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Mayor Ed Koch Tries to Survive as New York, New York Is Plunged into Scandal, Scandal

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“How’m I doin’?” New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch calls to a truck driver who has rolled up beside his limousine at a red light. Koch, 61, has made the jovial query to citizens on the street his trademark, and until recently the answer was likely to be “great.” With his Silly Putty face, his blunt manner of speaking, his sardonic humor, Koch has been called “the quintessential New Yorker,” and New Yorkers reelected him last November to a third four-year term in the $110,000-a-year post with three-quarters of the vote, the biggest landslide in New York mayoral election history. Nor has Koch’s success stopped at the banks of the Hudson. His brash 1984 autobiography, Mayor, has sold more than 370,000 copies and been made into a musical. His second book, Politics, came out last December. His frequent appearances in film (The Muppets Take Manhattan) and on national television, including Saturday Night Live (five times) and The Tonight Show (Three times), have made him America’s best-known mayor.

But on this Thursday in March, when Koch asks, “How’m I doin’?” the truck driver replies, “Stay out of trouble, Mayor.”

That could be a tall order. A scant three months after his triumphal third inauguration, Koch’s Democratic administration is under siege, rocked by an ever-widening scandal that may yet destroy the mayor’s ability to govern. At least seven top city officials and numerous subordinates have been forced to resign since January, and many more are under investigation. According to a joke current in political circles, when city officials are sworn in, they now are first advised, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything that you say may be used against you….”

Koch’s crisis began with a bizarre mystery that developed into scandal and gruesome personal tragedy. In the early morning hours of Jan. 10, city police pulled over a car that had been weaving down the parkway near Shea Stadium. The cops found Queens Borough President Donald Manes (rhymes with Janis), 52—known as “The King of Queens”—behind the wheel, semiconscious, his blood draining from self-inflicted knife wounds in his wrist and ankle.

Koch hastened to Manes’ hospital room, where, the mayor told reporters, he kissed Manes on the forehead and told him, “Don’t worry about anything, Donny, we all love you.”

But two days later, New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin broke the story that Michael Dowd, a partner in a Queens collection agency, had told the U.S. Attorney’s office that Manes had personally instructed him to pay $36,000 in bribes to Manes’ friend Geoffrey Lindenauer. Lindenauer, 52, was the deputy director of the city’s Parking Violations Bureau. The payments had been extorted in exchange for contracts to collect—at commissions of up to 60 percent—some of the $1.1 billion in parking fines owed to the city. Koch, who had frequently described Manes as his “good friend,” quickly denounced him as “a crook,” though he had not yet been charged with—much less convicted of—a crime, and said that he should go to jail. Koch pointed out that he himself had not appointed the parking bureau officials and maintained that the scandal “is not a major problem for me.”

It is a problem for him now. Prosecutors believe the Parking Violations Bureau was “operated as a racketeering enterprise” that ripped off nearly $2 million during Koch’s years as Mayor. Lindenauer has pleaded guilty to extorting $410,000, on behalf of himself “and others,” from collection agencies. He has agreed to talk—some would say sing—to the authorities.

Among the subjects he is discussing is just how Citisource, a company with one full-time employee and $1,200 in assets, beat out Motorola to win a $22.7 million contract to produce hand-held computers for issuing parking tickets. Citisource was represented before the city’s selection committee by Stanley Friedman, a Democratic party leader and staunch supporter of Koch. Friedman’s wife is Koch’s $47,500-a-year deputy director of the Office of Special Projects and Events.

The relentless U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, 41, a Republican widely believed to have political ambitions of his own, is turning over every rock in town looking for more corruption. Eight other federal, state and local prosecutors’ offices have joined the hunt, as have numerous special commissions, a new one of which seems to be formed almost daily. For a while it seemed a regular feature of New York TV news shows to see Koch trying to put a brave front on the sudden resignation of yet another top official. Headlines proclaim ever more allegations of kickbacks, shady real estate deals and insider contracts.

Throughout this typically frenetic March day—as Koch dashes from his office to a law school speech to an award ceremony to a press conference to a ribbon cutting to a lunch meeting to another press conference to yet another press conference to an office meeting to an award ceremony to a fund raiser to a political dinner—he takes every opportunity to minimize the scandal. He points out that the city employs 300,000 people, and only “a handful” or “two handfuls” or “five or ten” were involved in wrongdoing. He frequently cites what he calls the larger scandals of the past, as in the administration of the revered Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, when clerks in the city morgue were caught stealing cadavers and selling them to medical schools.

He insists that reporters are exaggerating the current troubles. “I think some of them are very gleeful of my discomfort because I don’t take any crap from them, nor do they take any crap from me,” Koch tells an interviewer as he sits in shirt-sleeves in a leather easy chair in his City Hall office. “I know that some resent the fact that I’ve written two good books, one of which is a best-seller. And people like to see someone who’s been hugely successful stumble. It’s normal.”

Like the talkative uncle found at most family holiday tables, Koch regales his listeners with the same stories over and over, stories in which he is the triumphant protagonist: Remember when he courageously opposed the Vietnam War as a congressman in 1968? And introduced gay rights bills to the City Council, despite innuendos by his opponents that he, a lifelong bachelor, was homosexual? Or how about the time he saved the city from bankruptcy in 1978. And then there was the time that the Fund for Modern Courts said his judicial appointments were number one for quality in the whole country. “No. 1! Me!”

When, as invariably happens, his interlocutors drag him back to his present difficulties, Koch admits, “I am accountable.” But he insists with considerably more verve that he is not to blame for the misdeeds of corrupt underlings, pointing the finger instead at his own commissioners as the ones who gave them jobs. Pressing an innocent palm to his offended breast, he tells a law school class, “It was their patronage, not mine.

“If God had made me privy to the fact that [the scandal] was there,” Koch fairly shouts, turning his face to heaven, “don’t you think I would have extirpated it? Do you think that anybody in his right mind would allow that to continue?” He insists he selected the commissioners themselves, some of whom he admits turned out to be “clinkers,” strictly on merit and not—contrary to popular belief—in exchange for the support of Democratic organization leaders.

So why have the city’s Democratic party leaders chosen to back him against his opponents in the primaries? “I assume they thought I would be a good mayor,” he says, his malleable face becoming perfectly straight. “They don’t have influence on me.”

Yet he announces, at a press conference back in his office, the creation of a mayoral panel to screen his appointees, in order to remove the influence of political leaders from the selection process, an influence he maintained they never had.

No one has alleged that Koch took any money. But whether he had reason to know that others were dipping into the till is a different question. New York’s Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo and Sen. Daniel Moynihan have avoided offering opinions to reporters.

The reporters are not so restrained. “How could he not know?” asks Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, who cherishes a mutual antipathy with the mayor. “By making a deal with all the [party organization] leaders—Brooklyn can have this job, Queens can have this—he gave the city away. He allowed them to steal millions.” What was in it for him? Political power, says Breslin, and the adulation it brings. Koch’s public life is his only life, according to Breslin. “Magazine stories, television, bows. For him personal recognition is everything. He has no wife, he has no dog. He’s got himself in the mirror.”

Murray Kempton, the Pulitzer prize-winning Newsday columnist, believes that Koch did not know what was going on—and faults him for that. “You’re talking about a man who is really basically unaware. I believe he had the notion that guys from the clubhouses are in politics because they like to go to these dinners, they like to be addressed respectfully by the press, that they’re like him. He did not realize that these guys are in business. Their outlet is buying houses, collecting money. His outlet is going on The Tonight Show.”

How big will the scandal grow, and will it ultimately bring Koch down? Says Kempton: “Koch doesn’t know this, but he will not be in a position to run for reelection. The scandal is going to be continual and enormous.”

The mayor continues to avow optimism. Toward the end of his 14-hour workday, as his limousine glides up the FDR Drive, the neon signs atop Queens factories gleaming on the oily surface of the East River beside him, he admits that for a couple of weeks he was depressed, though he takes care to point out that he was “never in a state of clinical depression.” Manes was in a state of clinical depression.

As he arrives at Gracie Mansion, the stately mayor’s residence, to host a political dinner, Koch is feeling good. “The bounce is back. Can’t you see?” And he heaves his stoop-shouldered, 6’1″ frame up and down a little bit, and smiles, to show how happy and confident he is. After all, according to a poll published that day, although 53 percent of New York City residents do not believe that he was unaware of serious corruption, 66 percent believe that Koch himself is “very honest,” and 65 percent still approve of his overall job as mayor.

“I love being the mayor,” he says. “I want to be mayor forever.”

At 10 o’clock that night, as Koch is saying his goodbyes to the state assemblymen who’ve dined with him, the phone rings. It is Koch’s police commissioner, with grisly news. Donald Manes, with his wife and daughter in the next room, has plunged a 14-inch kitchen knife through his heart, achieving the suicide he had first attempted two months earlier.

Koch feels “shock and sadness,” he says later. “We were friends for about 20 years.” He decides, however, not to lower the city’s flags to half-staff, “because it would not be appropriate.

“I believe Donald Manes will be judged based on all he did,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “and a merciful God will find the good outweighed the bad.”

As to how Koch will be judged in this life, one might turn for guidance to the mayor’s book Politics: Criticizing a predecessor, Mayor John Lindsay, Koch writes, “How else can you talk about what was done in the past unless you talk about who was in charge?”