Robert Morgenthau

Mr. District Attorney: Robert M. Morgenthau on Drugs and the Law

VTR Date: April 28, 1993

Guest: Morgenthau, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert M. Morgenthau
Title: “Mr. District Attorney: Robert Morgenthau on Drugs and the Law”
VTR: 4/28/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. With health care, the overall economy, and foreign affairs all front and center, perhaps we Americans are paying too little attention right now to what my guest today has forthrightly identified as “a national pestilence”, not just a “victimless crime”.

He should know, for Manhattan’s intrepid District Attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, deals constantly with his deadly summary of the harsh impact of drugs on everyday life in the United States: drugs kill and destroy lives, more and more each year. They are a prime cause of crime, more and more each year. Most of the men arrested for serious crimes in a dozen major American cities test positive for the recent use of illegal drugs. They are a major cause of infant fatalities and birth defects and a contributing factor in child abuse cases. They play a major role in the most devastating scourge of our times: AIDS. And, as a city-dweller, I can affirm Mr. Morgenthau’s frequent assertion that more and more drugs destroy the very quality of life in our urban neighborhoods.

Yet there seems to be less and less effective concern – even in our new Administration – for doing something about this scourge.

District Attorney Morgenthau joined me here five years ago to discuss the problem…and I would begin today’s program by asking him what, if anything, has changed for the better. That’s not an unfair question, is it sir?

Morgenthau: No, and i wish I could tell you that it had changed for the better. I think that in some areas, it’s a little bit better, but in other areas, it’s worse. And, and the…what I call “the back door”, of course, the child abuse, the children born addicted, the emergency room problems, the school problems, I think they’re all more serious today than they were five years ago.

Heffner: Well, how do you account for our national unwillingness, and maybe that’s the only way to put it, to do something effective about this.

Morgenthau: Well, it, it may be that the, that the leadership of this country hasn’t, hasn’t focused the public’s attention enough on, on ways to deal with it. I, I think that everybody kind of hopes that there’s one magic bullet, there’s one easy answer, but unfortunately, there is no single solution. There’s no easy answer.

Heffner: Well, the last time we were together, we were talking about the disparity, the difference between those who are focusing on prevention, who were focusing on prevention, who were focusing on education, on rehabilitation, and those who were focusing on keeping the drugs out. Where do you come down now on this question?

Morgenthau: I mean I come down that, unfortunately, because…I say “unfortunately” because it costs money, you have to do all of those things. You have to spend money trying o prevent drugs from coming to this country. You have to have a good treatment program, you have to have a good education program. But as long as drugs are coming into this country in, in, in very large amounts, you also have to prosecute the people who are distributing those, those drugs. I mean you cannot say to somebody who tells you “drugs are being sold in my building. Drugs are being sold on the street corner, in my neighborhood, drugs are being sold in the school, where my children go to school”. You can’t say, “Hey, be patient, we’re educating people, we’re treating people. Be patient and it will go away”. You you can’t tell them that. If, if government is going to have any credibility, you’ve got to go out…police have got to go out, and federal agents have got to go out and arrest the people who are selling the drugs.

Heffner: Is it unfair, though, to say that if decade after decade, or half decade since you were here last, after half decade…we say the same things, and we seem to be dealing with a problem that has not been diminished, that we’re barking up the wrong tree altogether.

Morgenthau: No, I don’t think, I don’t think that, that follows. We have not been doing the things that we know how to do, as effectively as we should be. But, but we’re not going to…even if we did everything right…the drug problem is a serious, tough and tractable problem, and it’s not going to go away overnight. So, we’ve got to be, we, we’ve got to apply, I think significantly larger resources, and I know nobody wants to hear that…and we’ve got to apply them more effectively, and we’ve got to stick with it. No easy answers.

Heffner: We thought we had very tough enforcers in place with Presidents Reagan and Bush. But the problem goes on. It hasn’t gotten any…

Morgenthau: The fact is that, that was more talk than, than fact. You know when, when they started down to interdict the drugs from coming in and they were going to put balloons on the southern borders, but you know, they did about a quarter…they never finished that. They didn’t finish a lot of the projects that they set out to do. So the fact is that they’ve never…there’s never been an effective interdiction program. And I think…I mean I think where you’ve got to start is you’ve got to work with the foreign governments and try to work effectively with them to, to find alternative crops. Now we did that once with Turkey. When the lot…the opium poppy was being grown, and, and we did work with the Turkish government, and we did stop…to a major extent…the growing of opium poppies in Turkey. And then that reduced the amount of, of heroin, which is based on opium, from coming to this country. But we’ve never had a successful program with the Central American countries…and Peru is the biggest producer. We haven’t had a successful program…we don’t have a successful interdiction program. And we’ve got this flood of drugs coming in, and, and I guess what the federal government is saying to local law enforcement, you know, this is like the dikes on the Mississippi River, they can overflow and let the townspeople get out with the mops and mop it up. We’re trying to mop up a flood of drugs that are coming into this country. Are we doing a very good job? We’re trying, but there’s so much coming in, that, that we’re not stopping it. Although there are communities in the city that are now better off than they were five years. The problem is that there are communities that are no better off. But one of the things that I think we, we should be doing in, in a very important way is, is tracing the profits from the sale of drugs. Drugs come in, money goes out. And we should be prosecuting the people who are moving that money, and the people who are making that money. And, and that takes a lot of painstaking work. But they’re using the banking system to a, to a very large extent. And government as a whole…federal government, state and local should be doing a lot more. I mean that’s why we started with the whole BCCI business when, when we found that the BCCI was laundering millions and millions of dollars through new York and that those cases were not going to be prosecuted. That’s when we got interested in BCCI. And we’ve learned a lot, there’s a lot more to learn. But with electronic transfers of money. It’s easier to move money than it was. So I think that’s an area where federal government, state and local government should be spending a lot more resources.

Heffner: You know, the fascinating subject, because since we spoke together last at this table, well The Wall Street Journal’s certainly spent a good deal of editorial space saying that the District Attorney of Manhattan…you…should be given…freedom to do what the federal government isn’t doing. Now, I’ve always wondered whether it was your experience as United States Attorney here…that got your office now…the DA’s office now…into an area where one would have assumed the federal government should be, and should be squarely acting in the role that you’ve taken now.

Morgenthau: I, I think the federal government should be doing a lot…a lot more. You know last year we prosecuted 32,000 drug cases. And those were cases that needed to be prosecuted. But you’ve also got to say “who, who reaped the profits of those sales, and where did that money go”? So we’re trying to devote a fairly small, but a significant portion of our resources to tracing that money. One of the things that we’ve learned in the course of this investigation is that, that almost all dollar transfers go through New York. I mean if a bank in Hong Kong wants to transfer money to a bank across the street, they got to wire it through New York. And, of course, that’s one reason why money launderers use New York, because you can put ten million dollars into that stream of money and it doesn’t make a blip on the computer screen. About three trillion dollars a day goes through New York.

Heffner: Well, now, is there any indication that the reluctance to do what had to be done and what you began was a function of that dirty money having touched others higher and higher up?

Morgenthau: I don’t…I don’t know that. I think that…I think part of it may be that, that intelligence agencies were, were using this bank to move money. Part of it may have been just plain inertia.

Heffner: Isn’t that very kind of you? “Just plain inertia”.

Morgenthau: Well, I don’t, I don’t like to make charges when I can’t, when I can’t support them. I think of course, the other thing is that every country wants dollar deposits. And, and who’s going to make those deposits? Well, a lot of people from the Middle East who, who’ve made money in oil. They’re going to make dollar deposits. So that…I mean I think you have York and London and Luxembourg and Paris and the Grand Caymans and so forth…all competing for money and not wanting to ask too many questions to scare people away so they’ll take their money out of the banks in, in those countries

Heffner: Well, it’s clear we’re talking about the biggest business in the world now. We’re talking about drug money. Is that…is that correct?

Morgenthau: Well, I don’t know whether it’s the biggest, but it’s certainly a, it’s certainly a huge business. It came home to me…it’s a couple of years now…when enforcement people seized a truck with 19.6 million dollars in it in suitcases. And that was just one month’s work from a middle level operation in Queens. Now that’s 240 million dollars a year. And how many businesses in any city, New York or elsewhere, you know, are bringing in 240 million dollars a year? And this was just a middle level operation. Actually, when the investigators went back to the house where this was packaged, they 70,000 dollars in one dollar bills shoved under the floor boards. They were just too busy to, to package that and count it and send it out.

Heffner: Now the banks obviously play a major role in this. Because all the money you’re talking about that, that’s siphoned through and runs through new York, goes through the banks.

Morgenthau: An awful lot of it does.

Heffner: What about their responsibility?

Morgenthau: Well, I mean they have a serious responsibility. And, and I think they are…I think they’re taking it more seriously. But there’s always the chance of a bank like BCCI being permitted to come into this country and, and to act in a both irresponsible and illegal way.

Heffner: Yeah, but let me ask…if you took BCCI what percentage of the monies that you believe are going through one way or another for drug purposes…what percentage went through BCCI? Small? Large?

Morgenthau: At one time, a significant amount of money. Because they bought a bank called Banco America in Columbia which had 30 branches in the, in the drug producing and refining areas. So that they, they were definitely trying to get drug money. When, when the records of the head of the bank, Mr. Abide were seized, they found in his personal telephone numbers, the home telephone number of Pablo Escobar, the probably the biggest drug dealer in Columbia. So they were out to…I mean there’s no doubt they were out to get the drug money, and, and to make a profit. And I think one of the reasons was…in the first place, it’s a lot of cash…and second place, they were not the kind of customers that were going to complain if something went wrong.

Heffner: Or dared to complain.

Morgenthau: Or dared…(Laughter)…yeah, yeah. Wouldn’t be in a position to complain.

Heffner: what do you want? What do you need? What does your office need to go further in pursuing the, the cases you have taken on, and those that you haven’t yet been able to?

Morgenthau: Well, we need…I mean…you know we need resources to devote to these cases. I think that if you put the time and effort into them, the results will be worth it. And, and they will pay for themselves. I mean when we indicted BCCI, and they plead guilty here in New York, and they forfeited 550 million dollars. So…

Heffner: I hope the DA’s office got it.

Morgenthau: We didn’t get 550 million, but we got our expenses out of, out of that. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of patience to trace this money. Bu I think it’s critical that it, that it be done.

Heffner: Well, look…we’re, we’re sitting here talking here today at the end of May, end of April…I don’t want to advance it too far…993…what’s your guess as to what the present Administration will do? In the paper this morning there’s an indication that finally the Administration will pick the man to head the new Drug Office, which presumably has Cabinet rank. If that is the case, do you find anything in the air to indicate that the kinds of resources you know are needed are going to be allocated?

Morgenthau: They really haven’t talked about their plans. And, and, I’m not…I’m not very good at eh crystal ball so I don’t…I don’t know what they’ll do. i, I certainly hope that they will recognize that this is a very complicated problem and that there are no easy answers, and that we should continue to work with the governments of Peru and Columbia and Bolivia to try to get them to grow coffee instead of the coca plant. That we’re going to have to spend a lot of money trying to stop the drugs from coming in and when they do get in, in trying to eradicate them. At the same time we’re going to have to work on treatment. I think there should be treatment on demand for every drug addict. I think we’ve got to educate, constantly try to educate the young people that this will destroy their lives. It may mean a quick buck, but it will destroy their lives. And, and eventually they’ll, they’ll lose that money. So I, I think you’ve got to do all those things. No, no one answer.

Heffner: How do you respond to the people who say “Look, so much money is going in to law enforcement, so much money is going in, without the kinds of results we want and need, to interdiction…let’s forget about it. Let’s focus much more so upon education and perhaps take the legal taint of drug use away”. How do you…anything…after all, we’ve taken the other position for decades now.

Morgenthau: And we haven’t done it very well. I think all you’ve got to do is just go round and talk to people who live in a drug0infested community, and you tell them “Be patient. Be patient. Treat people and have education”, you’re going to have some violent reactions. I think that, that the citizens of the city and this country are entitled to protection from drug dealers. And what we’ve got in a sense is, you know, what we’re proposing is the worst of both worlds. We’re going to say we make drugs illegal, yet we’re not going to enforce the law. I mean if you’re not going to enforce the law then, then, let’s legalize it.

Heffner: What about legalization?

Morgenthau: Well, the problem with legalization is that experience has shown that you will have tremendous growth in the addicted population.

Heffner: Immediately.

Morgenthau: Immediately. And that’s been the experience…you know, when they legalized heroin here after, after World War I the number of addicts from 1919 exploded. In countries like China and Iran, and so forth, where you had legalized opium, I mean the number of, of drug abusers was, was huge. So you’re going to have a lot of people that are, that are partially incapacitated by the use of drugs. And, and longer term you’re going to destroy your work force. I don’t…I mean I just don’t think it’s a feasible thing to do. I have no objection to say “Look, we’ll try a, you know, pilot project…people that have serious illnesses and that kind of thing, we’ll give them drugs”. But I think in terms of legalizing it, again I think people are looking for easy, cheap answers. I wish they were there. I’m a tax payer. There are no easy cheap answers and legalization is not going to work.

Heffner: Yeah, but you know…after a while, when you’ve said again and again, the plan isn’t bad, we just haven’t applied enough resources to it…

Morgenthau: Right.

Heffner: the approach isn’t bad…when do you say, “Look, we as a people are not going to apply those resources. We’re not going to tax ourselves to the extent needed to do this”.

Morgenthau: Well, I think we gotta…I mean you see…we’re paying for it anyway. I think people just don’t realize they’re paying for it.

Heffner: In the damage to our society.

Morgenthau: Exactly. I mean and, and in the dollar damage. I mean they did a study in the state of Florida which showed that crack addicted babies born in 1987 costing the state of Florida 700 million dollars to prepare those children for kindergarten in 1992. So we’re paying, we’re just not earmarking it. I mean a lot of these crack addicted…I mean in, in some of the uptown hospitals here, I mean 50% of the babies that are born, are born addicted. Some of them are having colostomies before they’re 30 days old, at a cost f 50,000 dollars…so the, the overcrowding in the emergency rooms, the difficulty that these children are having in school, the physical effects of this is costing hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. So we’re going to spend the money one way or the other. My view is let’s, let’s spend it in a coordinated attack on the drug…which, which includes treatment, which includes education, but while we’re waiting for those things to work, I think you’ve got to have enforcement. Now most of the people who run treatment programs will tell you that 80% of their clientele will not walk in voluntarily and ask for treatment…there’s got to be a hammer. And the hammer, unfortunately, is the prosecution, or threat of prosecution. So that you’ve got to have the two things together.

Heffner: How do you do it all? How does the District Attorney’s office manage to sustain itself? Let’s just take your office in Manhattan…in the face of all of these obligations…I know we only have a few minutes left…and you can give me a long catalogue, but how do you do it?

Morgenthau: Well, you just try to do as many…I mean, I, I might mention some of the other things we’re trying…I mean we’re trying very hard to, to, to evict drug dealers that are destroying housing. We’ve got a program to do that. We have a landlord responsibility program where we’re trying to work with landlords to help them keep drug dealers out of their buildings. I mean one of the most serious problems I see here in New York City is that these drug dealers get into a building and they destroy the building. And then they’re…and once they’re…they may be evicted, but once they’re evicted there are no funds to rehabilitate those buildings. And I think i…that’s something we’re working on now with the city and state. And we’ve made applications to the federal government to try get money to rehabilitate buildings which have been virtually destroyed by, by drug dealers, but the shell is still there.

Heffner: Mr. Morgenthau, is there any country in the world that is doing what you consider an exemplary job in this whole area…drug concerns?

Morgenthau: I, I don’t know the answer to that.

Heffner: You wouldn’t, off the top of your head, say “The British are doing I”, or anywhere?

Morgenthau: No. no.

Heffner: And it is a universal problem.

Morgenthau: it is a universal problem.

Heffner: You think that it’s growing as fast in other counties, or is it growing?

Morgenthau: Oh, I think it is. I mean countries like, like Holland, or Switzerland are having…Germany, you know, having very serious drug problems.

Heffner: Okay, let me in the less than two minutes we have left, let me turn for a moment to another question. It’s not a parochial concern, obviously. But when the World Trade Center was a victim of terrorism, I’m sure the whole nation looked at us, and wondered whether this is the wave of the future, and what, you as District Attorney, have to say about that.

Morgenthau Well, all I can say is “I hope it’s not”. I hope that the very effective work done by law enforcement to identify and, and arrest those significant number of the people who were involved, I hope will, you know, send a message to people who may be thinking of doing something like this again that, that they’re not going to get away with it. But it’s something we have to be alert to, and, and not only in New York city, but in Chicago and Detroit, Los Angeles…

Heffner: If you’re talking about terrorists and fanatics, not getting away with it, isn’t a particularly effective barrier, is it?

Morgenthau: I guess I’m an optimist, I hope…I hope it is a barrier.

Heffner: And what goes on before…the prevention…do you feel that there is the kind of cooperation that you feel is needed?

Morgenthau: There can always be better. And I, and I, and I guess one of the good things, if there was…you know, that’s come out of this…it, it was wakeup call compared to Pearl Harbor in one sense. I mean it, it’s told us we’ve got to be paying a lot more attention to terrorists who may get into this county. We’ve got to try to keep them out, and once they’re here, we’ve got to watch what they’re doing.

Heffner: I hope, for obvious reasons, that you’re quite successful. Thank you for joining me today, Robert Morgenthau. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.