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Myerson Cleared of All Divorce-Fixing Charges

Times Staff Writer

A federal court jury, in its fourth day of deliberations, acquitted former Miss America Bess Myerson and two co-defendants Thursday of charges that they conspired to influence the divorce case of her boyfriend by arranging for the daughter of the judge hearing that case to get a city job.

The verdict brought tears and cheers in the crowded third-floor courtroom. Myerson is New York City’s former cultural affairs commissioner and was a principal architect of Mayor Edward I. Koch’s first successful mayoral campaign.

She took off her glasses and wiped tears from her eyes as the jury’s forewoman, Linda Bernardi, proclaimed “not guilty” to all counts in the indictment.

Embraces Co-Defendants

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When complete acquittal was announced, she jumped up and embraced her co-defendants, contractor Carl (Andy) Capasso, 43, and former state Supreme Court Justice Hortense W. Gabel, 76. Then she lost her composure and wept.

“I am grateful for the American judicial system,” Myerson said. “I thank the jury for exonerating me.”

Defense lawyers, who had waited nervously throughout the day Thursday as the jury asked for testimony to review, had labeled the alleged divorce-fixing scheme “a soap opera, not a criminal trial.”

“I think it’s great, just great,” Gabel said. Later, she stood alongside her daughter, Sukhreet, who was a key witness for the prosecution, whom Myerson had hired as her $19,000-a-year assistant in the Department of Cultural Affairs.

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Proclaiming that “justice has been done,” Sukhreet Gabel said she would have testified again as a witness. “Everyone is the winner in the case,” she added.

“My daughter is here and I am proud she stood by me all the way,” said the former justice, who heard the alimony dispute between Capasso and his estranged wife, Nancy.

Federal prosecutors had charged that Myerson, Capasso and Mrs. Gabel had conspired to cut Capasso’s support payments to his estranged wife. All three defendants were accused of conspiracy, mail fraud and promoting bribery. In addition, Myerson was accused of obstruction of justice for allegedly trying to influence Sukhreet Gabel’s testimony.

Myerson, 64, who was named in 1945 the first Jewish Miss America, capped a successful television game show career by becoming consumer affairs commissioner in the Administration of former New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay. She ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1980 and met Capasso, who became her boyfriend, at a testimonial dinner during that campaign. In 1983, Koch appointed her commissioner of cultural affairs.

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She left her $83,000-a-year post on April 9, 1987, after a city investigation concluded that she had acted improperly in hiring the judge’s daughter.

Spectators Lined Up

The trial, which lasted almost three months, was a cause celebre in New York, with spectators lining up some mornings for seats before court opened.

The evidence the jury heard was chiefly circumstantial. Prosecutors did not show any direct evidence of bribery and conspiracy. Government lawyers argued that the core of the federal case was self-evident: Judge Gabel’s hard-to-employ daughter, Sukhreet, received her job as Myerson’s personal assistant in the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in August, 1983. The next month, Gabel cut Capasso’s support payments from $1,850 a week to $850.

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In his closing arguments, Assistant U.S. Atty. Stuart Abrams labeled the alleged arrangement “a scheme to buy justice in the courts of New York.”

The prosecutor charged that Myerson and Capasso conspired to entice Judge Gabel into a corrupt arrangement and were motivated by “greed and vengeance.”

Abrams contended that the scheme succeeded because of “the intertwining obsessions” of the judge for her daughter and Capasso and Myerson for the divorce.

Frederick Hafetz, Myerson’s lawyer, countered by telling the jurors in his summation that prosecutors did not produce any “witnesses, a document, a tape--anything,” showing a corrupt agreement involving the three defendants.

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The trial was marked by the unusual spectacle of Gabel’s daughter testifying as a prosecution witness against her mother and the other two defendants. But under cross-examination, Sukhreet Gabel admitted that she had changed her sworn testimony in the past and might again. The judge’s daughter told the jurors that electroshock treatments for depression had left her memory “like Swiss cheese.”

Gabel said that five days after a city investigative report into the circumstances of her hiring, she was angry with her father’s comments about her and she approached prosecutors, agreeing to tape phone conversations with her mother.

In his summation, Abrams sought to bolster Gabel’s testimony, charging that defense lawyers were trying to draw the jury’s attention away from the central facts in the case by attacking her statements on the stand.

Cites Supporting Testimony

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“Sukhreet Gabel’s credibility really isn’t an issue,” the prosecutor charged, arguing that her testimony was supported by additional evidence.

Defense lawyers argued that Gabel’s hiring may have been an unwise act, but it was not illegal. They contended that Capasso’s alimony was lowered for legal and financial reasons, not as the result of Gabel’s being hired as Myerson’s assistant.

In an emotional plea for his client, Hafetz told the jurors that an acquittal would bring them “a sense of exhilaration that you have lifted from another human spirit, from Bess Myerson, the long and painful anguish that she has endured throughout the investigation, the indictment and the criminal trial.”

Hafetz said that such a verdict would be the most important event in her life.

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