Fiorello’s Finest Hour

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The reporters then rushed off to the Bronx to call on Magistrate Vitale at his home. He hurried to his office, where he issued a statement that in June, 1928, being hard-pressed for money in order to protect stocks he held on margin, he went to a friend, since dead, whose name he would not mention despite the reporters’ assurance that if he did so his story would become more credible. The anonymous dead friend, the magistrate continued, told him he could get money for him. Next thing he knew, Vitale told the reporters, he received a check in the mail for $19,940 from Arnold Rothstein, interest on the loan of $20,000 being deducted in advance. He claimed that he had repaid Rothstein two weeks later and showed a canceled personal check dated July 2, 1928, to prove it. He added that he had only met Arnold Rothstein twice, both times at big dinners, and that he had never been a friend of the murdered loan shark and gambler. (Nobody in New York in 1929 wanted to be known as a friend of Arnold Rothstein’s after La Guardia began making his charges.) Judge Vitale called the La Guardia charges “most despicable” and made the routine threat of consulting his lawyer to find out what grounds he might have for a libel suit. No such suit ever was brought in connection with the Rothstein case. When reporters took the Vitale statement to District Attorney Banton, he said he knew nothing about that loan and then shut himself up in his apartment and refused to make any further statements.

La Guardia now demanded that Banton make public the full contents of Arnold Rothstein’s little black books, in which the usurer had made memoranda of money paid out by him and owed to him. Banton admitted that he had the little black books but refused to make the contents public, and he still insisted that there were no names of public officials in those books. By this time the newspapers and any of the public who were at all interested did not believe a word the District Attorney said, and the press clamored for the little black books—to no avail. Mayor Walker kept silent and ignored La Guardia’s demands for explanations and investigation.

From the outset of his campaign La Guardia had known about the Rothstein loan to Magistrate Vitale, but he held it for use when he thought it would do the most good. One of his campaign managers and advisers, J. Arthur Adler, had been an assistant in the New York office of the United States Attorney. When he began work for La Guardia, Mr. Adler remembered that in the course of a case he had prosecuted against Arnold Rothstein, he had come across an item about a campaign contribution from Rothstein to Judge Vitale. A search of the files in the U.S. Attorney’s office turned up not only the campaign contribution but the loan and the note for it. As La Guardia said in one of his campaign speeches: “There is not a Tammany politician with the exception of Alfred E. Smith who can risk examination of his private bank account.” Judge Seabury was soon to prove the truth of this statement in detail.

In the course of his attacks La Guardia also went into deals in dock leases, racketeering (with the connivance of politicians) in the milk industry, and the splitting of fees by Tammany lawyers with Tammany politicians. These practices, too, were later corroborated by the Seabury investigation. La Guardia was able to reveal so much because he was constantly receiving information from many people who did business with the city and had to deal with crooks to get their business done, and from some city employees who did not like what they saw going on around them. Many of these informants were afraid to sign their names but their reports, after checking by La Guardia’s staff, proved in a surprising number of instances to be accurate.

Throughout his political career La Guardia developed extraordinary sources of private information. His innate courage and forthrightness inspired men and women, both well-known and obscure, to turn to him with tips and suggestions. He was tireless in following up these random efforts. Some of them were unproductive, but a remarkable number were profitable. He never had a machine—being a one-man machine himself—but he did enjoy an extraordinary number of loyal well-wishing lieutenants.

The newspapers, which began by calling La Guardia’s charges “reckless” and “irresponsible,” now took them seriously, and some belatedly came around to his support. On August 28, the New York Times praised him as “a true independent,” adding: “It is his habit to get the facts and know the subject.” The Times concluded: “He is no man’s man. He cannot be dull....To the public in general, not otherwise committed, a man of genuine talent who has not acquired the art of being stupid is a treat.”