06 January 2018

Where's My Roy Cohn?

"Where's my Roy Cohn?"

That's the question a frustrated President Trump asked when he learned that Jeff Sessions could not protect the president from the pending Russia inquiry because the Attorney General had recused himself from the matter after making misleading statements to the Senate Committee that confirmed him.

Where was his Roy Cohn, the crooked lawyer who protected Trump, and helped him screw over countless adversaries? He was long gone, of course, but before he died, Cohn left behind a trail of lies, deceptions, and downright thefts. He stole from clients, forged signatures, lied to courts and government agencies, and otherwise disgraced his family and the Bar of which he was a member.

My principal contact with Cohn occurred in 1982 when I signed a petition to have him disbarred.  I had been appointed by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court to chair the Disciplinary Committee that prosecuted unethical lawyers in Manhattan and the Bronx which had 40,000 registered lawyers at the time. Upon taking over the committee, I discovered a molding file on Cohn that was not being pursued because the staff was overworked, and its Chief Counsel feared that devoting time to the well-defended Cohn would eat up too many scarce resources. I fired the Chief, brought on a felony prosecutor from Brooklyn, and we went to work.

In the end, we prosecuted Cohn on four counts.

First, Cohn had represented a woman seeking a divorce from her husband and when the matrimonial matter was settled the husband paid him a $60,000 fee for all services rendered to his wife. Cohn accepted the payment, and then several months later wrote out a check to himself for $100,000 from his client's checkbook, flew to Paris where she was staying, told her he needed to borrow some money, and persuaded her to sign the check, which, on its face, said "Loan." He also gave her a 90-day promissory note in that amount. For ten years he put her off, making some small payments, signing more than 20 documents referring to the "loan," but when she finally sued, Cohn's swore in court that the payment was not a loan at all, but some kind of loose fee arrangement, though neither he nor his law firm had a single document or record to support that claim.  It took seventeen years for his client to get her money back. In the subsequent disbarment proceeding, the Appellate Division concluded his defense had been total and complete perjury.

Second, when a yacht company's assets were frozen by the SEC, Cohn, representing the company, suggested he take all the assets and hold them in escrow for the benefit of the creditors. When the court agreed, Cohn proceeded to pay most of the escrowed assets to himself and his partners, and was held in contempt by federal judge Palmieri. When Cohn tried to explain that away at his disbarment hearing, the court found his testimony to be "incredible."

Cohn was apparently quite comfortable stealing from clients.  Perhaps the most brazen assault on the duty of good faith a lawyer owes to his client involved multimillionaire philanthropist Lewis S. Rosentsteil, whom Cohn had represented in a divorce. While the 84-year old Rosensteil lay dying in a Miami hospital, Cohn and a colleague visited the client, and ignoring the orders of hospital personnel that Mr. Rosenstein was in critical condition and "almost comatose," Cohn put a pen in the patient's hand and "helped him sign" a document he told Rosensteil was just an administrative detail to complete the divorce.  In fact, it was a document that appointed Cohn as an Executor to Rosensteil's estate. Upon his departure, Cohn told hospital administrator he "wasn't there to get any signatures of the patient, it was just a visit!" The Appellate Division noted the document's signature line contained "a number of squiggly lines which in no way resemble any letters of the alphabet," and found Cohn's twisted explanation of the incident to be perjurious.

While these three charges were pending, Cohn had the brass to apply for admission to the District of Columbia Bar, and, on his sworn application, denied that any charges were pending against him except for the "usual crackpot complaint letters."

Before the Appellate Division finally decided the disbarment case we had brought, Cohn told a Washington Post reporter that his accusers (i.e., me and the Committee staff) were "Simply left wingers, deadbeats, and a bunch of yo-yos just out to smear me up." I was honored.

Bottom line, all four charges were sustained, and the unanimous five judge court (of which Cohn's deceased father had been a member) found the "evidence so compelling ... as to leave us no recourse but to order disbarment."

One last note to this seedy tale. At the hearing before the Committee, Cohn scared up character witnesses who were willing, under oath, to attest to Cohn's good character and to testify that he "possesses the highest degree of integrity." One of those witnesses was a young real estate developer named Donald Trump.

Mr. President, that you would choose Roy Cohn as your mentor is no surprise to your critics. The stuff he taught you may well lead to your undoing.

This piece may also be found at 
It is derived from a chapter in my memoir, The Client Decides, published in 2017.

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