued him with a vengeance even as murder rates in parts of the borough soared.
“People confuse executive clemencies with pardons,” O’Hara says. “A pardon is a complete exoneration.”
He casts the issue in larger terms.
“When I was convicted it set a precedent that when you register to vote you are subject to prosecution. If he pardons, that precedent is wiped out,” he said, arguing that if this precedent stands, the only guarantee against prosecution is not registering to vote at all.
“That’s the reason why I should get it,” he said.
He notes that several articles have portrayed him as a political dissident, and that he is the first modern-day American he can remember being referred to this way. But he has thrown himself into the role, angling for that pardon. He has compiled a thick executive pardon petition, complete with press clippings, and is calling reporters and editorial boards to press his case.
“The hours are good, but the pay is lousy,” he said.
He dutifully applied each year to then-Gov. Pataki (R), but as he says, “Pataki did what he was known for—nothing,” and the governor left office last year having used his constitutional prerogative exactly once—for Bruce in 2003, who had been arrested almost 40 years prior for obscenity during his comedy act.
According to P.S Ruckman Jr., an expert in pardons and a professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois, this is not unusual. “Across the country, governors use the power far less than presidents,” he said. “Mainly because for some reason there is far more attention on this aspect of their job than there is for presidents. The President of the United States pardons people all the time, but you only hear about it when it’s particularly newsworthy.”
Alex Gibney, who made the film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, has been following him around for a documentary about him that will be called The People v. The People. Also, Nick Cassavetes, who directed Alpha Dog, is apparently interested in doing a feature film about him, tentatively titled O’Hara.
After three terms of Pataki though, O’Hara firmly believes his best chance at exoneration is now. By tradition, most pardons happen in December, and O’Hara says that a Christmas pardon will be the perfect way for the new governor to show he is still the man who campaigned on a platform of insider dealing, which O’Hara blames for his troubles. “Look, he’ll get good press for the day, he’ll get to be in the documentary. What has he got to lose?” O’Hara said. “It’s the only thing a governor can do on his own without needing the Legislature or any agencies or various boards.”
But O’Hara knows that even if Spitzer were open to the idea of a pardon, the governor’s recent troubles may make him wary of potentially angering the Kings County Democrats. And he knows that he may not have helped his own cause by declaring that if pardoned and re-instated to the bar, he would consider running against Hynes in 2009.
“I mean, let’s face it,” he said, “you don’t get bad press for not pardoning someone.”
Phone calls to Spitzer’s office about the possibility of a pardon were not returned.