Fiorello’s Finest Hour

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The newspaper reporters made Banton’s life miserable, running to him daily with La Guardia’s charges and asking for answers. Mayor Walker, usually all glad-handed joviality, refused to see reporters, and Walker’s police commissioner, the impeccably dressed Grover Whalen, would not discuss the Rothstein case. Demands were made for a state investigation of the Rothstein murder, but Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, anxious to placate Tammany Hall in order to gain its support for his re-election as governor in 1930, remained silent. Tammany was frantic to prevent any state investigation which not only might reveal the truth of La Guardia’s charges, but might also develop into a comprehensive investigation of the entire Walker administration—such as was indeed made two years later by Judge Seabury. La Guardia announced in the course of his campaign that as soon as he took office as mayor there would be an immediate investigation “of the act, conduct, knowledge and inaction of every police official connected with the case.”

Meanwhile La Guardia brought forth the biggest sensation of his sensational campaign. On September 24, he asked District Attorney Banton publicly:

Did you ascertain whether any public officials now in office had ‘borrowed’ money from Rothstein? With what public officials and prominent men in Tammany politics had Rothstein conferred just prior to the time he was murdered? I trust that you will furnish this information not only to me, but to the public who are more interested in this case than you seem to realize.

Banton told the newspapermen that Rothstein’s black books, which he still refused to make public, showed no loans to men in public life. The reporters rushed back to La Guardia with this statement on the afternoon of September 27 at his headquarters in the Hotel Cadillac. The Herald Tribune reported his reaction:

Snatching off his glasses, he banged his desk and exclaimed: “That is not true! I will give District Attorney Banton until tonight to make public the name of a Democratic officeholder in the Bronx, who is now campaigning for Mayor Walker and against me, who received money from Rothstein running into five figures.”

The newspapermen rushed back to the District Attorney’s office. “I know of no such case,” Mr. Banton said. “Mr. La Guardia may go as far as he likes.”

“Give me half an hour,” La Guardia told them when they brought him that story. At the end of half an hour he held a press conference. Taking a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolding it, he said slowly:

Mr. Banton did not make a correct statement. His office has examined the files of the Rothstein case. When he states there was no record, no copy, no data indicating financial transactions between Rothstein and anyone in politics he makes a misstatement of facts. That is significant in connection with the case.

The files show the data, and with them a copy of a letter transmitting from Rothstein a check for $19,940, being the proceeds of a note due July 2, 1928. The letter was sent to the Hon. Albert Vitale, City Magistrate, addressed to 561 East Tremont Avenue, the Bronx, and in it Rothstein expressed his happiness to be able to accommodate the judge.

Rothstein had been in the habit of charging thirty to forty per cent interest for his moneylending, but in Magistrate Vitale’s case he had graciously lowered his usual rates. La Guardia went on:

Judge Vitale is at this very moment campaigning for Mayor Walker in the Bronx, has made several speeches for him and has undertaken the organization of Italian voters for him. I now ask Mayor Walker to repudiate Vitale or stand by him. Of course, I am sure the Mayor will ask a City Magistrate to explain a $20,000 note and a $19,000 check from Rothstein, whom Mr. Banton calls a gambler.