July 22, 2019 / 4:43 PM / a month ago

Longtime New York District Attorney, scourge of white-collar criminals, dies at 99: NYT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Robert Morgenthau, 99, who became the scourge of white-collar criminals over three decades as the Manhattan district attorney, died on Sunday, his family told the New York Times.

FILE PHOTO - Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau speaks during a news conference in New York February 27, 2009. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

He passed at a hospital in Manhattan, after a short illness, his wife Lucinda Franks told the Times. He would have turned 100 on July 31.

His family was not immediately available for comment early Monday.

Morgenthau became Manhattan’s chief prosecutor in 1975 and finally chose not to run for re-election in 2009 at age 90, ending a 35-year run during which he told the New York Times he oversaw 3.5 million cases.

Preet Bharara, a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said on Twitter late Sunday, “This is terribly sad. Robert Morgenthau, former SDNY US Attorney and Manhattan DA, was an unparalleled patriot, veteran, prosecutor, public servant. He gave his whole life to service. RIP.”

Morgenthau oversaw a staff of some 500 assistant district attorneys and held the position longer than anyone else in history. His approach to the job was summed up as pursuing crime in the suites, as well as the streets.

In the early 1990s, Morgenthau took a broad approach to his jurisdiction and went after the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) in a scandal with global implications.

He indicted the bank and two foreign business figures on a variety of charges the he said constituted “the largest bank fraud in world financial history.” The Middle East-backed bank was eventually shut down around the world as some $20 billion disappeared from its books.

His office also won the conviction of former Tyco International Ltd. Chief Executive Dennis Kozlowski, who in 2005 was sentenced to up to 25 years for looting the conglomerate.

Other notable cases during Morgenthau’s tenure included the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon by Mark David Chapman in 1981 and the conviction of “Subway Vigilante” Bernard Goetz in 1984.

Among the failures of his office were the 1990 convictions of the “Central Park 5” - young black and Latino men wrongly convicted of raping a jogger. Twelve years later, the convictions were vacated when another man confessed to the crime.

As recently as 2016 he was still working for a New York law firm, the Times said.

Before making his first of eight runs for district attorney in 1974, Morgenthau, a Democrat, served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York after being appointed by President John F. Kennedy.

“I was fired by Richard Nixon,” Morgenthau said proudly in a 2007 interview, recounting how the president forced him out of office in 1970 while he was investigating Nixon’s role in establishing a Swiss bank account with funds from former Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

His father was Henry Morgenthau Jr., who was Treasury secretary during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, and his grandfather Henry Morgenthau Sr. was U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War One.

He grew up close to the Roosevelt family and Morgenthau’s office was decorated with framed pictures of him with presidents such as Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, as well as civil rights leader Martin Luther King other notable figures.

Over the years, Morgenthau’s staff included Sonia Sotomayor, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice; Andrew Cuomo, the current governor of New York; former New York governor Eliot Spitzer; John Kennedy Jr.; and Robert Kennedy Jr.

Morgenthau enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1941 and served in World War Two, reaching the rank of lieutenant commander and winning a Bronze Star.

FILE PHOTO - Sylvie Sulitzer (R) listens as former U.S. Attorney Robert Morris Morgenthau (C) speaks during a ceremony to return the painting Deux Femmes Dans Un Jardin by Pierre Auguste Renoir, stolen by the Nazis in World War II from Ms. Sulitzer's family, at the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York City, New York, U.S., September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

After graduating from the Yale law school, he practiced corporate law in New York until Kennedy made him a U.S. attorney. Morgenthau stepped aside from that job in 1962 to run for governor and, after losing the election, returned to it until Nixon fired him.

He was chairman of the Police Athletic League and the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

His second wife, Pultizer-winning journalist Lucinda Franks, who was nearly 30 years younger, wrote a memoir about their relationship titled “Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me.”

Reporting by Daniel Trotta, additional reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Bill Trott & Kim Coghill

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