It was the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 21, 1986. Rudy Giuliani got a phone call in his office at One St. Andrews Plaza in lower Manhattan.
On the other end of the line was Charles Stillman, a noted white-collar criminal defense attorney.
I need to meet you on an emergency basis, Stillman said. I have a client. He can give you what you need to charge Queens Borough President Donald Manes with extortion.
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“How soon can you come in?” Rudy wanted to know.
Giuliani was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. While every state has at least one U.S. Attorney, there are several states with more.
Technically one U.S. Attorney doesn’t outrank the others. That said, there’s never been any question that the job Rudy held at the time — the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, also known as the Manhattan U.S. Attorney — was, and is, the most prominent.
By covering Manhattan as well as some of the surrounding area, the office has oversight of some of areas such as Wall Street and Organized Crime that have been the spawning ground for some of the most prominent cases in the country — from the mob to corruption to insider training.
Giuliani had done well for himself, using the office’s high-level profile to raise his own. He was not only prominent in law enforcement circles, he was very well-known — and well-liked — in the city. He’d grow so popular that he was being mentioned as someone who could run for mayor. He did three years later — and lost. He ran again four years after that — and won.
At the time of the phone call, Giuliani was overseeing what was known as “The Commission Trial.” Giuliani was prosecuting the heads of New York’s Mafia families in a bid to cripple organized crime. He’d win the trial but not eradicate the mob in the city.
While that case was proceeding fairly smoothly, another probe that his office was conducting was very much on his mind. They were investigating corruption in the administration of Mayor Ed Koch. The focus was the city’s Parking Violations Bureau and the contracts it gave out.
It was a case that helped lead to the primary defeat of Koch three years later.
Investigators had accumulated lots of evidence showing that several officials, particularly Manes, were pretty much using the agency as a piggy bank.
While they had evidence, it was mostly documents. They did not have the kind of blockbuster witness who could tell jurors exactly what happened.
A sting operation had fallen short of expectations. A top associate of Manes’ was refusing to testify. Giuliani knew that Manes was guilty. He just needed someone who could show that to a jury.
Stillman was offering just that.
That evening, Stillman sat with Giuliani and his top associates and told them what he promised his client would tell him in return for immunity. For about a hour, Stillman detailed extortion payments and a meeting with Manes at a funeral where the Queens borough president said who Dowd would be giving his payments.
When he was done with his presentation, Stillman left the office so that Rudy and his associates could figure out what to do.
As reporters Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett would later write, it didn’t take long for Rudy to offer immunity and embrace the whistleblower who had come forward.
Let’s do it, Rudy would say, pumping his fist in the air.
Giuliani would go on to praise Dowd’s courage and compare him to Frank Serpico, New York’s legendary police whistleblower. It wouldn’t be easy for Dowd who, while a whistleblower, would pay a price. He would lose his law license for five years, he would be shunned for decades by people he had considered friends.
And even though Manes would never see the inside of a courtroom on these charges (he killed himself before Rudy could indict him), Giuliani has often spoken of knowing that if it had gone the distance, Manes would have been jailed.
Thirty years later, Giuliani sits in the middle of another corruption investigation. This time, though, instead of leading it, he’s embroiled in it as associates of his have been arrested, his work for his client, President Trump, is scrutinized, and people wonder what Giuliani actually knows.
It’s entirely possible that Giuliani is an innocent bystander in all this, that he’s done nothing wrong, and knows of no wrongdoing.
It’s also possible that he’s been involved and knows of wrongdoing.
If that’s the case, Rudy needs to decide who he wants to be his role model: Manes, the corrupt Queens borough president, or Michael Dowd, the hero whistleblower.
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