How Robert Morgenthau's View of the Holocaust Inspired His Lifelong Crusade Against Corruption

An inside look at the family history that led Morgenthau to turn class traitor and take on white-collar crime.
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Then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau pictured on October 2nd, 2009, in New York City.

Then-Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau pictured on October 2nd, 2009, in New York City.

Why would a child of immense privilege go on to devote his life to prosecuting other members of the elite class into which he'd been born?

When legendary Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau died this week, he was promptly memorialized as the longest-serving Manhattan DA, a decorated veteran of World War II, and even the inspiration for the character played by Steven Hill on Law & Order. Well-known throughout his career as a prosecutor who cared little for playing political games, he targeted white-collar corruption and government malfeasance even when doing so threatened his political career.

Based on recollections from his widow, and public comments he made during a rare public speaking appearance, it's clear that a major motivation behind Morgenthau's approach to prosecution derived from his special vantage point in observing the Holocaust, an event that showed him the consequences of elite indifference in America, and of a culture of corruption in Germany. Alienating his fellow elites by investigating them wasn't just a side effect of Morgenthau's reflections on the Holocaust; it was the point, and Morgenthau was zealous in righteously applying the law to everyone, especially those in the position to do most harm.

It would be hard to overstate the level of affluence and power into which Morgenthau was born. His grandfather had made the family fortune in real estate back in the 19th century before becoming ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (where he argued for recognition of the Armenian genocide), and his father had become close friends with Franklin Delano Roosevelt when they ended up owning neighboring farms in upstate New York. FDR appointed Henry Morgenthau Jr. to various agricultural commissions while governor of New York, and as president chose Morgenthau Jr. for his secretary of the treasury, where Morgenthau helped design and implement the New Deal.

As the second son of Henry Jr., Bob Morgenthau could have done almost anything he wanted. He attended fancy schools—the New Lincoln School, Deerfield Academy, Amherst College—before serving with distinction in World War II and then heading to Yale Law School.

But for a man who could have done almost anything, he spent more than 50 years doing one thing: prosecuting criminals, with a special focus on white-collar crime and government corruption. That is to say, locking up the sort of people he used to go to school with.

"He really is the father of white-collar criminal prosecutions," a defense lawyer who once worked for Morgenthau told USA Today in 2002, adding, "He talked about crime in the suites being as important as crime in the streets. That was his line."

While interviewing his now-widow Lucinda Franks a few years ago about her memoir, Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me, I was given special insight into Morgenthau's motivation. Franks, 27 years Morgenthau's junior, was the youngest woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, and ended up dating and marrying him after they met during an interview in 1967.

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau attends an HBO documentary screening of Sex Crimes Unit on June 15th, 2011, in New York City.

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau attends an HBO documentary screening of Sex Crimes Unit on June 15th, 2011, in New York City.

As Franks has written, the horrors of the Hitler's Germany weighed on him as an example of what could go wrong when decision-makers in a country become corrupt opportunists. Franks wrote that, "Bob was seldom impressed by eminent people, but meeting Holocaust survivors was an exception for him." Franks and Morgenthau shared a "deep anger and sorrow" regarding the Holocaust, so much so that "the concentration camps only had to be mentioned and we would both well up."

The most anyone might see of Morgenthau's Jewishness in public was his annual High Holidays trip to Temple Emmanuel on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But in his private life, he held these concerns close, and used them in creating a definition of justice that included seeking out white-collar criminals—the people with the most power to corrupt a country and its government.

Some of the lessons of what could go wrong in fighting injustice came from his own, insider's view of the American government's response to the Holocaust. When Morgenthau volunteered for military service in World War II, he already knew of his father's fights within the Roosevelt administration to try to do more about the ongoing genocide of Jews in Europe. Henry Jr. was, according to Franks, nearly impeached from his cabinet position for trying to arm France in 1939, and "fought hard to persuade FDR to focus on saving Jews, getting him to set up the War Refugee Board, even though the president's primary goal was to win the war," as Franks told me. Morgenthau's father had to lobby hard to establish a Jewish refugee camp in upstate New York.

During the war itself, Morgenthau took the most direct route to action available: He served as executive officer of two Naval ships, achieving the rank of lieutenant commander, and was awarded two Bronze Stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. After combat, and then Yale Law, he set out to fight "crime in the suites."

In his prosecutorial career, Morgenthau set a number of precedents. In the 1960s, as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he was the first to successfully prosecute accountants for certifying misleading financial statements. As Manhattan DA, in 1985, he indicted several of the largest jewelry firms in the world—among them Cartier, Bulgari, and Van Cleef & Arpels—for having helped their customers evade sales taxes, a case that was eventually settled for more than $8 million. Along the way, Morgenthau successfully prosecuted banks and brokerage houses alongside mob figures and other high-profile criminals, then led one of the most high-profile prosecutions of a captain of industry, former Tyco executive Dennis Kozlowski.

And yet, despite Morgenthau's well-displayed commitment to challenging those in power, there was one period when he decided instead to seek their help. In the late 1980s, he accepted a commission from then-New York Mayor Ed Koch to lead an effort to build a Holocaust memorial in New York. After others failed to raise the necessary money, Morgenthau stepped in to call millionaires personally and solicit large donations from the very sorts of financiers he'd made his name investigating, and managed to bring the project back on track. Franks recounted one particular call, which a donor left a meeting with an investor to take. "'I was so happy I wasn't going to be investigated,'" Franks recalled the donor saying, "'that I immediately sent a contribution.'"

When the building now known as the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust was finally ready to be dedicated, Morgenthau, naturally, was expected to speak. First, though, came a speech from someone whom Morgenthau had fought the board of the museum to invite: Cardinal John O'Connor, who used the occasion to issue the first-ever apology by a Catholic official for Christians' role in the Holocaust; this anticipated Pope John Paul II's subsequent apology on behalf of the entire Church.

Then came speeches from the governor, the mayor, and the author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, all leading to Morgenthau's moment. It was in that speech that Morgenthau would make explicit the connection between his private concerns about the Holocaust, his family heritage, and his public crusade against white-collar crime. His words on that day, combined with Franks' recollections, reveal a man for whom all his major endeavors pointed in one direction.

When it was Morgenthau's turn to speak, he approached the podium and declared of the Holocaust memorial he'd worked so hard to build: "This museum is important for young people to understand what happens when criminals take over the government."

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