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Tainted Witness

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. 

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