Anatomy of a Cover-Up: What Did Koch Know, and When Did He Know It?
June 23, 1987
I’m the perfect route to the downfall of this administration.
— Bess Myerson, New York magazine,
March 30, 1987
In the middle of the afternoon last Friday, Ed Koch slouched in his office chair, with just a couple of cameras to perform for and a handful of print reporters. He’d called a press conference to badger the City Council and the Board of Estimate about the budget, but the reporters wanted one more run through the Myerson thicket — a complex and mounting series of questions about the mayor’s knowledge of former Cultural Affairs commissioner Bess Myerson’s wrongdoing, which had dominated news coverage at City Hall all week. For the next half-hour, the mayor became a zombie.
“I don’t know,” “I can’t recall,” “I can’t reconstruct that,” were Koch’s answers to question after question. He looked like a man who’d spent the night in an arcade with a pocketful of quarters; a videogame glaze had seized control of him. Having struck out on questions that pushed Koch’s memory about events as far away as 1983, the Voice‘s Wayne Barrett asked him to think back to when he first read the Tyler report in early April of this year. Barrett wondered if Koch could recall whether the report’s account of the activities of his close friend and aide Herb Rickman rang a bell with him, sounded like something he’d heard before, or whether it was news to him — the first time he’d ever heard that Rickman had warned both Myerson and Judge Hortense Gabel not to go ahead with the hiring of the judge’s daughter. The mayor paused. The mayor grimaced. The mayor grappled. But nothing came out. He couldn’t remember again.
The mayor’s memory lapses last week were part of a four-year-old stonewall on questions about Bess Myerson. And the stonewall did not end with the conference. Moments after Koch finished, the gray tape recorder that the press office used to record the conference was hurried into a small private office 40 feet from the mayor’s. The office belongs to Herb Rickman, who immediately sat with an assistant, listening to a playback of the mayor’s amnesia.
Koch cannot be sure that Rickman will decide to match the mayor’s apparent evasions with his own. A former assistant U.S. attorney who voluntarily appeared before Judge Harold Tyler’s commission and the federal grand jury probing Myerson without even retaining an attorney, Rickman has been a sword in Myerson’s gut. If sworn or forced by the press, he might be the same to the mayor. Rickman knows how many times Koch was warned about Myerson over the past four years and he knows the depths of the mayor’s indifference. Rickman told Tyler a good portion of the truth about Myerson, but no one, until now, has asked him to spell out his own conversations with Myerson’s stubborn protector, Ed Koch. When Rickman raises his hand for the Ferrick Commission — appointed by Governor Cuomo to probe the city scandal — he may, combined with other evidence of warnings to the mayor, put Koch at the center of a legal firestorm.
The report, news stories over the last week, and Voice interviews suggest the following chronology of cover-up:
1983: FOUR DOORS FROM KOCH
Around Labor Day in 1983, Herb Rickman, whose office is only four doors down the hall from Koch’s, learned that his longtime close friend, Bess Myerson, had hired the daughter of another friend of his, Hortense Gabel. The hiring deeply disturbed Rickman, who knew that Judge Gabel was then hearing a difficult divorce case involving Myerson’s lover, city sewer contractor Andy Capasso. A week later, the New York Post reported (on September 14, 1983) that the Capasso divorce case was heating up and that Myerson and Capasso had “recently been playing coy” about their relationship. This story appeared the same day that Judge Gabel slashed Capasso’s alimony payments by two-thirds. Rickman says he then arranged a meeting with Myerson to warn her about the appearance of impropriety and to urge her not to go through with the Gabel hiring. Later he went to lunch with Judge Gabel and warned her.
But Rickman, who was so troubled he confronted two of his friends face-to-face, has so far maintained that he said nothing to the mayor, even though the conflict of interest involved the possibly illegal use of a city job. The mayor also says Rickman divulged nothing to him, noting that it would have been better if Rickman came forward, but insisting that Rickman did nothing wrong. Rickman’s explanation for his silence is that Myerson assured him that the major decisions in the divorce case had occurred before she hired Sukhreet and that the hiring had been “cleared by City Hall.” These explanations temporarily satisfied Rickman, although a City Hall sign-off on the hiring — minus the information he had — would have been routine. (Of course if Rickman saw the September 14 Post story, he would’ve known that the divorce case was still active after Sukhreet’s hiring.)
What apparently bothered Rickman was that Myerson’s hiring of the judge’s daughter was a blatant conflict that could attract public attention. His own actions, if they were designed to both help and protect Myerson, suggested a far more subtle approach. Several months before Myerson offered Sukhreet a job, Rickman began looking for one for her, at the urging of Judge Gabel, whom Rickman had known for years. At a lunch with Sukhreet in May or June 1983, Rickman picked up her resumé. According to Sukhreet, Rickman took it to city economic development commissioner Larry Kieves, who interviewed her, but did not offer a job. Myerson had simultaneously begun the wooing of Judge Gabel, whose handling of the divorce case had been reported in a March front-page New York Post story that featured a picture of Myerson. During this period, Myerson, Rickman, the judge, and her husband, Dr. Milton Gabel, had dinner at a restaurant. But it is unclear if jobhunter Rickman was acting only out of affection for Judge Gabel or was aware that Myerson was then engaged in what the Tyler report described as a conscious “courtship of the judge.”
The Tyler report says these various contacts culminated in a dinner party at Judge Gabel’s home, attended by about 14 people, on June 17, 1983. Myerson and Rickman attended together. (Rickman, who is gay, and Myerson have been social companions for two decades.) Myerson met Sukhreet for the first time, and the two spent most of the evening chatting. Tyler concluded: “If Myerson was looking for a way to influence Justice Gabel, and we believe she was, it became apparent by the dinner on June 17, if not before, that Ms. Gabel provided the best path to that result.”
Rickman sought a job for Sukhreet while spending several long weekends at Capasso’s Westhampton Beach house, and listening to Myerson and Capasso’s incessant talk about Capasso’s divorce and Judge Gabel. He saw the divorce papers strewn all over the house. With the collapse of his efforts at OED and the pressure of the critical alimony decisions in the divorce case, Myerson took matters into her own hands. Yet when Rickman learned that Myerson had hired Sukhreet herself — as her own special assistant no less — he says he kept his information to himself. And the mayor now says that’s all right with him.
OCTOBER 1983: TWO DECEPTIVE LETTERS
On October 18, 1983, the Post reported that Myerson’s agency had hired Sukhreet Gabel while Judge Gabel was handling the Capasso case. Herb Rickman was surprised and outraged because the story indirectly attributed the hiring — which he had opposed — to him. A Myerson spokesperson was quoted as saying that Rickman had tried to get Gabel a job at the Office of Economic Development, but that problems had developed “so her resumé was sent to me.” Rickman told Tyler he angrily called Myerson and her assistant, correcting the inference that he had something do with the resumé winding up at DCA. But he did not stop there.
Rickman told the press last week that he also informed the mayor the Post story was incorrect and made it clear that he’d had nothing to do with Sukhreet Gabel’s hiring. During his press conference on Friday, the mayor could not recall when Rickman told him about the error in the Post story. But sources familiar with the facts told the Voice that Rickman went to the mayor about the story “the moment it appeared.”
The timing is important because the day after the story Myerson sent the mayor a letter that responded to the Post piece and falsely contended that “most of what had to be decided” in the divorce case “had already been decided in the first six months, a major part of it in favor of Mrs. Capasso.” On October 21, the mayor answered Myerson’s letter with a brief note of praise, saying Myerson had done “exactly the right thing in filling an open job with an able person.” The Tyler report has established that Myerson’s description of the hiring process in her letter to Koch was a wholesale fraud, designed to deceive the mayor.
But the mayor already had two reasons to question the truthfulness of Myerson’s letter. Rickman had just told him that Myerson’s suggestion in the Post story that he’d referred Gabel for the job was false. And the Post story of September 14 established that the divorce case was at such a critical junction after Sukhreet was hired on August 29 that Capasso and Myerson were trying to conceal their own relationship. These facts alone should have prompted Koch to hesitate before enthusiastically endorsing Myerson’s conduct. His own City Hall personnel staff could’ve told him, had they been asked, that Gabel was hired before the vacancy notice was even published, destroying the facade of a search concocted in Myerson’s letter.
Tyler concluded that Judge Gabel’s assertions that she had not read the Post stories of March and September — which describe her own decisions and link the Capasso divorce to Myerson — were unbelievable. Is it believable that the September 14 Post piece was missed by Koch, a voracious newspaper reader; Rickman, who had spent much of the summer with the very people named in the story; and the mayor’s chief of staff Diane Coffey, the City Hall liaison to Cultural Affairs who reviewed Myerson’s letter with Koch? At a minimum, this story would’ve alerted them to the falseness of Myerson’s assertion that the case was virtually over.
1984: JULY 4 FIREWORKS
The Tyler report indicates that Myerson called Rickman in March 1984 and left a message regarding a state decision to suspend payments on two contracts with Capasso’s company because of apparent violations of law by Capasso in the use of phony minority fronts as subcontractors. By July 1984, Rickman knew enough about an investigation of Capasso’s construction company, Nanco, to warn Koch not to attend a July 4, 1984 party at Capasso’s Westhampton Beach house. Rickman declined to go himself and called Koch, telling him that he had “heard there was a problem.” Koch, who had been invited by Myerson, said at the press conference last Friday that he went because “there were no indictments.” Ultimately Attorney General Robert Abrams did indict Nanco on these charges.
Rickman’s rejection of the party invitation was part of a conscious decision to distance himself from Myerson. Some months back Rickman told New Yorker reporter Andy Logan that he was consciously cutting his contacts with Myerson during this period, gradually ending their social relationship. The Voice has learned that Rickman told the mayor he was disassociating himself from Myerson, although it is unclear precisely when Rickman told him or whether he told the mayor why he was cutting his ties. These discussions, together with Rickman’s call about the party, constituted a second wave of warnings to the mayor.
1985: THE GIFTS, AND A HIT-AND-RUN DRIVER
In the summer of 1985, Nancy Capasso’s counsel, Herman Turnow, met with the mayor’s City Hall counsel, Pat Mulhearn. Turnow says he spoke to Mulhearn “about the interrelationship of Judge Gabel’s ruling on the alimony and child support to reports that Bess Myerson hired the judge’s daughter.” Mulhearn says they “never discussed the giving of the job to her” or at least that he has “no recollection of that.” Mulhearn and Turnow agree that they did discuss the propriety of Myerson, a city official, receiving expensive gifts — including the use of a Palm Beach condo, a company limo, and a Mercedes sports car — from a company with $200 million in city contracts. Mulhearn maintained there was no ethical violation, saying, “After all, they are friends.” Turnow says he discovered in this visit to City Hall a wholly different set of ethical standards than his own.
Mulhearn passed the issue of gifts on to the mayor, but Koch says that Mulhearn and then corporation counsel Fritz Schwarz told him that acceptance of the gifts was “within ethics guidelines.” At his Friday press conference, the mayor angrily rejected questions by WNBC’s Gabe Pressman, who was pressing him on the appropriateness of these gifts, none of which were listed on Myerson’s financial disclosure statements filed with the city clerk.
When Mulhearn met with Turnow, he was already sitting on another hot potato involving Myerson. Myerson had refused for six months to fire her city chauffeur after the Department of Investigation found that the driver had been involved in a hit-and-run incident while driving Myerson’s city car, that he’d driven Myerson for two and a half years with a suspended license, and that he had improperly been permitted to carry and display Myerson’s city shield when she was not in the car. Myerson had refused to act on a detailed DOI report sent her in February 1985, and DOI had at first enlisted Mulhearn to try to force Myerson to fire the driver. When nothing happened, DOI Commissioner Pat McGinley brought the subject up at a meeting with the mayor, Mulhearn and Deputy Mayor Stan Brezenoff. The mayor reportedly told Brezenoff and Mulhearn: “Take care of it.”
Of course, as the Tyler report fully demonstrated, the driver had intimate knowledge of Myerson’s activities in the Gabel case as well as information about her violations of city law regarding both the gifts and the illegal use of his own services by Myerson. Myerson, who had directed the driver to falsify his mileage reports to the city, was protecting her own accomplice. Despite Mulhearn’s involvement, the driver was never fired, but resigned and was placed in a job delivering payrolls for the City University of New York.
By the time the issues of the gifts and the driver were brought to Koch’s attention in 1985, the mayor was wading in Myerson warnings. But he did not ask the city’s Department of Investigations, which was clearly already involved with a serious Myerson matter, to examine the gift issue, nor did be refer it to the Board of Ethics, though on its face the legal question merited more than informal assurance from in-house counsel that everything was okay.
1986: THE MAYOR’S McCARTHYITE ATTACK
After the Manes suicide and the explosion of the city scandal in early 1986, the Daily News published seven investigative articles on Myerson, from May 1 to May 15. Rickman was featured in many of these stories. We know Koch read them closely because on May 2, at a City Hall news conference, he accused the News of “McCarthyism.” (Koch must have meant Mary McCarthy for her brilliant renderings of the decadence of the rich.) It is certainly reasonable to assume that Rickman, whose photo accompanied the first piece, discussed the articles with Koch.
These stories — written by Marcia Kramer, Marilyn Thompson, and Barbara Ross — revealed that U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani was investigating Capasso and “reviewing records of Capasso’s recent bitter divorce.” Myerson was quoted as saying, at this late date, that she and Capasso are “friends, that’s all.” These articles demonstrated that the heart of Myerson’s defense for the hiring of Sukhreet Gabel, contained in the 1983 letter, was fiction. Judge Gabel had, according to the News, “sharply trimmed the alimony payments of a businessman linked romantically to Myerson one month after Myerson hired the judge’s daughter.”
At his Friday press conference, Koch could not say why he hadn’t asked Myerson to explain the discrepancy between the News stories and her assertions in the 1983 letter. He recalled calling her and said she simply referred him back to the 1983 exchange of letters. That was enough for the mayor to reject what was by now a mountain of evidence. He did nothing. (Giuliani told the Voice this week that the investigations of Myerson and Capasso began in his office and were not a referral from DOI. Although DOI was never asked by Koch to investigate Myerson, this week DOI called in for questioning several employees of the Appellate Division, First Department, to try to find out who leaked the Tyler report to us.)
1987: SEALING THE TRUTH
Even when Myerson’s decision to take the Fifth Amendment in a federal grand jury appearance was revealed early this year, Koch’s respons was muted. He still proclaimed at a press conference that he had “faith in her integrity” and refused to fire her, although she had hidden this appearance from him. Instead, she agreed to a 90-day suspension while Tyler did his investigation.
Tyler urged Koch not to release the full report to protect witnesses from retaliation and safeguard Giuliani’s ongoing probe. But Tyler did not object to revealing the report’s basic conclusions. The mayor’s decision to summarize the report in five simple sentences — one of which was exculpatory — was one more cover-up gesture. As a Times editorial noted last week, “Surely more of Mr. Tyler’s story about Ms. Myerson’s sordid manipulation of the judge and her daughter could have been safely revealed.” To keep the report sealed, the mayor’s attorneys had railed on in court that the lives of witnesses would be in jeopardy if it were released. But Giuliani said that after the Voice broke the story last week, “no witnesses needed protection.” Everyone “is fine,” said Giuliani, “there are no problems.”
Why has Koch gone to such great lengths to protect Myerson?
He has attributed it all to friendship. In fact, no public official is less loyal to his friends than Ed Koch. In his best-selling memoir, Mayor, he wrote about how he reduced his longtime aide and then deputy mayor Ronay Menschel to tears. He has written critically about his loyal special assistant John LoCicero. In fact, intimates of Koch say that he has not been personally close to Myerson for years, rarely seeing her socially. It is indeed an irony that though she is widely and accurately credited with having played a pivotal role in making him mayor, he never mentioned her in Mayor.
The fact is that Koch has protected Myerson because he has long recognized that there is no way that a damaged Myerson wouldn’t also damage him. And perhaps turn on him. The two went to such lengths to manufacture a fictional relationship that Koch is now a captive of it. In the end, the cover-up that has insulated Bess so long was designed to protect the mayor, who was joined to her in the public mind by creative advertising. As that cover-up unravels, so does he. ❖
THE IMMACULATE DECEPTION
There is a great irony in the fact that Ed Koch’s gravest crisis comes from his perceived intimacy with Bess Myerson. The irony goes back to the Immaculate Deception of the 1977 campaign for mayor.
During that campaign, Koch and Myerson kissed in Co-op City, hugged in Forest Hills, held hands in a synagogue on Rosh Hoshanna, and looked into each other’s eyes in Pelham Parkway. The Koch campaign wanted to convey the idea of a romance to refute the whispering campaign that Koch was gay.
The romance was the invention of the brilliantly cynical David Garth, who was Koch’s chief strategist and media adviser. Once, early in the campaign, Garth told Jack Newfield he had to cancel a meeting with him because he was having lunch with “the Smith Brothers.”
Newfield asked who were the Smith Brothers.
“Oh, that’s my nickname for Ed and Bess,” Garth replied.
“I don’t get it,” said Newfield.
“Two beards, shmuck,” Garth said. and laughed.
There never was any romance between Koch and Myerson, although they were good friends. It was Myerson who arranged for Koch to meet Garth, and it was Myerson who pressured Garth to mastermind the campaign, in which Koch started with 2 per cent city-wide recognition.
Gossip columnists began to print items saying that Koch and Myerson might get married after the election, a notion that surely helped Koch with working-class Jewish voters, who might otherwise have voted for Abe Beame or Bella Abzug without considering Koch.
Late in the campaign, when political reporters started to ask Koch and Myerson about a real romance, they would give coyly clever answers, like, “Anything is possible,” “We may have an announcement after the election,” or, “For now, we’re just good friends.”
In appearances with Myerson, Koch would say to audiences, “Wouldn’t she make a great first lady in Gracie Mansion?” On television, Koch was asked if be planned to marry Myerson, and he said, “It’s always a possibility, but I don’t want to talk about it. She’s an incredible person, a warm human being that I truly adore.”
Myerson acted like a surrogate wife in the 1977 campaign. She stood next to Koch on the basic campaign poster — the only time in anyone’s memory that a nonfamily member was used in such a fashion. She made television commercials for Koch, asking, “Have you no character, Mr. Cuomo?”
It was all a charade — a consumer fraud perpetrated by the former consumer commissioner. Koch and Myerson agreed to use each other to create an illusion. Koch needed to win an election and Myerson wanted a political career. Three years later, Myerson would run for the Senate with the support of Koch and Garth.
But for the past six or seven years, Koch and Myerson have not been really close friends, in the way that Koch is close to Dan Wolf, David Margolis, Leonard Sandler, or Herb Rickman.
As the Myerson scandal unravels, Koch will be paying a price for his fantasy politics of 1977, which the voters believed and now remember.
— W.B., J.N. & T.R.
BESS’S GABEL VENDETTA
The head of the city’s Human Rights Commission says Bess Myerson demanded that Sukhreet Gabel be fired from her second city job, a top post at the Commission, which she obtained on the recommendation of her mother, state supreme court judge Hortense Gabel.
At a meeting in Myerson’s Department of Cultural Affairs office on August 7, 1984, Myerson urged human rights chairwoman Marcella Maxwell to discharge Gabel without giving any reason. “Bess told me I had to fire Sukhreet,” Maxwell told the Voice. “She didn’t say why, just that I had to. I was so shocked I almost fell off my chair.”
Maxwell had in fact already decided to dismiss Gabel because “she was unable to relate to people at the agency.” But before telling Sukhreet, she took Judge Gabel — a 20-year friend — to lunch and told her that her daughter would be sacked. “She told me, ‘You can’t do that, she’ll kill herself,’ ” says Maxwell, who agreed to Judge Gabel’s request to let Sukhreet resign.
Myerson’s demand to Maxwell two days later seems puzzling. It may have been one more lurching turn on the roller coaster of affection and rejection to which Myerson subjected Sukhreet. But it came in the midst of increasingly aggressive legal strategies by Capasso’s wife, Nancy, in their divorce case, being handled by Judge Gabel. On July 25, while being deposed by his wife’s formidable new attorney, Herman Turnow, Capasso balked at answering questions about his business relationships with city officials — including Myerson.
Less than a week later, on July 31, Nancy Capasso secretly recorded a dramatic conversation with her husband in which he said she knew enough about his business dealings to put him in jail “for 400-500 years.” Capasso proposed a cash settlement of the case for $1 million to $2 million; Nancy Capasso countered with $7 million to $8 million. Capasso clearly felt a rising desperation as Nancy and her lawyers began closing in on his business dealings, his relationship with Myerson — and perhaps Myerson’s favors for Judge Gabel.
Maxwell’s hiring of Sukhreet came after Judge Gabel, along with many others, had written the mayor, recommending Maxwell for the Human Rights position. “Hortense told me I’d need someone I knew and trusted,” Maxwell told the Voice. Even though Maxwell barely knew Sukhreet, she took Gabel’s suggestion that she hire her daughter. Ironically, Maxwell had wanted Sukhreet to serve as an executive assistant, at a lower salary. But no such job existed, and Sukhreet was instead offered the agency’s third-highest job, a $40,000-a-year deputy commissionership — more than double her DCA salary of $19,000.
Myerson displayed her protective side when Maxwell asked her to approve Sukhreet’s release from DCA. Although Myerson had demoted Sukhreet and denigrated her work, Maxwell said when she called Myerson from Judge Gabel’s apartment in June 1984, “Bess was very reluctant to let her leave.”
Myerson may have had good reason to want to keep Sukhreet close by and at the mercy of her fickle attentions. Although Judge Gabel had already sharply reduced Capasso’s child support and alimony payments in September 1983 (following Myerson’s hiring of Sukhreet at DCA), several important motions were pending, and the case was still a ticking time bomb for Capasso.
But Sukhreet’e new job also quickly began to unravel. The only task Gabel seems to have been given on her own was arranging a huge swearing-in bash for Maxwell at City Hall on July 11. Gabel told the Voice she had no further dealings with Maxwell after that. “I sat isolated and alone in my office.” Once Sukhreet began to get the same treatment at Human Rights that she had gotten at DCA, Myerson’s attentions resumed. “I hadn’t seen Bees for a long time,” said Sukhreet. “I was rather depressed. When Marcella started treating me horribly, I showed my work to Bess and she praised it.” When, in early August, Maxwell told Sukhreet she would be fired, Sukhreet called Myerson, and got a very different reaction than Maxwell later received. “Bess was supportive,” said Sukhreet, “she made nice clucking noises.” Gabel was at a loss to account for Myerson’s demand that she be fired. “Bess is crazy,” she said, “but Marcella is mean and vicious.”
— W.B., J.N. & T.R.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 21, 2020