Ill With Cancer, He May Be Disbarred : Roy M. Cohn Fights for His Life and Legal Career

Times Staff Writer

Once again, it was as much a New Year’s Eve event as the annual dropping of the brightly lit ball at Times Square.

Limousines double-parked outside the elegant Upper East Side six-story town house. The parade of tuxedos and ball gowns through the thick oak doors easily rivaled a Hollywood premier. Champagne flowed freely--and so did tears when the thin, haggard-looking 58-year-old host slowly rose to speak.

“Since our President cannot run for office again,” he joked, “I want you all to know I am available for 1988.”


The ever-combative Roy Marcus Cohn may be down, but he’s not out.

In the 1950s, Cohn was the brash young lawyer who hunted headlines and Reds for Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s stormy Senate subcommittee. In the 1960s, he beat three federal criminal indictments. He rode in private jets and Rolls-Royce limos, yet legally owned nothing but a wardrobe of $1,000 suits, defying frustrated tax and bill collectors. He became a confidant to cardinals, a patron of politicians, a lawyer for Mafia bosses, a friend to President Reagan.

Famed and feared for three decades, Roy Cohn today is fighting for his life--he says he has liver cancer--while a state judicial panel seeks to disbar him.

Both problems may come to a head in coming months. The Appellate Division of the New York state Supreme Court is considering a disciplinary panel’s recommendation to disbar Cohn for three charges of professional misconduct, including mishandling clients’ funds, illegally using an escrow account and employing “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.” Cohn’s lawyers, contending that Cohn has already been “publicly disgraced,” denied all charges in a final court brief on Jan. 15.

And Cohn faces a grimmer deadline. A doctor from New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center swore in an affidavit last Oct. 24 that Cohn has a “life-threatening disease”--which he did not identify--and could die in six months to a year if experimental drugs do not work.

Cohn has said doctors diagnosed liver cancer in October, 1984, finding a malignant tumor behind his ear and a benign growth in his leg. He said his cancer is in remission, though his red-cell blood count “gets lower than it should.”

‘Six Months to a Year’

“Six months ago, my doctors said I had six months to a year to live if the treatments did not work,” Cohn said in a telephone interview from Greenwich, Conn., where he lives. “Apparently they worked. I feel fine.”

“He says he’s got it beat,” said Sidney Zion, a longtime friend and author who has met Cohn regularly in recent weeks to help write his autobiography for Random House. “He’s definitely improved.”

Indeed, Cohn, a lifelong football devotee, attended the Super Bowl in New Orleans last Sunday, an aide said. Earlier in the week, Cohn appeared at a federal District Court trial in Manhattan to file a motion on behalf of alleged mob chieftain Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno.

Cohn’s health is an emotional--and increasingly public--issue in the disbarment case. His lawyers pleaded for sympathy and dismissal last June, as the closed-door evidentiary hearings were ending, after Cohn’s law partner, Thomas A. Bolan, suddenly testified that Cohn was “dying,” warning: “It’s a matter of months.”

Bolan said Cohn’s drugs had caused “tremendous, very severe side effects,” including depression, disorientation and a memory so poor that the firm’s switchboard operator was ordered to monitor his calls.

Notables Testified

When the panel granted additional hearings, a virtual Who’s Who of New York notables showed up--36 in all, including three judges, an ambassador, church officials, law professors, real estate mogul Donald Trump and Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.).

Barbara Walters, television personality and longtime friend, recalled that Cohn cried openly when he first confessed he had cancer and was taking interferon, an anti-viral drug. “I think that God has already punished him,” she said. “ . . . Maybe he has been punished enough.”

New York Times columnist William L. Safire excoriated the panel for “this late hit.” In a subsequent column, Safire attacked the “buzzards of the bar” who, he said, had “dredged up” charges “to get even with a hard-hitting anti-legal Establishment right-winger at a time he is physically unable to defend himself.”

Rage Remains High

The debate now is “merely how Mr. Cohn’s obituary will read--whether he will be identified as a disbarred lawyer, one who was ultimately exonerated, or one who died while charges were pending,” Cohn’s lawyer, Michael B. Mukasey, told the court.

“If the man is unable to practice law and is terminally ill, what’s the point?” he asked in an interview.

Whatever Cohn’s current health, his rage remains high. He bitterly denounces the court-appointed disciplinary committee of the First Judicial Department, which polices lawyers in Manhattan and the Bronx.

The seven-member committee recommended his disbarment on Oct. 30 after a two-year investigation, including 27 days of hearings and 48 witnesses. The proceeding apparently was the longest in the panel’s history.

“It’s composed of a bunch of Cohn-haters,” Cohn said. “Their idea of hearings is to hear their side only and not our side.

‘A Lot of Nonsense’

“My concern now is this is a personally motivated thing in which they go back to the 1950s,” he added. “I didn’t think they’d wait 25 years. The facts as alleged are totally wrong. Nobody ever lost a penny. They’re complete baloney.

“The whole thing to me is a lot of nonsense. I’m paying absolutely no attention to it.”

Cohn’s similar attack on the committee last fall as “yo-yos” and “deadbeat guys” carrying out a “corrupt prosecution” persuaded a state appeals court to release the 5,000-page record from Cohn’s hearings. The court ruled that, by his comments, Cohn had waived his right to confidentiality.

‘Compassion’ for Cohn

Michael A. Gentile, who prosecuted Cohn for the disciplinary committee, responded in an interview that Cohn was fairly treated. “He’s a fascinating man, but I think I proved he’s a crook,” Gentile said.

Gentile said he has “compassion” for Cohn because of his illness. “But, as chief counsel, I see no legal reason and frankly no moral reason to desist from this prosecution.”

Gentile noted that the charges against Cohn originally were brought in October, 1983, two years before Cohn’s illness was confirmed to the committee.

“It was not a late hit,” Gentile said. “I think Roy Cohn was charged at the pinnacle of his strength and influence in this town.”

Gentile also denied Cohn’s charge that panel members conducted a political vendetta. “I was 9 years old in 1954,” he said. “So this ideological stuff is nonsense.”

Fame--and Infamy

That was when Cohn, then 26 and a veteran prosecutor from the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg atomic spy case, first won national fame--and infamy. As McCarthy’s zealous investigator, Cohn barnstormed through 10 European cities, seeking subversives in U.S. information offices and embassies with his close friend G. David Schine, an unpaid McCarthy aide. Schine, now a Los Angeles music and film producer, did not return repeated calls seeking an interview.

But Cohn’s alleged threats to “wreck the Army” for not granting special privileges to Schine, who had been drafted, forced a clash with the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration. Television was new, and America watched, riveted, as the thin, cobra-eyed Cohn bullied witnesses, accused Army top brass of lying and blackmail, and whispered advice to McCarthy in 36 tumultuous, televised hearings. Ultimately, McCarthy’s heavy-handed tactics led to his censure by the Senate and his downfall. Cohn stands by him still.

“It is impossible,” said friend and columnist William F. Buckley Jr., “to get Roy Cohn to acknowledge Joseph McCarthy ever made a mistake.”

Back in New York in the 1960s, Cohn was indicted and tried three times on federal charges including bribery, extortion, obstruction of justice and blackmail. Each time, he contended that prosecutors were persecuting him. Each time, he was acquitted, 12 to 0, once after giving a tearful seven-hour summation without notes when his own lawyer fell ill. Charges in a fourth case, accusing Cohn of trying to secretly gain control of two Illinois banks, were dropped.

Legendary Tax Troubles

But Cohn’s legendary tax troubles remain. The IRS has audited nearly every return Cohn has filed since 1959, and has filed liens against him for more than $3 million. The IRS, Cohn countered, “is the most dictatorial, Nazi-like thing we have in the United States.”

Local, state, federal and court records show that Cohn owes at least $5 million to $7 million in back taxes and judgments in lawsuits.

To avoid the tax and bill collectors, Cohn is an employee, not a partner, at his 17-member Manhattan law firm, Saxe, Bacon & Bolan. The low title did not dampen his high-flying life style. Until his illness, he held court at “21” Club and Le Cirque and entertained hundreds with caviar and champagne at disco parties, charging it all to his $500,000-plus expense account.

“All I own are the clothes on my back,” Cohn, a lifelong bachelor who lived with his mother until she died in 1967, once explained. “I have no assets. I want no assets and need no assets.”

Stuffed Frogs, Toy Soldiers

His friends and his firm owned Cohn’s 12-seat Merlin IV jet, his 96-foot yacht, his vintage Bentley and Rolls-Royce limos, the grand piano and 33-room Manhattan town house, the llamas and seven-room Tudor house in Greenwich, vacation villas in Cape Cod and Acapulco, even his fur-covered mirrored bed surrounded by hundreds of stuffed frogs and toy soldiers.

An early and ardent supporter of Ronald Reagan, Cohn has been a welcome guest at the White House. “Take care and know that you have our concern,” Reagan telegrammed after Cohn was hospitalized last summer. New York’s gossip pages duly note CIA Director William J. Casey and White House officials attending Cohn’s lavish birthday parties.

Cohn’s influence has grown accordingly. With partner Bolan now heading a judicial screening panel for New York’s Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato, the National Law Journal last year credited Cohn with “making or breaking a number of federal judgeship candidates from New York.”

Considered ‘Dangerous’

Henry L. King, vice president of the New York State Bar Assn., said some lawyers consider Cohn “dangerous . . . because of his closeness to a number of state court judges, and a concern about whether or not you would get a totally fair hearing before those judges with Cohn as an adversary.”

His law practice thrived throughout. Once hailed as “legal executioner” on Esquire’s cover, Cohn has had clients varying from New York mob boss Carmine Galante to the Archdiocese of New York, from Bianca Jagger to the New York Yankees, from Donald Trump to publishing magnate S. I. Newhouse Jr. His average client, Cohn once estimated, was worth nearly $20 million.

“Mr. Cohn is a very, very tough adversary,” said Peter Sudler, a former assistant U.S. attorney who fought Cohn in two celebrated organized crime trials and the Studio 54 tax evasion case. “He is an extremely able trial lawyer . . . . Whenever you went against Mr. Cohn, you knew you were in for the fight of your life.”

Millions for Israel

And Cohn’s friends rallied to his defense. They told the disciplinary panel that Cohn had raised millions of dollars for Israel, for Catholic charities, for the disabled. Federal judges and former prosecutors swore to his honesty and integrity. Cohn helped pay a dying colleague’s medical expenses, one said. A double-amputee Vietnam vet said Cohn’s support helped him win a world ski racing championship. Cohn had jumped into a river to save a drowning dog, Bolan recalled.

The testimony did not sway the disciplinary committee. It unanimously recommended disbarment after sustaining three charges and dismissing a fourth.

The first involved a claim by Iva Schlesinger, a former client whom Cohn represented in a bitter divorce from South African diamond magnate John Schlesinger. After the $3-million case was settled in June, 1966, she said Cohn borrowed $100,000 from her, without collateral, at 8% interest for 90 days.

Cohn personally wrote out the check and wrote “loan” on its face, and signed a promissory note, records opened in the disbarment case show. Over the next seven years, he repaid about $40,000, referring to the “loan” at least seven times in letters to the increasingly anxious Mrs. Schlesinger.

She Sued in 1978

When Mrs. Schlesinger sued in 1978 for the balance of the loan, Cohn repeatedly swore under oath that she had actually paid him as an “advance” for future legal work. He countersued for $40,000, arguing that she actually owed him for settling her mother’s will. Testimony showed that the firm’s legal work on the will saved Mrs. Schlesinger $8,000 in estate taxes.

Even Cohn admitted that he was “not totally comfortable with this theory” that the loan was actually an advance. Neither was the panel. It ruled that his claim and his lawsuit were “false and fraudulent.”

Cohn did not fully repay the $100,000 until May, 1984--on the morning that Mrs. Schlesinger appeared to testify before the disciplinary panel.

The committee also found Cohn guilty of misconduct for improperly spending a court-ordered escrow fund of another client, Pied Piper Yacht Charters Corp., for personal benefit.

The case originally was litigated in 1976. U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri ordered Cohn and his firm to repay $219,000 or face civil contempt after finding they had “dissipated the entire fund” in violation of a 1971 court order.

Denied Any Wrongdoing

Palmieri accused Cohn of resorting to “obfuscation by bold assertions of half-truths and untruths” when asked about the escrow account. The judge said Cohn had committed “repeated and at times flagrant violations” of the court order.

Cohn denied any wrongdoing. “Nobody lost a penny,” he said.

Lastly, the committee found that Cohn made “materially false and misleading statements” in response to two questions on his April, 1982, application for admission to the District of Columbia Bar.

Specifically, Cohn wrote that he knew of no disciplinary complaints pending against him “except usual crackpot complaint letters following media appearances, etc.” He also denied any civil liability for fraud or breach of fiduciary duty.

But the panel said Cohn had at least three complaints pending against him at the time, and noted he had been “adjudged liable” in federal court for violating the Pied Piper escrow fund. Cohn testified that he probably forgot the cases when he completed the application but, the panel said, his “lapse of memory is simply incredible.”

Charge Not Sustained

The panel did not sustain a fourth charge. That case involved a June, 1976, Florida probate court decision disallowing a disputed codicil to a will signed by Lewis S. Rosensteil, the multimillionaire founder of Schenley Distillers, shortly before he died.

Florida Circuit Judge Frank B. Dowling found that Cohn had visited Rosensteil, then 84 and incapacitated by strokes and Alzheimer’s disease, in his Miami hospital room on Dec. 6, 1975, and “misrepresented . . . the nature, content and purpose of the document” to get him to sign the codicil.

The codicil would have named Cohn and two others as trustees to Rosensteil’s $75-million estate. The New York panel said the evidence did not prove that Cohn had gotten the signature through fraud, however.

Gentile has asked the Appellate Division to reinstate the Rosensteil charge when it rules on Cohn’s case. The judges can either dismiss the charges, issue a censure or suspension or disbar him as recommended.

But whatever is ahead, Cohn goes not gentle into that good night. He ended a telephone interview, begging off further questions or a face-to-face meeting. He’s “straining,” he said, and “anyway, I don’t give a damn what they think of me in Los Angeles.”

“There are very few things about which I give a damn,” he added. “God, mother and country. Mother is dead. God doesn’t need my help. And the country is in good hands.”