Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Herman Methfessel: the racketeer housewives of Staten Island

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For most of his career, Herman Methfessel stayed out of the news. In the midst of his career as a New York City prosecutor, he made the syndicated column "Dizzy Doings in the News" in a 1942 account of fishing tales. Without noting Methfessel's profession, it took his claim that he caught two 14-inch bass on the same plug and cast with a grain of salt. Nine years later, Methfessel's own handling of questionable tales would end his career in the Empire State.

Born somewhere in the vicinity of 1901, Methfessel worked as a newspaper reporter before becoming an attorney. He was elected to the New York state assembly as a Democrat and served there between 1935 and 1938. From there, he went on to become the second assistant district attorney of Richmond County, and was promoted to the first assistant district attorney at the end of 1944. Three years later, he was elected to be district attorney of the county with backing from the Republican Party. In April of 1949, he witnessed the shooting of former Republican representative Ellsworth B. Buck outside his office by, Charles van Newkirk, 57-year-old former marine engineer who confessed that it was retaliation for Buck heading a congressional committee returning decision against him; Buck survived his injuries.

Methfessel's time in office ended ignominiously in September of 1951. As the New York State Crime Commission investigated rackets in Staten Island, 36-year-old housewife Anna Wentworth testified that she had seen Methfessel in a gambling den run by the D'Alessio brothers, known to be key players in gambling and racketeering operations in Richmond County. Wentworth served as their maid, and said the district attorney was at a roulette party there; the implication was that Methfessel was protecting vice. Methfessel responded by having her arrested for perjury.

The action appalled other members of the commission and New York government. Wentworth said she was terrified that the officers might not be legit, and said they refused to allow any of her six children to call a lawyer. Methfessel, along with commission chairman Joseph M. Proskauer, asked that a special prosecutor be used for testimony related to Wenworth. At the request of the Crime Commission, however, Governor Thomas E. Dewey ordered that a special prosecutor would supersede Methfessel in all matters related to the investigation. Dewey added that the officers admitted they didn't have a warrant for Wentworth's arrest and left her with black and blue marks after dragging her from her home. "On the basis of the facts before me, it is clear that the district attorney in using the power of his office to direct the arrest and questioning of a person who testified against him personally was a gross abuse of power," said Dewey. "The use of a district attorney for personal or political purposes is intolerable." Dewey appointed William B. Herlands, a former New York City commissioner of education, to replace Methfessel.

Methfessel was unapologetic when speaking before the commission on the incident. Wentworth, he said, had been an "unqualified liar" in her testimony; he also contended that she was seeking publicity and wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He didn't meet with much sympathy. When he said the officers had followed a regular routine in the arrest, Proskauer replied, "Well, if this happens in every police station it's time we found out. This is America, not Russia." John M. Harlan, chief counsel for the commission, said Wentworth's arrest amounted to intimidation. In September of 1951, gambler Michael D'Alessio admitted that he made thousands of untaxed dollars, and contributed to the GOP but also was on friendly terms with Methfessel. The scandal resulted in an easy defeat in the 1951 election, as voters chose Republican-Liberal candidate Sidney O. Simonson to replace him.

Methfessel's ouster didn't quite close the book on the matter. He was charged, along with an assistant named Irving Rivkin, with official misconduct. The case went before a disciplinary trial in June of 1952, but both were acquitted at the recommendation of Supreme Court referee Peter P. Smith on the basis of insufficient evidence. Herlands tried to get the case reopened, but was denied by an appellate court. Wentworth, meanwhile, sued the city for $100,500 in December of 1951 after charging false arrest. A magistrate dismissed the perjury charge against her in February of 1952. The civil charge didn't come to trial until 1958, by which point the damages had ballooned to $1,175,000 sought from Methfessel and the two detectives involved in her arrest; it ultimately settled for a mere $3,500.

Methfessel moved to Miami, Florida to become a private attorney. He resurfaced briefly when John M. Harlan, who acted as counsel for the crime commission, was considered to be a Supreme Court justice. Before Congress, Methfessel accused Harlan of springing Wentworth as a surprise witness during the crime commission investigation and never allowed him to cross-examine her or introduce witnesses to dispute her testimony. Methfessel claimed that the debacle led to his re-election defeat despite the fact that he was never formally implicated. He told the congressmen that Harlan's "attitude toward cross-examination and toward a right of a person to defend himself is not the attitude that I feel should be carried into the Supreme Court." Nevertheless, Harlan was confirmed and served on the high bench until 1971.

Methfessel continued working as a lawyer until July of 1963, when he suffered a fatal heart attack while driving along the North-South Expressway.

Sources: The Political Graveyard, "Dizzy Doings in the News" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jul. 16 1942, "Named Assistant Prosecutor" in the New York Times on Dec. 31 1944, "Says Shooting 'Spite Job'" in the Ottawa Evening Citizen on Apr. 6 1949, "DA Faces Quiz on 'Intimidation'" in the Pittsburgh Press on Sep. 21 1951, "District Attorney Barred by Governor in N.Y. Crime Case" in the Wilmington Morning Star on Sep. 22 1951, "Gambler Admits Making Untaxed Fortune" in the Milwaukee Sentinel on Sep. 25 1951, "William B. Herlands" in the Wilmington News on Sep. 27 1951, "Corruption, Racketeering Issues in Several Elections Today" in the Reading Eagle on Nov. 6 1951, "City Sued for $100,500" in the New York Times on Dec. 23 1951, "Mrs. Wentworth Cleared" in the New York Times on Feb. 29 1952, "Methfessel Case Goes to Referee" in the New York Times on Jun. 6 1952, "Hear Methfessel Motion" in the New York Times on Nov. 15 1952, "Methfessel Is Cleared" in the New York Times on Dec. 9 1952, "Herland Reopens Methfessel Case" in the New York Times on Jan. 18 1953, "State Loses Appeal in Methfessel Case" in the New York Times on Mar. 6 1953, "Oppenheimer Pal Wins Solons' Approval" in the Spokesman-Review on Feb. 25 1955, "False Suit Settled for $3,500" in the New York Times on Jun. 13 1958, "Motorist Died of Heart Attack" in the Miami News on Jul. 12 1963, John Marshall Harlan: Great Dissenter of the Warren Court by Tinsley Y. Yarbrough