Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Born Today in 1927, Trump Lawyer, Tax Cheat Roy Cohn

Vanity Fair (photographed by Mary Ellen Mark.)

Not everyone who is LGBTQ is a good person. Roy Cohn was born today, February 20, in 1927. He was an  eventually disbarred attorney and tax evader. During Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into Communist activity in the United States during the Second Red Scare, Cohn served as McCarthy's chief counsel and gained notoriety during the Army-McCarthy hearings.

He was also known for being a U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor at the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and later for representing Donald Trump against discrimination charges during his early business career.

The Rosenberg trial brought the 24-year-old Cohn to the attention of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover, who recommended him to Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy hired Cohn as his chief counsel, choosing him over Robert Kennedy, reportedly in part to avoid accusations of an anti-Semitic motivation for the investigations. Cohn assisted McCarthy's work for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, becoming known for his aggressive questioning of suspected Communists. Cohn preferred not to hold hearings in open forums, which went well with McCarthy's preference for holding "executive sessions" and "off-the-record" sessions away from the Capitol in order to minimize public scrutiny and to question witnesses with relative impunity. Cohn was given free rein in pursuit of many investigations, with McCarthy joining in only for the more publicized sessions.

Cohn would play a major role in assisting McCarthy's crusade against Communism. During the Lavender Scare, Cohn and McCarthy attempted to enhance anti-Communist fervor in the country by claiming that Communists overseas had convinced several closeted homosexuals employed by the US federal government to pass on important government secrets in exchange for keeping the identity of their sexuality a secret. Convinced that the employment of homosexuals was now a threat to national security, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order on April 29, 1953 to ban homosexuals from obtaining jobs in the federal government.

After leaving McCarthy, Cohn had a 30-year career as an attorney in New York City. His clients included Donald Trump, New York Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner, Mafia figures Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante, and John Gotti, Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. He was known for his active social life, charitable giving, and combative personality. He maintained close ties in conservative political circles, serving as an informal advisor to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Cohn's other clients included Aristotle Onassis.

In 1971, businessman Donald Trump moved to Manhattan, where he became involved in large construction projects. In 1973 the Justice Department accused him of violating the Fair Housing Act in his operation of 39 buildings. The government alleged that Trump's corporation quoted different rental terms and conditions to blacks and made false "no vacancy" statements to blacks for apartments they managed in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.

Representing Trump, Cohn filed a countersuit against the government for $100 million, asserting that the charges were irresponsible and baseless. The countersuit was unsuccessful. Trump settled the charges out of court in 1975 without admitting guilt, saying he was satisfied that the agreement did not "compel the Trump organization to accept persons on welfare as tenants unless as qualified as any other tenant." The corporation was required to send a bi-weekly list of vacancies to the New York Urban League, a civil rights group, and give them priority for certain locations. Several years later (in 1978) the Trump Organization was again in court for violating terms of the 1975 settlement; Cohn called the new charges "nothing more than a rehash of complaints by a couple of planted malcontents." Trump denied the charges.

Federal investigations during the 1970s and 1980s charged Cohn three times with professional misconduct, including perjury and witness tampering. He was accused in New York of financial improprieties related to city contracts and private investments. He was acquitted of all charges. In 1986, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court disbarred Cohn for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients' funds, lying on a bar application, and pressuring a client to amend his will. In this case in 1975, Cohn entered the hospital room of a dying and comatose Lewis Rosenstiel, the multi-millionaire founder of Schenley Industries, forced a pen to his hand and lifted it to the will in an attempt to make himself and Cathy Frank—Rosenstiel's granddaughter—beneficiaries. The resulting marks were determined in court to be indecipherable and in no way a valid signature.

When Cohn brought on G. David Schine as chief consultant to the McCarthy staff, speculation arose that Schine and Cohn had a sexual relationship. Speculation about Cohn's sexuality intensified following his death from AIDS in 1986. Although some historians have concluded the Schine-Cohn friendship was platonic, others state, based on testimony of friends, that Cohn, at least, was homosexual. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, Cohn denied having any "special interest" in Schine or being bound to him "closer than to the ordinary friend." Joseph Welch, the Army's attorney in the hearings, made an apparent reference to Cohn's homosexuality. After asking a witness if a photo entered as evidence "came from a pixie", he defined "pixie" (a camera model name at the time) for McCarthy as "a close relative of a fairy." (Fairy is a derogatory term for a homosexual man.) The people at the hearing recognized the allusion and found it amusing; Cohn later called the remark "malicious", "wicked", and "indecent."

In a 2008 article published in The New Yorker magazine, Jeffrey Toobin quotes Roger Stone: "Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn't discussed. He was interested in power and access." Stone worked with Cohn beginning with the Reagan campaign during the 1976 Republican Party presidential primaries.

In 1984, Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS and attempted to keep his condition secret while receiving experimental drug treatment. He participated in clinical trials of AZT, a drug initially synthesized to treat cancer but later developed as the first anti-HIV agent for AIDS patients. He insisted to his dying day that his disease was liver cancer. He died on August 2, 1986, in Bethesda, Maryland, of complications from AIDS, at the age of 59. According to Stone, Cohn's "absolute goal was to die completely broke and owing millions to the IRS. He succeeded in that."

A dramatic and controversial man, Cohn inspired many dramatic fictional portrayals after his death. Probably the most famous is his fictionalized role in Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, in which Cohn is portrayed as a closeted, power-hungry hypocrite who is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg as he lies dying of AIDS, a disease the character insisted be called "liver cancer." 

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