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The Book of the Week is “Tiger In the Court, Herbert J. Stern…” by Paul Hoffman, published in 1973.
Stern was born in November 1936 in “Alphabet City” very far east of Manhattan’s Union Square. He earned a law degree. He learned he’d passed the bar exam for New York State when results were revealed in the New York Times, while he was stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey. After that, the U.S. Army assigned him to drive a truck.
While Stern was building his legal career, race riots erupted in Newark in July 1967. The usual response of public officials, when prompted to do something about violence in their city, is to assemble a task force or commission to study the matter and to make recommendations. New Jersey’s governor did just that. The commission concluded that Newark’s government was corrupt. Investigations of the offices of the police director and mayor ensued.
In connection therewith, Stern became a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in New Jersey for three and a half years, beginning in September 1969. During his reign– his caseload included 79 (!) federal, state and local officials who were accused of crimes.
A major case concerned members of the Mafia, whose phones were illegally wiretapped by the FBI. Stern had nothing to do with that action. He felt there were wiser uses of investigators’ resources. It violated the suspects’ privacy, and should have been taken only against foreign agents, or in the case of illegal gambling, because the phone was a key tool in gambling in that era.
At any rate, from the recorded New Jersey Mob’s phone conversations (dubbed the “DeCarlo tapes”) between September 1964 and July 1965, investigators learned all about the suspects’ hierarchy. A federal jury was empaneled in January 1970 to try those accused of the now-cliched crimes of corruption.
Unsurprisingly, hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands among the Mob, the entire administration of the city of Newark, its mayor, city council, in-house attorneys, infrastructure contractors and construction suppliers– in the form of racketeering, kickbacks, bribery, extortion, etc., etc., etc. The judge put the tapes’ 1,200-page transcript into the public domain, by filing it with the court clerk. Local New Jersey newspapers and the New York Times were then able to publish excerpts.
As is well known, the Pentagon Papers were published in dribs and drabs starting in June 1971, but the top-secret information in that case ignited a firestorm because it was associated with an unspeakably ugly war and unspeakably ugly actions taken by a series of American presidents.
Anyway, the media reported that Newark’s organized crime community was on the hook for running a gambling ring, and tax evasion. Stern also prosecuted a bunch of suspects in Jersey City.
Stern believed street crime was less harmful to society than white collar crime. The former consists of robberies, burglaries or drug deals, and might traumatize a few random victims– those caught in crossfire, or a bank’s employees. White collar crime is victimless– but a public servant is stealing from everyone in the community; the resulting misallocation of public funds cheats ordinary citizens out of government services, and the victims usually pay more in taxes, for the sins of the criminals.
In October 1971, Stern read in the Newark Star Ledger that in the wintertime, nineteen communities’ water-treatment plants were pumping leftover toxic-sludge into the Atlantic Ocean less than a thousand feet from the Jersey Shore; during the summer, unknowing people swam at the beaches there. Stern, as one of them, took legal action to stop that practice. Lo and behold, on Memorial Day weekend of 1972, Stern read in the Newark Star Ledger that “… a barge loaded with more than one million tons of raw sewage was being towed north from Virginia to be dumped off the Jersey Shore.” Welcome to America.
Read the book to learn: a wealth of additional details about Stern’s cases, peripheral issues he encountered, and how successful he was at his job.