New Zealand Herald
April 16, 2005
By Roger Franklin
It took quite an effort and no few phone calls to track down John Kennedy O'Hara, New York's most upstanding disbarred lawyer, and tap his mind about that scandalous thing, the state of justice in the New York Borough of Brooklyn.
First, there was the inconvenience of an unlisted number, although you can't blame him for having one, given some of his enemies. "You got the number from Sandy - she called to tell me," he said when finally reached.
Sandra Roper, a black Panamanian-born lawyer, wants to be Brooklyn's next district attorney. O'Hara, considered by the courts such a lowlife that he is unfit even to be a lawyer, is one of her best friends and chief sources of inspiration. If she beats the incumbent in September's election, the convicted felon might even end up on the bench.
Strange? Not on O'Hara's lifelong turf, a place of crooked courts, political patronage and judges who buy their gavels under the table. Then there's the right to fleece, shakedown, rob blind and generally disgrace the 4 million residents of the Big Apple's largest borough.
O'Hara was keen to talk but short of time. "I'm 44 today and I've got to destroy myself," he says. "That rules out tomorrow morning, too, because I won't be in any shape to answer the phone, no shape at all. But I love talking about judges - talking about judges has made me what I am today," says O'Hara, who has just come from paying the latest one-day-a-week instalment on his court-ordered debt to society.
Today, his "part-time chain gang" scrubbed toilets in a park. If he doesn't court any more trouble - which isn't likely, given his appetite for stirring the pot - he should have completed his sentence by, oh, sometime in 2009.
That's quite a while to reflect on what happens when crooked politicians and thieves in black robes get hold of a court system.
Every player in the shabby justice system of Brooklyn knows that judges answer not to the blindfolded woman with the sword and scales but to the local political bosses ever ready for the main chance.
Sandy Roper says: "Our judges are elected. But because 80 per of the Brooklyn vote goes Democratic, if the political machine puts you on the ticket you're a judge. And if you're a judge you obey the machine if you want to stay a judge - you want to stay a judge because it can be so lucrative."
Fifteen years ago, angry at the habitual corruption and cronyism, O'Hara made a quixotic decision to run as an independent. He lost, as he knew he would, but kept coming back, each time raising a bit more of a stink. In 1996 he learned of anomalies - that's the charitable description - concerning the counting of votes and brought a lawsuit.
"Voting machines disappeared overnight, the tallies were bent - you name a scam, it went on. So I sued to have the election invalidated."
That case was just about to go before a judge when there was a knock on O'Hara's door. It was a posse of cops sent by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles "Joe" Hynes, a kingpin in the local machine. They dragged the handcuffed gadfly to the slammer and O'Hara, crusader against corruption, found himself accused of that same crime, the charges brought by the very people he had spent so much time and sweat exposing. There were six counts of voter fraud, a potential total of 27 years in jail.
When the judge hearing O'Hara's election lawsuit learned it had been filed by an accused felon, he threw it out, ending further investigation. But O'Hara's travails had only just begun.
Hynes' investigators found that the electoral roll recorded O'Hara as living at a girlfriend's apartment, but that he paid the rent on another flat 13 blocks away - which made that second home his official residence.
To stretch the letter of the law, O'Hara had committed perjury by signing a false voter registration card. The fact that Hynes listed his own address as a desk in the DA's office didn't shame or slow the prosecution at all.
The only other American prosecuted for the offence that cost O'Hara his law licence was suffragette Susan Anthony, whose profile is now legal tender on the United States silver dollar. "Me and Susie," O'Hara laughs, "they convicted us of the heinous crime of voting."
O'Hara appealed, had the conviction overturned, but was promptly dragged back into court for a third trial that restored the initial verdict. Nine appeals followed, none successful. Legal fees and a US$21,000 ($29,350) fine emptied his bank account and the conviction stripped him of the right to practise law.
"It wouldn't have been so bad for me if I had apologised," said O'Hara, "but I wouldn't go before the machine on bended knee to beg forgiveness and say, 'Look, you won't hear from me again, go back to business as usual'."
Brooklyn's courts also went gunning for O'Hara ally Roper. Hynes' people dug up a former client who stated under oath that the lawyer had robbed her blind and threatened murder when she complained. But she beat the rap and is hard at work preparing her next challenge to Hynes.
"They teach kids that America is the model for democracy," says O'Hara, "but I don't live in America, I live in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, to hear that America-the-free stuff, well it's just hilarious."
There have been a lot of giggles over the past 18 months, which has seen a rogues' parade of Brooklyn's most prominent judges prodded from bench to dock to jail. One went down after fixing a case for US$1000 ($1400) and a box of cigars.
Judge Victor Barron, wasn't so cheap - he wanted US$120,000 ($168,000) to award a personal injury suit to the plaintiff. That earned him three years in the slammer - and, because it was Brooklyn, a US$97,000-a-year ($135,600) pension authorised by his judicial cronies. And then there is Judge Gerald Garson, whose trial continues.
Evidence was given that he told a lawyer seeking favours that nothing wins the heart of a Brooklyn judge like flash presents and cash.
O'Hara says: "If you don't know how the system works, you couldn't have a clue why anyone in their right mind would want to be a judge. The pay is good but not great ... but when you know how the system works - or doesn't work - being a Brooklyn judge is a plum job, believe me.
"If a will needs probating, you can make the family pay to speed things up. You can appoint your lawyer buddies to administer estates - they rob it blind with fees and charges and you pocket their kickbacks. And you can use your power to protect your political patrons - and they can use their power to keep you on the bench. Neat system, eh?"
Neat, but not immune from unintended consequences. When the machine nailed O'Hara's scalp to the wall, its leaders assumed that they had smashed their enemy's little red wagon once and for all. The reverse was true. With nothing better to occupy his time than cleaning toilets, O'Hara could devote even more attention to uncovering the machine's levers of corruption.
This month he went public with what could prove to be the scandal that brings down Hynes and tips September's election to his friend Roper.
New York law demands that the district attorney and prosecutors live in the same jurisdiction they serve. O'Hara obtained a list of arch-enemy Hynes' senior prosecutors and tracked down their addresses. Of those 98 names, more than a third live outside Brooklyn - including Hynes himself.
If O'Hara's complaint is upheld - and it's hard to see the decision going otherwise - those prosecutors will have to be pulled off their assigned cases, meaning trials for everything from murder to wholesale drug-dealing will be thrown into chaos. And that will happen just as Hynes prepares to campaign for re-election.
Even in Brooklyn, voters won't like the idea of gangsters and rapists going free because a district attorney has decided there are some laws he can live with and other inconvenient ones that can be ignored. A backlash could hand the election to Roper.
O'Hara is quietly confident, but not ready to celebrate, perhaps because memories of his birthday hangover are so fresh. But that blow-out night will be nothing compared with the party he'll host if the Brooklyn machine finally goes down in flames.