NEWSDAY, April 15, 1988
by John C. Klotz
The trial, conviction and execution of alleged atomic
spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg some three decades ago, remains
a festering sore on the American psyche. Now, publication of two
books on the life of lawyer-fixer Roy Cohn has picked open the
scab, exposing the body politic to a new rush of infection. Cohn
was a member of the prosecution team in the Rosenberg case. From
the grave, he now boasts that he had private conversations with
Rosenberg Judge Irving Kaufman in which he convinced the judge to
impose the Rosenbergs' controversial death sentences.
Extra-judicial contacts between judge and prosecutor
are clearly unethical and allegations of such contacts have been
a part of the brief of Rosenberg critics for many years. Cohn's
posthumous confirmation of those charges, if accepted at face
value, would deal a final, crushing blow to the reputation of
Judge Kaufman, who Rosenberg case aside, has been a renowned
judicial advocate of free speech and civil liberties. But before
accepting Cohn's testimony at face value, like any other witness,
his bias -- as well as his reputation for veracity -- ought to be
Both Sidney Zion's Autobiography of Roy Cohn and
Nicholas Von Hoffman's somewhat more comprehensive Citizen Cohn
establish somewhat conclusively that Roy Cohn was a compulsive
liar and a casual betrayer of friendship and professional
obligations. He was also a pre-eminent mouth piece for the mob.
The betrayals shock. The destruction of Mario Biaggi's
1973 mayoralty campaign is one example. Cohn professed affection
for Biaggi but boasted to Zion that Biaggi had sought his legal
advice before a grand jury appearance in which he claimed his
privilege against self-incrimination. As a favor to party bosses
supporting Abe Beame, Cohn first attempted to black mail Biaggi
out of the mayoralty race and when he refused, arranged for
public airing Biaggi's secret. At least, that's what Cohn says.
In so doing, however, Cohn betrayed not only Biaggi's
lawyer-client privilege, but also Cohn's professed friendship
with Biaggi. Which was the worse betrayal is an open question. If
Cohn had extrajudicial contacts with Judge Kaufman in the
Rosenberg case, he has similarly betrayed the Judge's confidence
- although no bounds of legal ethics would protect such clearly
inappropriate conduct, particularly since Cohn had denied the
existence of such contacts until his confession to Zion. But
there may have been an overlooked motivation for Cohn's savaging
of Kaufman in 1985 (when he began his memoirs).
February 26, 1985, Cohn's face flicks across the screen
on ABC's Nightline, which is reviewing the big news of the day --
the racketeering indictment of five New York City crime bosses
including Cohn client Tony Salerno. They are charged with running
the infamous Cosa Nostra crime commission. The following week the
New York Post reports that for two years the FBI under the
direction of U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani had been watching
Cohn's Manhattan townhouse, convinced that it was being used as a
meeting place by the commission.
On March 11, 1985, the Presidential Commission on
Organized Crime, chaired by Judge Kaufman releases a staff report
charging that a small number of mob lawyers had become an
integral part of organized crime by performing such "life
support" services as providing their offices for meetings and
informing mob bosses if underlings the atones represent wish to
turn state's evidence. The same week, the Daily News reports that
Cohn, fed-up with government surveillance of his townhouse has
moved to a hotel.
The Zion book records a Cohn intimation that his
client, mob boss Paul Castelano, was assassinated because he was
considering becoming a government witness -- a fact that only Roy
Cohn and the prosecution knew. In 1983, the body of another Cohn
client, Rick Mazzeo, a former City Commissioner convicted of
income tax evasion was found stuffed in a car trunk. At the time,
Mazzeo had also been under pressure to turn government witness.
The conclusion that Roy Cohn was one of the small
number of lawyer-criminals providing the mob "life support
services" outlined by the Kaufman Commission is a conclusion a
reasonable mind could make. That Cohn, his usual paranoia
accentuated by the onslaught of AIDS related dementia should have
thought so, is inescapable.
We can not cross-examine Cohn as to his bias against
Kaufman. But the fact remains that the landmark report of the
Kaufman commission coincided with both Cohn's own legal problems
and the beginning of his memoirs. It taints his testimony.
The Rosenberg controversy has not been interred with
Roy Cohn. But in pressing their case, the adversaries of Judge
Kaufman had best not put too much weight on the testimony of Roy
Cohn. Truth does not lie in his bones.