Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nelson G. Gross: regular contributor

Image from the Evening News

Nelson G. Gross was the type of politician who, though deeply influential in government, worked more out of the public eye than as an official. The closest he came to being an elected member of the national government was a failed Senate bid, and he undertook that effort with experience limited mostly to campaigns and party positions. Though he drew some controversy during his work in politics, the incident which would garner more attention was the senseless manner in which his life ended.

Born in Saddle River, New Jersey in 1932, Gross went from being a lawyer to a close involvement with the state's Republican Party. He was a member of the state house of assembly in 1962, but his major breakthrough came six years later as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Among the New Jersey Republicans, the hope was that the presidential nod could go to "favorite son" candidate Clifford P. Chase, who had been in the Senate since 1955. To the chagrin of some party members, however, Gross led an effort to support former Vice President Richard Nixon and persuaded 18 of the state's 40 delegates to change their vote. When Nixon captured the nomination, Gross led his campaign in New Jersey, where Nixon triumphed by about 60,000 votes on his way to the White House in the 1968 election.

Despite the breakaway from Chase, Gross's relationship with the state Republicans were still strong enough that he chaired the state party in 1969. In April of the next year, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Frederick Lacey announced that Gross was under investigation for ties to a labor union allegedly dominated by the Mafia. No charges came out of the matter, and only a week after the announcement Gross announced that he was resigning as chairman to enter the 1970 Senate race. He easily won the GOP primary against two opponents. A month before the election, he was pummeled by political columnist Jack Anderson. "Nelson Gross, the Republican candidate for the Senate in New Jersey, has made a big show of opening up his records for public inspection. But apparently we are the only ones who have bothered to inspect them. What we found may make Gross wish he had kept his records hidden." Anderson claimed that Gross had charged numerous personal expenses to failing companies he controlled, including bouquets for his wife, vacations, and tickets to the Moscow Circus visit to Madison Square Garden. Anderson said that when confronted with the charges, Gross claimed that the court had thrown the suit out. Anderson countered that a $25,000 settlement had been involved in the resolution.

Gross failed to dislodge the incumbent Democratic, Senator Harrison A. Williams, in the general election. Williams, who had served in the Senate since 1959, earned about 250,000 more votes than Gross. Chase got in a dig at Gross, commenting that his close ties to the Nixon Administration may have hurt him. "Nelson had some excellent position papers. It is a real tragedy that he and his media people did not choose to emphasize them--that his media campaign chose to emphasize the negative side." The ties to the President did help him to secure employment after the loss, however. In August of 1971, he began working for the State Department as a senior adviser and coordinator on international narcotics matters.

Then in May of 1973, Gross was indicted on fraud charges. The charges said Gross issued false invoices to the Stop and Save Stamp Corporation, a subsidiary of Grand Union Co., in order to make a $5,000 contribution to the 1969 campaign of New Jersey Governor William T. Cahill and make it appear to be tax deductible. Gross was also accused of encouraging William H. Preis, president of the Stop and Save Stamp Corporation, to make false statements to the grand jury; Preis pleaded guilty the same month to perjury. U.S. Attorney Herbert Stern said there was no evidence to suggest that Cahill knew about the illegality of the contribution, but the damage was done. The scandal was one factor playing into Cahill's defeat in the 1973 Republican primary, where the gubernatorial nomination went to Representative Charles Sandman. To the charges, Gross said, "I am astounded that anyone could conceivably believe that I would be in a position to counsel or did counsel one of the largest retailing supermarket chains in the country as to the manner in which it should complete and file federal income tax returns."

The trial happened in March of 1974. Among the 28 witnesses to testify over the course of five weeks was Bernard Striar, owner of a Maine textile company. Striar said Gross arranged for him to make a $2,000 contribution to Gross's Senate campaign and illegally deduct it. Gross took the stand in his own defense, not only claiming innocence but accusing the U.S. Attorney's Office of trying to topple his law firm. Gross's father also took the stand, testifying that Gross actually advised Preis to tell the truth to the grand jury rather than lie.

When the jury returned a verdict, it found Gross guilty of tax evasion and perjury. Gross's lawyers made a curious argument for a new trial, arguing that wealthy people were excluded from the jury. In June of 1974, Gross was sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine; a week later, Preis received the same sentence, but with the jail term suspended. Gross remained a free man while he ground his way through the appeals process. In December of 1974, he asked the three-judge Federal Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to overturn his conviction; they upheld the verdict in February of 1975. In November of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction as well. Finally, in June of 1976, Gross began serving his sentence after first trying to turn himself in at the federal prison in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He ended up serving six months.

In a surprising turn of events, it was revealed a couple of years later that the marshals at the trial had taken a far more active role at the trial than was allowed. Leon Harvey Stacey said he and his fellow officers seduced some of the female jurors, persuading them that the prosecution's case was sound and capitalizing on the increasing dissatisfaction with Nixon. "We all knew Nelson Gross was part of the Nixon administration. It was therefore easy to allude to a general disenchantment with politicians," Stacey said. "In other words, as part of the romancing of the jurors, my reference to politicians was always in a negative attitude." With this revelation, Gross tried to reopen the case and the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in New York granted a hearing in November of 1978. It is unclear how this turned out, but if subsequent developments are any indication it was not very successful. In June of 1981, he was disbarred from practicing law in federal courts due to his conviction and his failure to show up at a hearing. An ethical board later disbarred him from the state courts for three years after finding that he had committed "unethical conduct."

Despite his legal troubles, Gross was still financially successful through his investments in real estate development and restaurants. He was a millionaire in September of 1997, stopping in at a floating restaurant he owned in Edgewater, New Jersey every day for a meal. Then he disappeared. Gross was last seen taking $20,000 from a bank near the restaurant, a transaction not unusual due to his frequent large withdrawals. His wife and son reportedly saw him getting into his BMW with two men, and his son called his cell phone to see if everything was all right. "It's business. It's just business," Gross replied before hanging up. A search for Gross began, and first found his car abandoned about 15 blocks south of the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan. His family offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to his return. Gross's body was finally found on the wooded bank of the Hudson River; he had been stabbed to death.

It didn't take long for police to implicate three youths in the crime. Arrested were 18-year-old Anthony "Alex" Esteves and 17-year-olds Christian Velez and Miguel "Papo" Grullon. They had used the money to buy two used cars, a motorcycle, and jewelry and a bystander reported them to the authorities after overhearing them openly talking about the murder. Velez, who had worked as a busboy at the floating restaurant, was arrested and implicated his two friends. It seemed they had conspired to rob the wealthy businessman, but had not thought the plan through; when they realized that Gross would report the robbery to the police, they took his life as well.

A death notice taken out by Gross's family in the New York Times did not mince words. It said Gross had died after "succumbing to an unprovoked vicious attack by three thugs who inflicted multiple stab wounds to his chest and back." Ultimately, Estevez entered an agreement to testify against his co-defendants if the cases went to trial and Velez and Grullon pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder. Describing the crime as "cruel and heinous" and a "truly senseless thing," Estevez was sentenced to 17-and-a-half years in prison without parole. His two co-defendants received 30 years in prison, also without parole.

Sources: The Political Graveyard, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Lacey Says Ties of Gross to Union Are Under Inquiry" in the New York Times on Apr. 2 1970, "Gross Quits as GOP Chairman in Jersey to Run for the Senate" in the New York Times Apr. 9 1970, "Wallace Triumphs in Alabama Run-Off" in the Schenectady Gazette on Jun. 3 1970, "Williams Recovering From Bad Start in N.J." in the Park City Daily News on Oct. 25 1970, "Gross Squeezes Companies" in the Free Lance Star on Oct. 24 1970, "Says Nixon Campaign Wrong" in the Virgin Island Daily News on Nov. 7 1970, "Coordinator" in the Evening News on Aug. 13 1971, "N.J. Republican Pleads Innocent In Funds Case" in The Journal on May 23 1973, "Gov. Cahill Defeated in N.J. GOP Primary" in the Los Angeles Times on Jun. 6 1973, "Illegally Deducted Gift, Magnate Says" in the Bangor Daily News on Mar. 3 1974, "Father Supports Gross Testimony" in the New York Times on Mar. 21 1974, "Gross Accuses U.S. of Harrying Firm" in the New York Times on Mar. 23 1974, "Federal Jury Begins Its Deliberations in Campaign Fraud Case Against Gross" in the New York Times on Mar. 29 1974, "Gross, Citing Jury, Seeks a New Trial" in the New York Times on Apr. 20 1974, "Gross is Sentenced to 2 Years in Jail" in the New York Times on Jun. 15 1974, "Preis is Fined, Term Suspended" in the New York Times on Jun. 22 1974, "New Jersey Briefs" in the New York Times on Dec. 11 1974, "New Jersey Briefs" in the New York Times on Feb. 20 1975, "Supreme Court Upholds 2 Convictions of Gross" in the New York Times on Nov. 4 1975, "Gross Wins Stay of Sentence" in the Argus-Press on Dec. 5 1975, "Nelson Gross Off To Prison" in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Jun. 3 1976, "Candidate's Husband to Try to Reopen Old Case" in the Lakeland Ledger on Feb. 3 1978, "Marshals, Jurors May Have Tainted N.J. Verdict" in the Deseret News on Feb. 10 1978, "New Hearing OK'd in Tax Fraud Case" in the Milwaukee Journal on Nov. 10 1978, "Ex-Jersey GOP Chief is Barred by U.S. Judge" in the New York Times on Jun. 28 1981, "Car of Missing New Jersey Developer is Found" in the New York Times on Sep. 21 1997, "Youths Accused of Killing New Jersey Millionaire" in the New York Times on Sep. 25 1997, "Police: Slain Millionaire Victim of Botched Plot" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sep. 26 1997, "Gross, Nelson Gerard" in the New York Times on Sept. 27 1997, "Prison For Tycoon Slay" in the New York Daily News on Oct. 8 1998, "2 Are Given up to 30 Years in Murder of Millionaire" in the New York Times on Oct. 8 1998.