Smart, glamorous, and ferociously self-promoting, Westchester D.A. Jeanine Pirro is the most promising woman in New York politics since Geraldine Ferraro. But will her husband’s indictment on bribery and fraud charges (not to mention an embarrassing sex scandal) derail New York’s GOP golden girl?
(New York, May 10, 1999. Photo: Jake Chessum)
POLICE COMMISSIONER Howard Safir has just told a packed room of reporters that the city’s most notorious rapist, who may have attacked 51 women in six years, has been caught. The room erupts in questions. Was he wielding a gun? Is there DNA evidence? Why did it take so long? Safir, flanked by fourteen beefy detectives, fires off his answers. Lost in the noise is a striking woman in three-inch stiletto heels, standing just to Safir’s right, nervously tilting toward the microphone. Though just one of the rapes occurred in her jurisdiction, Westchester County district attorney Jeanine Pirro rushed here to help out. Too bad not a single question has come her way. The exercise has eaten three hours of her day; it will amount to a twenty-second sound bite on the evening news, Pirro thanking the NYPD for its hard work. “It was Safir’s show,” Pirro says later as her Crown Victoria sits in rush-hour traffic on the FDR, two veteran investigators, each of whom earns more than $60,000 a year, idling in the buttery leather seats up front.
But as it turns out, this is Jeanine Pirro’s show — plying the photo-op circuit, face tinted slightly orange with TV makeup, skirt riding dangerously high on her gym-toned thighs. A short while later, she stands in a low-ceilinged Italian restaurant in White Plains, delivering a rambling 30-minute “spiel,” as her press rep calls it, on her causes of choice — domestic violence, child abuse, and rapes of the elderly. Her gutsy voice peppers the room with images of penetration, penises, and vaginas. Her hosts, 28 members of the Westchester Smith College Club, prim matrons in fat diamonds and tweed, exchange worried looks. “There are crimes occurring against senior citizens in this county,” says Pirro, working herself into a passionate, political anger, “that are horrendous, that we don’t hear about.”
It is Pirro’s self-appointed mission to let the public hear them. Intelligent, articulate, a future contender for governor, say people in and out of her Republican party, Pirro, 47, has forged a national reputation as an avenger of victims. With glamorous good looks (People magazine named her one of its 50 Most Beautiful people in 1997) and crime-fighter demeanor, she is an all-but-inescapable presence on Geraldo, Nightline, Larry King Live. She feels your pain.
But now, as she works the Smithies with after-dinner drama, she seems oddly deaf to one man raising his voice a few feet away: “My wife and I sit by the TV and watch her and her husband and say, ‘How can she stay with this guy?’ ” As Pirro approaches, a second man tries to quiet his friend. But the first man wants Pirro to hear: “I’d kill the bastard.”
That “bastard” is Albert J. Pirro, Westchester’s most influential real-estate lawyer, a man Donald Trump keeps on retainer — for when he wants to develop an island off New Rochelle or build a $100 million golf-course community in Briarcliff Manor — a man whom Republicans like Governor George Pataki count on to feather their campaign nests with his clients’ money, and a man who was recently indicted on 66 counts of federal tax fraud. The Feds say Pirro hid $1 million in income between 1988 and 1997, claiming dozens of personal luxuries as business expenses, from his $123,000 Ferrari to his wife’s Mercedes-Benz.
Though federal tax law allows spouses to claim ignorance of their other half’s business dealings, Al’s list of exemptions raises real concerns — at least about Jeanine’s lack of curiosity. “She’s a bright lawyer,” says a former assistant U.S. Attorney who worked in the office now prosecuting Al. “How could she not know? You’re going to see some things in her husband’s case that shows she’s ethically blind.” Jeanine Pirro refuses to discuss the matter, except to call the investigation “invasive and hostile.”
Though she co-signed several of the couple’s joint tax returns (she earns $136,700 a year as D.A.), she has offered no explanations. Not about the Mercedes, which she drives each day past the $40,000 electronic gates of her $1.7 million Harrison home — gates Al claimed as a business deduction — or about the deductions of a $3,700 backyard awning; $10,000 in furnishings for a West Palm Beach vacation home; another Mercedes, for Jeanine’s mother; cruise tickets; stereos; fine wines; cigars; toys; and even salaries for workers who baby-sat the Pirro children, picked up the dry cleaning, and took the family’s pot-bellied pigs to the vet.
If Al Pirro is convicted, the scandal could derail the political future of New York’s brightest Republican star and Westchester’s top vote-getter, a woman who served as master of ceremonies at Pataki’s second inauguration, a woman who — until the indictment — was a contender for the Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 2000.
“If he’s convicted, you have to see how much involvement she had, if any,” says Geraldine Ferraro, whose own husband’s tax troubles killed her 1992 Senate bid. “No doubt about it, when you get spouses in business, they are ripe pickings.”
It won’t be the first time Al Pirro’s troubles have tainted his wife’s career. In 1986, Jeanine’s bid for lieutenant governor lasted just two days; she withdrew — embarrassing the GOP — rather than face questions about Al’s stake in a Connecticut carting company with alleged mob ties. Six years later, a former Yonkers planning official claimed Al Pirro gave him a $5,000 bribe to push through a multiplex theater. Al Pirro said the money paid for work on a Rye development. Later, he said he befriended the official, Michael Calvi, because Calvi served as a Yonkers ward boss — and could help Jeanine politically. Despite separate state and federal investigations, nothing ever came of the charges.
But Al’s problems don’t all involve money and influence. There is also sex and infidelity. In 1995, an Indiana woman named Jessica Marciano slapped Al with a paternity suit, saying he fathered her now 16-year-old daughter during a tumultuous three-month affair in Florida. “He told me he had left his wife,” says Marciano, a paralegal who met Al for trysts in a model home at a condominium project they worked on. “He told me she was so career-oriented and he wanted to have a family. That was their major squabble.” Jeanine was childless at the time.
For three years, Pirro denied the claim, even tarring Marciano as a “convicted felon,” citing her 1983 arrest for theft. (He also claimed the service of a private detective he used in the suit as a business deduction.) A court-ordered DNA test last June confirmed Marciano’s claim. Pirro has publicly accepted responsibility for the girl and established a trust fund, with a $10,000 initial contribution. Marciano is still seeking half a million dollars in past child support.
With each embarrassing revelation, Jeanine’s supporters have circled the wagons. They say she wouldn’t be subjected to such scrutiny if she were a man whose wife had the same legal difficulties. “Because of the alleged sins of her husband,” says Geraldo Rivera, on whose show she frequently appears,”one of the most effective, intelligent, determined, and compassionate prosecutors in the country is being mugged by the media. Jeanine Pirro deserves better. She’s a true and sincere public servant.”
Meanwhile, in the whispering outback of New York politics, no one is quite sure what Servant Pirro wants — or when she plans to go for it. While her oratory packs the punch of a centrist stump speech, railing against the harsh Rockefeller drug laws and urging her listeners to support a hate-crimes bill, she claims a fierce loyalty to her current job. “No, I’m not running for anything,” she laughs, waving off a Smithie who inquired. Later, Pirro tells me: “I’ve always wanted to be in this job and do this work. And I’m not done.”
Republican moderates, like state senator Nicholas Spano, head of the Republican Party in Westchester, love that talk. With a profile of tough prosecutor, sensitive to domestic violence, pro-choice, pro-Brady Bill, Pirro has the markings “of a real winner,” says Spano. “I think she’s destined for statewide office. But a lot of water has to go under the bridge between now and then.” If Pirro does run for higher office, and if she can shake the Gerry syndrome, as political consultant Norman Adler puts it, the field is hers. “There are very few Republican woman stars, and fewer in New York,” he says. Importantly, Pirro is well regarded by conservative Democrats; she fights for women’s and children’s rights — and she hasn’t used the death penalty. All things considered,” says Adler, “Jeanine looks pretty damn good.”
The last time I saw Jeanine Pirro, nearly ten years ago in the Westchester County Courthouse, where she would one day preside over 118 assistants and a $15 million budget, she was an A.D.A. heading up the domestic-violence unit, tearing down the hall in Reeboks and a trademark short skirt, bulging files clutched to her side. Her hair was teased, and her fingernails looked like they could slice cheese. She was in court that day to hear an incompetence ruling on a Port Chester mother who had killed her four children; I was there to write about it.
By then, Pirro had earned a reputation as a firebrand for battered women, having shaped the domestic-violence unit, moved spousal- and child-abuse cases out of family court and into the tougher criminal courts, and drafted legislation strengthening orders of protection.
She had moved beyond the courtroom, too, helping form domestic-abuse support groups, encouraging women to report violence against themselves and their children, urging community leaders to support her unit, under threat from the county budget ax. “I was able to get women to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Listen to this atrocity that’s going on in the home,’ ” says Pirro. “It was all about going from one level to the next.” One advocate who watched Pirro’s rise from A.D.A. to family-court judge in 1990, then joined her 1993 campaign for district attorney, was Charlotte Watson, executive director of My Sister’s Place, a local safe house for battered women. “At a time when it wasn’t popular,” says Watson, “she took out her machete and started clearing a path to make home life safer.”
Pirro’s crusade reached hundreds of women in countless cases that crossed her desk, but her machete frayed the nerves of co-workers. They detected an egomania in her grasping at high-profile murders and assaults that belonged to other units. “She wanted somebody to prepare the case, tied with a little bow, and she’d walk it across the finish line,” says a former lead prosecutor. “There was this ever-expanding desire to increase her role.”
“You know what?” Pirro says in response to the charge. “It wasn’t about me. There was an issue, and it had to do with people being abused, mistreated, and ignored by the criminal-justice system, by society at large, victims afraid to come forward. It was about bringing attention to what I thought was an inequity in the systems that had to be remedied.”
But the Port Chester murder was a case where restraint — and even compassion — might have been more appropriate. The mother, an immigrant named Maria Amaya, had by all accounts been a doting parent. But troubled by a deep depression, she believed her children, ages 3 to 11, were being corrupted by drugs and sex. Thinking they’d be better off in heaven, she slashed their throats with a knife as they slept, then attempted suicide by stabbing herself in the neck. Less than 24 hours later, even as the woman’s husband begged for sympathy and neighbors pleaded for peace from the swarming camera crews, Pirro fanned the flames, staging a bedside arraignment in a hospital intensive-care unit.
“She always played hardball seeking publicity,” says Carl Vergari, the man who hired Pirro and presided over the office for 26 years. “She’s a bright and capable woman. But she’s also very self-centered in everything she does. She was aggressive about the breadth of her responsibilities in the office, and that caused conflict. There was a problem keeping her in line. It was always hell reining her in.”
It was never easy reining in Jeanine Ferris. Growing up a small-town girl in Elmira, New York, her father a mobile-home salesman and her mother a department-store model, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer by age 6. At 15, she marched into the offices of the local district attorney and practically demanded that she be taken on as a volunteer. “She was extraordinarily articulate and not at all shy,” says Bruce Crew, then a part-time D.A. and now an appellate-court judge. “She followed me to depositions and such. I never encountered anyone with her tenacity and ambition. Never.”
That ambition propelled her through Notre Dame High School in three years. After graduating from the University of Buffalo, she attended Albany Law School, where she met and fell in love with Al Pirro. The son of a Mount Vernon truck driver for Stella D’oro bakeries, his mother a waitress, he, too, was ambitious and driven. They married in 1975 and moved to Harrison, living in a downtown apartment across from a gas station.
Jeanine took a job in the D.A.’s office, and Al set out to become the county’s most politically connected attorney. Gradually, Al Pirro built a power base that would rival his wife’s. If a deep-pocket developer, like Trump, Viacom, or ITT, wanted to build in Westchester, Al was the man to see. He could move controversial projects, like the $165 million Westchester mall in White Plains, through finicky public boards. “He’s incredibly intelligent and effective,” says Trump. “There’s no one like him up there.” Equally important, Pirro could be relied on to raise tens of thousands of dollars for Republican campaigns — including his wife’s. “Al has been a tremendous supporter of Jeanine and this party,” says Spano. “He’s helped plenty of people for a long time.”
Together, the Pirros have also helped themselves to a life of luxury. They traveled to Italy to handpick the terra-cotta-hued marble that fills their home. “The marble’s everywhere, on the spiral stairs, the walls, the floors,” says one friend. “It looks like something out of Scarface.” With friends like Carl Portale, the publisher of Elle magazine, the couple and their two children, Christi, 13, and Alex, 10, vacationed in the Caribbean and spent New Year’s at the Pirros’ home in West Palm Beach. “They are both high-powered people who go after what they want,” says Portale. “They have a great deal of love and affection for each other and their children and their friends.”
The Pirros wear their success with what one friend calls a nouveau riche flash. “She is someone who loves the spotlight,” says longtime friend and local radio talk-show host William O’Shaughnessy. “And the spotlight loves her. She comes to the studio and the guys here all drool over her.” And for good reason. Pirro is in top shape.
“Sexy as hell” is the way Trump puts it. She works out on a treadmill every morning at six. And she has traded the high hair for a soft, layered look with a blunt back and blonde highlights. Her nose is also noticeably thinner. She’s taking her makeup cues from Larry King’s makeup artist, because she loves how she looks on the show. And “she loves to wear nice clothes,” says Bonnie Pressman, a longtime friend and the former women’s fashion director at Barneys, who now holds the same position at Ralph Lauren. “She works very hard at keeping herself together. That’s very central to who she is.”
The couple has thrown $5,000-a-plate cocktail fund-raisers at their home, inviting political luminaries like Pataki and Al D’Amato. For close friends, they’ve hosted lavish — and outlandish — parties. A few years ago, a Mexican-themed cookout drew 500 people, including Trump’s daughters, Ivanka and Tiffany. Guests passed a horse grazing on the front lawn, danced to a mariachi band by the pool, and found dozens of disposable cameras in a wicker basket. “Jeanine is there in this Miss Kitty bustier and black fishnet stockings and high heels dancing the Macarena,” says one friend. “The woman is a fox, but I say, ‘Jeanine, if you ever run for governor, you’re gonna have to buy back all these pictures.’ She says, ‘Do I care?’ “
The night before Jeanine Pirro took the reins as district attorney on January 1, 1994, a Bronxville man named Scott Douglas took a claw hammer and bashed his wife’s skull in. Then he drove to the Tappan Zee Bridge and disappeared, leaving his car running in the third lane. The murder of Anne Scripps Douglas, an heiress to the Scripps newspaper fortune, shocked Westchester and led to an international manhunt. The made-for-TV murder mystery drew camera crews from around the world. And Jeanine Pirro, New York’s foremost domestic-violence expert, was ready for them. In tailored suits and heavy eyeliner, she would dominate the nightly news stories while her words spilled forth in the daily tabloids. By the time Scott Douglas’s body surfaced in the Hudson River three months later, Pirro had made her mark. And just as her name began to fade from the national headlines, a man in Los Angeles took a famous televised freeway ride in a Ford Bronco, and Pirro was cast into an even bigger drama, as talking head on Nightline, Larry King, Geraldo.
No one disputes that Pirro has effectively used her office as a bully pulpit for victims (offering battered women free cell phones for emergencies, installing peepholes in the doors of senior citizens). But critics say she is now more bully than sermonizer and that her office is ruled through intimidation. “You cross her,” says one former prosecutor, “at your own professional peril. I never met an A.D.A. I didn’t smell fear on. Their main goal is to live another day, to be able to say, ‘I didn’t piss off Jeanine and step on my johnson and let a rapist get off. I’m safe.’ “
Pirro herself has angered a number of Feds in what they say is a grab for power and headlines. “It was a constant turf war,” says a former head of the U.S. Attorney’s office in White Plains. “She used strong-arm tactics with us, with local cops, with whoever she could.”
Pirro has also alienated her share of beat cops around Westchester. On June 20, 1994, Mamaroneck cops busted a 51-year-old Seattle man who had met a 14-year-old local girl through e-mail, then flown to town to meet her. Pirro stepped in and took most of the credit, later turning the case into a one-woman crusade to make it a felony to have indecent communications with a minor on the Internet. “She makes a lot of enemies,” says one local cop. “It’s always her taking credit over people who are actually out there tearing up their shoe leather. She’s playing a dangerous game.”
That game turned truly dangerous on March 21, 1996, when Richard Sacchi Jr. killed an Eastchester cop, then took his own grandmother hostage in a twelve-hour armed standoff with police. As hostage negotiators tried to coax Sacchi from the family home, Pirro appeared on the evening news, saying she would consider seeking the death penalty against him. “She got up there for a few moments of news time,” says the former assistant U.S. Attorney, “risking that this guy might hear it and kill his grandmother and go out in a blaze of glory.” Sacchi, it turned out, had killed his grandmother and himself long before her remarks, but Pirro didn’t know that.
Pirro now says her statement was taken out of context. As for the grandstanding charges, she says it’s simply the nattering of critics: “Name me a person in public life who doesn’t have critics. Especially women in public life. I mean, just by virtue of doing my job, it draws attention to me, and you know, whatever people are going to say, they’re going to say. I focus on what I’ve got to do and my purpose in being here. Period. End of story.”
Soon after her 1993 election, Pirro took over a new floor of the courthouse, remodeled her office with mahogany, installed a private kitchenette, and built a $20,000 press room, decorated with her awards. Then she instituted a policy that no one could talk to the media without her permission — ironic given her own success in corralling headlines as an A.D.A.
Few of the steady flurry of press releases that issue weekly from her office concern one of Westchester’s most insidious problems: organized crime. The trouble, say more than a dozen former federal prosecutors, FBI agents, and members of the state Organized Crime Task Force, is that Pirro, married to a man whom many say she should be investigating, has turned her back on organized crime.
“Jeanine Pirro has not made it an issue,” says one former federal prosecutor. “Why? Because there’s no crying victim to wrap her arms around. It’s silly to suggest that in a county with so much labor, money, and politics, you don’t have corruption. Where are the wiretaps? Where are the undercover cases?”
Pirro’s spokesman, David Hebert, bristles at the suggestion that his boss is soft on organized crime, noting that last year the office had eleven wiretaps and executed 75 search warrants through its organized-crime-and-criminal-enterprise bureau. But one former A.D.A. mocks those figures. “Most of that stuff is her busting grandfathers for sports gambling,” he says. Pirro herself says one big problem is funding. “I don’t have the luxury of what some other organizations may have,” she says, “to take $5 million or $10 million, put four people for five years on a case.”
But Pirro’s relationship with the state’s Organized Crime Task Force “was essentially nonexistent while I was there,” says Ron Goldstock, former head of the OCTF. “We were investigating Al in the Calvi case.” More problematic is what some say is a chill between Pirro’s office and the office of U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who is investigating Al. “To say it’s cool is an understatement,” says one FBI agent. “First of all, Jeanine feels she’s the leading law enforcement in the area. She’s just not taking a backseat to anybody. Second, come on: Mary Jo White is going after her husband.”
A U.S. Attorney’s spokesman denies the charge, as does Pirro. “I’m here because I have a job to do,” Pirro says. “I’m here because there are victims out there that need me, and I will never jeopardize anyone or any case for a reason that is not relevant to what I do. I am Jeanine Pirro, district attorney, when I sit at this desk.”
How long she will sit at that desk is the question. Voters have heard some of the charges against Pirro in the past but have shown affection for her and approval of her work. Even now, according to a recent poll, her approval rating among Westchester voters is holding at 71 percent. For now, political pals aren’t discussing Pirro’s future. Neither Pataki nor state Republican chairman Bill Powers, two men who have benefited from Al Pirro’s fund-raising, has returned repeated calls made by New York.
Recent rumors of a potential Senate run for Pirro were more a favor to the party than a sign of intent. “That talk about her running was put out because people around Pataki were trying to find a safe place to shoot at the mayor,” says Adler, who has numerous GOP clients in Westchester. “So they talked her up and probably asked her not to say no.”
And Jeanine never said no. She’s still not saying no. And despite her husband’s current troubles, even Democrats think she will eventually rise above the mêlée to run for higher office. “She is a terrific candidate,” says Gerry Ferraro. “I’d rather have a Democrat Senate candidate come up against Giuliani, because Jeanine Pirro would be hard to beat.”
For now, Pirro is simply too hard to ignore. The same week she appeared at Safir’s side and in front of the Smith College group, she also popped up on the local cable evening news. There she sat, backed by a spiky D.A. seal, her office just two blocks from where her husband will soon go on trial, commenting on John Gotti Jr.’s plea bargain in a federal racketeering case — a case she had nothing to do with.