Milton Brener on New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison
Milton Brener was appointed Assistant District Attorney by DA Jim Garrison in the early 1960s. The following is excerpted from Brener's The Garrison Case: A Study in the Abuse of Power.
Garrison's name had been widely mentioned as a possible candidate for Mayor and the city was sprinkled with bewildering billboard advertisements reading "Vote for Garrison" without specifying the office.
On June 10th an eruption of volcanic proportions broke an uneasy calm. The targets of Garrison's wrath were Mayor Schiro and Superintendent Giarrusso. The facts that precipitated this conflagration were simple. The ramifications were not.
In November, 1964, a barroom owned by one Clarence Bielosh had been burglarized and a four-hundred pound safe was removed. The safe was recovered. Several months thereafter, Giarrusso's office received a memorandum to the effect that confidential information had been received that Bielosh made a payment of $600 to a member of the District Attorney's staff, for withholding or destroying football cards that were contained in the safe. Though the mere possession of football cards is not in itself illegal, the only practical use for such cards is in connection with illegal gambling operations.
Giarrusso, not at all anxious to irritate the volatile District Attorney, furnished a copy of the memorandum to Garrison and requested his consideration as to the best method of proceeding. Said Giarrusso with considerable understatement: "It was realized that this was a sensitive matter and should be treated in that light." Garrison was on duty with the National Guard in Arkansas, but First Assistant Charles Ward made an effort to have Bielosh come to the District Attorney's office for questioning. He later advised Giarrusso that he was unsuccessful and asked police cooperation. In May, Giarrusso was successful in obtaining Bielosh's presence in his office, whereupon the bar owner was questioned by Giarrusso, Garrison, and Ward. Copies of this statement, as well as all aspects of the investigation thereafter, were furnished Garrison. Neither Giarrusso nor any other member of the Police Department ever publicly named the alleged recipient of graft in the District Attorney's office. However, Garrison in many of his subsequent public releases on the matter made clear that the party in question was Garrison's Achilles heel, Pershing Gervais.
On June 10th the story broke in the local newspapers that the Grand Jury was investigating possible bribery and that District Attorney aides and police were said to be involved. Garrison, from Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, quickly decided that the investigation, which was being conducted by a police major and a member of the Police Bureau of Investigation, must cease. He publicly suggested that Giarrusso should probe his own investigators to determine the extent of "possible outside influence" involved in their probe of Gervais. The next day Garrison again issued a release referring to the "election year political game and a phony fishing expedition." "I know what's going on, but I must find out who's behind the woodwork," he continued. Said the man who had accused the Governor and the entire Legislature and the Parole Board of bribery and the entire Criminal Bench of influence by racketeers:
I react very strongly to political investigations of my office and I am going to be very aggressive in bringing about the exposure of whoever is responsible for attempting to damage the morale of my office and to discredit the reputation which we have worked so hard to build up.
Garrison next instructed Ward, as Acting DA in his absence, to refuse to allow any member of the DA's staff to be drawn into an "outlaw kangaroo political election year inquisition like the one going on now."
As usual, Garrison improved as he warmed to the subject:
Once again I call on Schiro to make available to the people, in its entirety, the whole of this phony investigation on which his Chief of Police has been working so hard for so many weeks. This will show the people that the investigation which Schiro has stealthily launched into my office ended up with absolutely no evidence.
Evidently, my exposure of Schiro's investigation for what it is has touched a highly sensitive nerve. For his statement Tuesday is the first positive statement this man has made since he stumbled into the mayoralty.
When the people of New Orleans learn how this smirking, smiling, glad handing ribbon cutter has attempted to make a weapon out of his Police Department they will dump him in the garbage can.
Responses by Schiro and Giarrusso were muted. Said Schiro:
The investigation will be pursued to its ultimate course no matter how loud anyone screams . . . I request that Mr. Garrison join with me in asking the Criminal Bar Association or any qualified group to determine was it I or was it the District Attorney himself who injected politics into this matter.
It is my fervent hope that this matter can be promptly concluded and that we can get on with the job of fighting the criminal element of this community.
Garrison's retort was a letter to the Mayor demanding that the results of the inyestigation to date be made public. At a news conference Schiro quoted part of Garrison's letter in which it was claimed that the investigation by the Police Department of "a member of my staff has taken a wrong turn and ended up in your Police Department."
"Isn't that cute?" grinned the Mayor.
To a suggestion that the dispute be submitted to a Citizens Committee, including the deans of the local law schools and other prominent citizens, Garrison said, "It would not matter if he recommended the Queen of England and the President of the United States as members of a committee. By being recommended by Schiro, they are automatically disqualified, as far as any chance of my ever appearing before them."
Among those testifying during Garrison's Grand Jury probe of the matter was Clarence Bielosh. He was promptly charged with perjury-a gambit later developed by Garrison to a high degree of effectiveness. But the matter did not stop there.
By the end of June, Garrison announced a major investigation into what be termed irregularities in the Mayor's office. A letter by Garrison to Schiro read in part: "I am sure you understand that the employment of a Police Department or member thereof to accomplish a political objective is a violation of Revised Statue 14:134 (malfeasance in office)." The DA's old standby!
But he was only beginning. "Naturally, your position as Commander-in-Chief of the forces involved in this curious expedition makes it necessary -- if we are to clear the air -- that our inquiry begin with you," continued Garrison's letter. Garrison then outlined twenty-one questions pertaining to subjects varying from supposed irregularities in the street improvement program to private business ventures by members of Schiro's administration. Few of the questions had any semblance of relevancy to the Bielosh case, though most of them were generally conceded to be of far more interest to the public. Some typical questions by Garrison:
Is it not a fact that you have been informed that a high-ranking member of your staff often accepts cash gratuities? If so, what investigative steps have you initiated?
Is it not a fact that one of your closest personal friends had the exclusive catering contract at the Municipal Auditorium and that any persons using this public building are forced to use this catering service?
During the next few days District Attorney assistants and investigators were engaged in a feverish examination of records at City Hall. Earlier Giarrusso had publicly said, "Had Mr. Garrison given the Department of Police the opportunity to conclude this investigation, it could very well have been a routine investigation without all the fanfare and sensationalism that has been attached to it." Garrison had other ways of ending the investigation without fanfare. Quietly the investigation of Gervais stopped. Simultaneously and just as quietly, his investigation of City Hall folded. No one heard any more of either probe. Neither was anything heard again of the perjury charge against Clarence Bielosh.
Garrison did not run for Mayor. He ran for reelection as District Attorney. He was opposed only by Judge Malcolm O'Hara, who took a leave of absence from the bench to do so. O'Hara's opposition was a major surprise. By laymen and attorneys alike the judiciary is considered more attractive and prestigious than the office of District Attorney. O'Hara explained that he had hoped to the last that someone would offer Garrison major opposition; that he had entered the race only at the last moment when it appeared that the office might go to Garrison by default.
The campaign was exceptionally bitter. O'Hara quickly made clear that a major target would be the record and character of Pershing Gervais. Gervais promptly resigned as Chief Investigator. He has never returned as a member of the staff, but his influence with Garrison and upon the office is widely believed to continue without abatement.
O'Hara struck hard but inept blows. Garrison was never called to account for his numerous freewheeling and unsubstantiated attacks. O'Hara did, on one occasion, refer to "the ugly force in him which compelled him [Garrison] to destroy every one who fails to bow to his will." "It used to be called a Napoleonic complex," said O'Hara. But it was a mere fleeting thrust at an area that would have been difficult to defend against a sustained and documented attack. Instead, O'Hara's blows were wasted on matters much more easily defended. Garrison won by slightly more than 60 percent of the vote. In March, 1966, a vacancy was created on the Criminal Court Bench by the retirement of Senior Judge George Platt. Under State law, Governor McKeithen could fill the vacancy with his own appointee. At the urging of the District Attorney, the Governor selected Matthew Braniff, a close friend of Garrison. He was the third man to ascend to the bench through Garrison's efforts.
In May 1966, Garrison began his second term in office. Again, a calm settled over the office only to be shattered by the DA's explosive reaction to a public statement he deemed a reflection on his administration. Once again, the ramifications of the incident were far more complex than the immediate facts at issue. Garrison's target this time was the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit organization of local citizens, and most particularly, its Managing Director, Aaron Kohn.
Kohn and Garrison had for years been on friendly terms. Following Garrison's induction into office in 1962, Kohn had frequently been laudatory of some of Garrison's major efforts and had, even when critical, been far less so than in prior administrations.
However, in the summer of 1966 a series of reprieves by Garrison's friend, Governor John McKeithen, kept a Bourbon Street stripper, Linda Brigette, from serving any part of a thirty-day jail term imposed by a District Court Judge against the stripper for obscene dancing. In the fall of 1966 she applied to the State Pardon Board for a full pardon. It was vigorously opposed by the Metropolitan Crime Commission. Among the many statements issued on the subject, the Crime commission declared that Linda Brigette, a featured attraction at one of the more prominent Bourbon Street dubs, was important to certain "organized crime" elements. The term "organized crime" stung Garrison to the quick. There could be no organized crime in New Orleans because Garrison in his four years in office had rid New Orleans of organized crime. Garrison took the remark as a personal affront. He revealed that it was he who had interceded in behalf of the convicted stripper. In seeking a full pardon by the Governor, Garrison claimed that new evidence indicated that testimony given by the State witnesses at her trial was not true. His previous activity in her behalf came as a surprise to all, including the Crime Commission. Garrison's keen interest in the case remains something of a mystery to this day.
Kohn and the President of the Crime Commission were subpoenaed to appear before the Grand Jury; Publicly Garrison said that Kohn would be obliged "to put up or shut up." He freely predicted that Kohn would be unable to substantiate the economic importance of Linda Brigette to organized crime. In advance of Kohn's appearance, Garrison mocked at the coming testimony:
We will undoubtedly learn that I have been seen on a streetcar at the same time as Bugsy Schwartz, the famous burglar, or that I was in New York City at the same time as Machine Gun Brady. . . .
His standard technique in such encounters is to use guilt by association. This is very much like the squid, which when attacked injects black fluid into the eyes of his opponent.
When I have finished exposing Mr. Kohn's half-truths, however, he will be the one that is back-pedaling and not me. . . .
When Mr. Kohn told a series of lies to the people of New Orleans about the office which we have built up, that was the day as far as I am concerned that his career of using halftruths and worse about public officials started coming to an end.
Kohn and the Commission President were subpoenaed for 10:00 A.M. on September 28th. They were allowed to cool their heels in the hallway adjacent to the Grand Jury Room for four hours. They carried with them a large box which they claimed to contain evidence to be shown the Grand Jury for the purpose of supporting their allegations of organized crime and a prepacked lunch of sandwiches.
Garrison, due to the sacredness of the Grand Jury secrecy, claimed that he was prevented from stating publicly what occurred during Kohn's appearance before the Jury. He pointed, however, to the fact that no indictments were returned as proof that Kohn had been proved a liar. He added:
I now want to invite anyone else who thinks that they see organized crime flourishing in this city to come tell us all about it. Persons without evidence should not apply.
I asked the Director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission to put up or shut up about organized crime flourishing in New Orleans. He appeared before the Grand Jury for four hours. The Grand Jury took no action and made no indictments. . . . The Metropolitan Crime Commission should turn its attention to raising camellias.
In rare criticism of Garrison's conduct, the New Orleans States-Item in an editorial on October 1st said:
It would be more seemly of Mr. Garrison to spend less time ridiculing the efforts of solid, well-intentioned citizens and more time working with those genuinely concerned with prevention, exposure, and punishment of crime.
Garrison's response was to accuse the press of being unfamiliar with the facts and to accuse the Crime Commission of "the big lie." In a speech before the Young Men's Business Club, Garrison listed six areas of organized crime, all of which he said had been eliminated or placed well under control, largely by the efforts of his office. Before the end of October, a special investigator, hired by the Crime Commission to extract information from the record room of the Clerk of the Criminal District Court was the subject of a lengthy news release by Garrison. Said he:
The Metropolitan Crime Commission recently has hired a special investigator to help in the obtaining of evidence. . . . It is quite obvious that his assignment is to see, if possible, if he can find something wrong with the handling of these cases by my office. Since we have nothing whatever to fear, either in that area or any other area, he is more than welcome to investigate. However, it would save the Crime Commission and its contributors a great deal of money if he would just walk openly into my office and tell us what information he wants.
We will be glad to make one of our investigators available to help him. We will even have a member of our staff assist him in finding his way back to his hotel at the end of the day. . . .
Garrison, proving himself as prolific as ever, continued with page after page of bitter invective against the Crime Commission and its Managing Director, Aaron Kohn. The depth to which Garrison had been stung by the midsummer comment of Kohn concerning the existence of organized crime was revealed when, two months later, he answered a routine inquiry by the President of the Crime Commission with an angry blast which he did not bother to make public:
. . . After a grandiose statement of the positive existence of organized crimes and of their flourishing existence in New Orleans, I have not heard a scintilla of testimony or one iota of proof that would indicate that there was any truth to these statements.
Therefore, said Garrison, he would not engage in any dialogue with the Managing Director or any of the directors of the Crime Commission. Garrison's letter concluded:
Finally, you can save yourself a lot of stationery by not burdening this office with any further correspondence. I have instructed my staff to return to you unopened all further communications from your organization.
The date of the letter was December 21, 1966. For a number of months by this time, Garrison had, in fact, been greatly preoccupied with other matters. But obviously, the scar left by the thrust of Kohn's remarks concerning organized crime had not healed.
So it went. If it were true that the demoniacal ferocity of Garrison's fusillades was still increasing in tempo in his fifth year in office, there was some solace in the fact that they were in essence defensive measures. Not since the election had there, in truth, been a major offensive mounted in the manner of the attack on the judges or the Legislature.
One day in early January 1967, I was standing in the reception room of the District Attorney's office. I was approached by a former assistant district attorney under Garrison, one whose departure from the office coincided with mine in September 1963. He obviously had something to say.
"The more things change around here, the more they stay the same." His tone was a mixture of amusement and disbelief. "Do you know what Garrison's investigating now? The assassination of Kennedy!" The incredulity I felt must have shown clearly, for my friend continued, as though trying to convince me. "He has investigators going all over-to Miami, San Francisco, Dallas -- he's supposed to be trying to find some kind of conspiracy."
I laughed. Even the Warren Commission had never excluded the possibility that a plot existed, but if such a conspiracy were ever to be uncovered, I would have assumed it would be by someone capable of an infinite capacity for quiet, thorough, and tedious investigation. I had seen something of the DA's probes, and I doubted, if a plot in fact existed, that it was going to be discovered by Garrison.
"Where is the press?" was my first reaction. Of all of the trivia that finds its way into print, I wondered, why hadn't this been exposed? I assumed that one good blast of publicity would suffice to end whatever spectacular was in the making.
The publicity was not long in coming. On February 17th, 1967, the States-Item ran large headlines and a lead story about the investigation. But it was not the end of the matter at all. Once again I had grossly underrated Garrison's instinctive insight into the public temper.
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