Give Me Back My Reputation!

Ex-Labor Secretary Donovan is acquitted after a nine-month trial

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At the time it seemed a daring gamble: the defense rested its case without calling a single witness, relying entirely on cross-examination and closing arguments to make its points. But as it turned out, it was no gamble at all: several jurors had already decided that the prosecution had no case, and once the nine-month trial ended, the rest of the twelve-member panel agreed. Only one vote was needed to acquit all ten defendants of each of the ten charges against them. All that remained after 9 1/2 hours of deliberations was for Jury Forewoman Rosa Milligan to pronounce the words not guilty 100 times.

Thus ended the long ordeal of Raymond Donovan, the first U.S. Cabinet member to be indicted while in office. Almost from the time of his confirmation as Secretary of Labor in 1981, Donovan was plagued by allegations that he had maintained close ties with mobsters while he was a construction executive in New Jersey. A special prosecutor investigated him twice and concluded each time that there was "insufficient credible evidence" to indict Donovan for anything. Nonetheless, in 1984 Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola persuaded a grand jury to indict Donovan and the other defendants on charges of larceny and fraud in connection with a subway-tunnel deal. The next year, after a judge refused to dismiss the indictment, Donovan felt obliged to resign. Small wonder, then, that after his acquittal Donovan, rigid and pale, called out to Prosecutor Stephen Bookin, "Give me back my reputation!"

Donovan's onetime boss, Ronald Reagan, contented himself with a perfunctory announcement: "I have always known Ray Donovan as a man of integrity, and I am happy to see this verdict." But several newspapers once critical of Donovan turned on Merola for bringing an unsupportable indictment. Said the New York Daily News: "Donovan's entitled to his clean sheet -- and a lot of anger. Mario Merola deserves his black eye."

The essential charge was that Schiavone Construction Co., a Secaucus, N.J., firm in which Donovan served as executive vice president before his Cabinet appointment, had defrauded the New York City Transit Authority of $7.4 million on a contract to construct a subway tunnel. Schiavone was obliged to give 10% of the work to a minority-owned enterprise. The enterprise it chose was Jo-Pel Contracting and Trucking Corp., a firm set up by New York State Senator Joseph Galiber, who is black, and William (Billy the Butcher) Masselli, who has been identified by the FBI as a Mafia soldier. Merola charged that Jo-Pel was a mere front and that Schiavone had siphoned cash out of the contract by leasing Jo-Pel heavy equipment and receiving rental fees. Donovan, Schiavone and the other defendants contended that Jo-Pel was a legitimate firm, the leasing deal had been proper and, since the construction job had been finished for less than the contract price ($186 million), the Transit Authority had lost nothing.

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