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The New York Observer


May 17, 1999

Howard Safir spent much of his career as a Federal agent before Mayor Giuliani called him to New York, and where, it seems, he left an overheated station wagon packed with bad karma.

The Commish Bites Back: Howard Safir Explains His Life to His Critics

by Russ Baker with Josh Benson

No, Howard Safir will not be attending the Cannes Film Festival on May 12. He will not, for the moment, be writing a book. He also will not be doing anything that might land him in the same purgatory as Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew.

He will, for the third consecutive year, lead some 3,000 Rollerbladers up 10th Avenue, through the Lincoln Tunnel, over to New Jersey and then back to Manhattan via ferry as grand marshal of the National Multiple Sclerosis Skate-a-thon. He’ll feed the CD player in his car with Jimmy Buffett’s best, try to get in a few hours off Long Island on his sailboat and play his weekly, two-hour, full-court basketball game over at Chelsea Piers with an 18- to 60-year-old crowd that includes his 6-foot-6 son.

But play to the media? Not a chance. "The Mayor and I do what we have to do and aren’t terribly influenced by the press, and I don’t think the press likes that very much," Mr. Safir said.

Yet the Police Commissioner said all this during an interview in his 1 Police Plaza office, a sit-down designed to offer a glimpse into the man who once complained to The New York Times that negative perceptions of him stemmed from his downturned mouth.

Is this the rehabilitation of Howard Safir? Only a few months ago, there were loud whispers around City Hall that he was Mayor Giuliani’s hand-picked choice as successor. Mr. Safir acknowledges that he has been approached. "Oh, sure. I’ve been approached by people who’ve asked me to be mayor. I’ve been approached by people who would like to form exploratory committees. It’s not something I’m considering at the moment."

But then came Louima-gate, Diallo-gate, wife-gate, Oscar-gate and an unprecedented vote of no confidence from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, revealing a deep vein of anti-Safir fury in the city (he calls it a "feeding frenzy"). Even now it is not over: Any day, city investigators will be releasing their ethics report about his jet-set weekend at the Academy Awards, courtesy of a Revlon Inc. executive.

But Commissioner Safir hasn’t just been sitting around behind his—and former police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt’s—old desk waiting for it. Reporters in "the shack"—the press room at 1 Police Plaza—said he’s been more visible recently than he’d been in months. It was his face on the evening news May 7, when an off-duty cop was shot. And he landed a stunning blow on the P.B.A. by announcing a brilliant, divisive plan to promote loads of cops and reward them with raises (taking them out of that union, to boot). He’s also out pushing a crime-fighting initiative to create a DNA bank in New York State.

Lest anyone forget, he’s also the guy who led a police department that brought crime statistics to the lowest point since Dragnet was on the air.

But who is this guy? By all accounts, Mr. Safir—he of the character-actor mug, large, powerful hands and subdued Fed-like demeanor—is a tough son of a gun. And he’s got the enemies to prove it.

"I don’t want anything to do with Howard Safir," his famed uncle Louis Weiner (who captured the bandit Willie Sutton) told The Observer from California. "If you put my name anywhere in an article about Howard Safir, there will be repercussions."

"Howard Safir is the reason I gave up 19 years in the [U.S.] Marshals Service," said veteran lawman Terry Merrifield.

"He’s pond scum, and you can quote me on that," said Charlie Thompson, an award-winning television producer who investigated Mr. Safir for ABC’s 20/20.

Mr. Safir spent much of his career as a Federal agent before Mr. Giuliani called him to New York, and where, it seems, he left an overheated station wagon packed with bad karma. He began his professional life as an idealist, thinking, at age 23, that he could defeat the world’s crime problems. After growing up in the Bronx and Long Island, the son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents (his father was a presser in the garment district, his mother a switchboard operator), Mr. Safir followed his Uncle Louis’ example and became a lawman. Their preference? "Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, whatever Jewish parents want for their kids," he laughed. Instead, he made his professional bones in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (later the Drug Enforcement Administration) working a series of daring undercover stints, including as a hippie drug buyer in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. He moved to the dispirited U.S. Marshal’s Service in 1979.

"The Attorney General of the United States personally told me, he said, I want you to fix this," Mr. Safir recalled. By many accounts, including his own, he did, transforming the agency from a criminal baby-sitting service to a fugitive-hunting, ass-kicking task force that tracked down bad guys by any means necessary. His collar hit parade included notorious renegades like Christopher Boyce (the Falcon of the Falcon and the Snowman), and ex-C.I.A. agent turned Libyan stooge Edwin Wilson. He eventually became associate director for operations, supervising everything from courthouse security to fugitive retrieval, but he made his mark cleaning up the Witness Protection Program.

He did it by being Howard. "Howard has a strong ego," said Gerald Shur, a high-ranking Justice Department official who founded the Witness Protection Program. "He [also] had a very strong desire to be perceived as doing a good job, and that combination worked wonders for us.

"To this day, they love him for what he did," said Mr. Shur, who is writing a book about the history of the program. "He brought in modern equipment and insisted on training—he did very well in straightening it out."

Beyond that accomplishment, however, the consensus divides sharply. In a proposal for a prospective autobiography, Mr. Safir trumpets his proximity to history: "I thought about all the events I had participated in, during my 25 years as a Federal agent, and realized, that there were few major crimes, disasters or government conspiracies, that I has [sic] not had some contact with."

But Mr. Safir’s life story simply was not as captivating to others as to himself. Publishers’ rejection letters (which became part of a subsequent legal dispute) explained that they found the story "interesting, but not compelling." Indeed, others who worked with Mr. Safir remember him more as a tough inside fighter, but not as the second coming of Wyatt Earp. "He had the Marshal’s Service issue him a Smith & Wesson 9- millimeter, and he asked me how to use it," said Mr. Merrifield, a marshal under Mr. Safir.

It’s tough to separate Mr. Safir’s authentic exploits from the puffery. But he does seem to have a knack for hyperbole, not to mention an appreciation for a touching story—even if the details are a little hazy. Mr. Safir often cites the influence of Uncle Louis to show his deep roots in law enforcement. In fact, the touching story line was written into the plot of an NYPD Blue episode in which he appeared. But Mr. Weiner told the Daily News several years ago that Mr. Safir has never reached out to him, and in fact snubbed him at the funeral of Mr. Weiner’s daughter. When The Observer asked Mr. Safir about his uncle’s remarks, he replied: "He’s had a tough life. As is not unusual in Jewish families—if you’ve ever seen the movie Avalon—I think somebody’s cut the turkey on Uncle Louis a few years ago … That doesn’t change my view of him when I was young and he was a detective."

Mr. Safir, however, has had his own, weirdly disjointed moments. According to the transcript of a 1992 appearance at an obscure Carnegie Foundation Mideast policy roundtable, Mr. Safir suggested that he suffered the consequences for criticizing the Bush Administration’s appeasement of Saddam Hussein before the Gulf War. "[I] opposed this tilt," he told his small audience. "Those of us who did were suppressed and eventually evicted from the policy process toward Iraq …"

Yet, according to Mr. Safir’s friends and former colleagues, as well as Iraq policy experts, Mr. Safir had nothing to do with Iraq. "I can’t imagine why he would have been involved with policy toward Iraq," said Howard Teicher, a top National Security Council staff member on Iraq from 1982-87. (Mr. Teicher said he had never met Mr. Safir before their joint panel appearance.) And former Safir colleague Larry Homenick, now Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal in Denver, said: "I don’t know Howard was ever in a position to make U.S. policy toward Iraq … I’m not familiar with any of those things, and I was chief of the international operations branch."

Asked about his Iraq comments, Mr. Safir said he did not recall, but by way of possible explanation told a story about a Beirut snatching that was vetoed by Ollie North.

Getting Safirized

Then there was the time Mr. Safir, referring to the notorious lord of the Southeast Asian opium triangle, declared: "I went after Khun Sa." But even his fans remember nothing of the sort. "He had nothing to do with Khun Sa," said William F. Alden, a D.E.A. veteran who worked with Mr. Safir and considers himself a friend. (Khun Sa remains at large.) Mr. Safir said he had been misquoted. "That’s not what I said. I said I had worked on Khun Sa up in the golden triangle with the D.E.A. I personally have never gone after Khun Sa. Have I ever personally run into the jungle to find Khun Sa? No. I’ve done that for others, but not Khun Sa."

Mr. Safir also showed a talent for putting his imprint on the ideas of others. "He didn’t have to like you to use you," recalled Mr. Merrifield. "Every idea that you presented became Safirized."

Like Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Safir gained a reputation for rewarding loyalists and crushing dissent. Field operatives who questioned his mandates were exiled or run out of the service. "If you’re not one of his people, he will transfer you, he will bury you," said Mr. Merrifield, who worked under Mr. Safir. "If I licked his ass and never disagreed with him, I’d still be in Washington." Mr. Safir acknowledged his hard edge. "It certainly makes me less than popular with some people."

One field officer warned that a protected witness was gambling his rent money, and asked that the money not go directly to the man. According to subordinates, Mr. Safir declined to stop the direct payments, and when the field officer requested a telegram confirming the policy, Mr. Safir snarled, "I’ll send you a telegram all right." The field officer was transferred for the remainder of his career.

Indeed, though press accounts of Mr. Safir at the time of his arrival in New York described him as a disciplinarian, colleagues remember a more complicated reality. "There was one standard for Howard Safir, and another for everyone else," said a former associate. (If true, such a pattern would explain Mr. Safir’s recent transgressions, from accepting a free flight to the Academy Awards from Revlon to schlepping a military-strength security retinue to his daughter’s wedding.)

But there were also times when Mr. Safir followed rules, to the letter. While presiding over the Witness Protection Program, Mr. Safir dismissed a whole raft of witnesses for breaches of security procedures despite the objections of some field officers. Some of the banished witnesses were later killed. Interpretations vary as to whether it was the victims’ carelessness, or the withdrawal of the protection, that was to blame. "[Mr. Safir] did what he had to do, I guess," said John Partington, who guarded Federal witnesses under his direction, left after a feud and is now the Public Safety Commissioner in Providence, R.I. "My job was to save lives, his was to save money."

It was questions about Mr. Safir’s witness policy that sparked the first of several lawsuits he has filed against critics—most often, the press. He sued Geraldo Rivera for chasing him down in a mall in pursuit of that story. (He got a settlement from ABC-TV over its injudicious editing of a sound bite.) He has also sued WCBS-TV’s Marcia Kramer (the suit was settled recently, although no details were announced), filed a complaint against a former boss (for discrimination) and even took his sister-in-law to court.

Most recently, Mr. Safir and his wife, Carol, filed suit against a woman who rear-ended Mrs. Safir’s car. Mr. Safir noted ruefully that "a big deal was made [by the media] because I wanted to find out whether or not somebody who ran into the back of my wife was a threat to me or to my wife."

Mr. Safir, in turn, has been sued a number of times. According to Mr. Rivera’s producer at the time, Mr. Thompson, when Mr. Safir finally consented to an interview about the witness protection program, he secretly taped a microphone under the interview table. Mr. Thompson then counterpunched with a suit charging Mr. Safir with illegally wiretapping the duo.

Another case (whose files are creating a field day for Mr. Safir’s most zealous journalistic interlocutor, police reporter Leonard Levitt of Newsday) found Mr. Safir defending himself against a lawsuit by Dan Moldea, an investigative journalist Mr. Safir had retained to help him pen a proposal for a prospective autobiography. After working with Mr. Safir for several months, Mr. Moldea discovered that the commissioner had neglected to mention that 12 publishing houses had rejected a previous book proposal. Mr. Moldea won his case, and $17,500, in 1995. (Mr. Safir sold an option on his life story to Columbia Pictures’ television group in the early 1990’s, but it was not renewed or developed.)

In New York, Mr. Safir has had to play the challenging role of the shrinking violet, shunning personal glory as a sort of Russian nesting doll inside Mr. Giuliani’s outer layer. It’s been a tough act for him, according to those who know him well. But if anyone could tame Mr. Safir’s ego, it’s Mr. Giuliani. "He’s the only one with an ego bigger than Howard’s," said a friend. Yet Mr. Safir insists he’s delighted with his role. Asked how he felt when Mr. Giuliani, as is his penchant, took possession of Mr. Safir’s idea to seize the cars of New Yorkers arrested for driving while intoxicated, Mr. Safir said: "I came up with the D.W.I., the Mayor supported it."

The Mayor has generally been supportive of him, he said. "I told him I was going to go out front on DNA, he supported it. Cameras in housing developments—he supported it. There’s nothing that I have proposed to the Mayor that he hasn’t supported. Does he deserve credit for it? Of course he does. He’s the Mayor, he selected me, he provides the resources. Why shouldn’t he?"

Not a Bratton Fan

So the hammer falls elsewhere, and Mr. Safir seems to match the Mayor’s parsimoniousness with praise. After Mr. Giuliani ousted William Bratton and installed Mr. Safir, the new commissioner quickly began ridiculing his predecessor. And he’s still not that impressed. Although he noted that Mr. Bratton had done a good job, he added: "He was somebody who courted the press, and I think he was somebody who very much liked being in the limelight. To me it is not the part of the job that’s best. I am much more interested in substantive accomplishments than in seeing my picture on the front page of the Daily News."

Mr. Bratton, too, has something to say. He believes that Mr. Safir (and his boss, for that matter) came to their roles with clear handicaps: "The training both he and the Mayor had in the Federal system didn’t necessarily prepare them for the nuances of urban policing," Mr. Bratton said. "[In Washington], the press is usually only there when you want it." Mr. Safir concurs. "Perhaps it’s my background," he said. "I spent most of my life doing relatively covert work, always goal-oriented and not especially affected by outside influences."

If anything, Mr. Safir has adopted what to many seems a Nixonian suspicion of the media. "The press has been rooting around my personal life since I’ve been Commissioner," Mr. Safir groused. In keeping reporters at building’s-length, he relies on his Ron Ziegler-like, loyal longtime protégée, Marilyn Mode, whom he brought with him to New York and installed as his spokesman. "We have nothing for you," Ms. Mode habitually tells reporters under pressure to deliver details to demanding editors and curious readers.

Indeed, say some former employees of Mr. Safir, he never saw the point of letting out bad news. According to Mr. Merrifield, his former colleague in the Witness Protection Program, Mr. Safir warned his staff before an impending visit from Senate investigators that "if any of you have any dirty laundry, you’d better keep it to yourselves."

And so Mr. Safir’s minor mishaps find a ready audience. Mr. Safir’s chief tormentor, Newsday’s Mr. Levitt, delights in publicizing the unseemly minutiae of life at 1 Police Plaza, devoting a weekly column to such niceties as cracked front doors, press secretary inconsistencies and evasions, and arcane, interdepartmental plots. "The more unpleasant he is, the better for me," said Mr. Levitt. "He makes himself an easy target, unfortunately, because he is so unpleasant and tries so hard to manage the news." One scoop—in the truest sense of the word—Mr. Safir could not manage was when Mr. Levitt reported that Ms. Mode brought her pet dog, Lil, into the office and had a member of New York’s Finest clean up the resulting mess.

For her part, Ms. Mode—sitting in her office, where a stain indeed marks the rug not far from a framed picture of her, the dog, and NYPD Blue actor Dennis Franz—decries Lil’s victimization. "If I targeted somebody or the Commissioner targeted somebody in the same fashion, we’d be hung out to dry. Lil has never ‘pooped and I forced somebody to pick it up.’ I would quote F.D.R.: It’s fine to take your shots at me and the way my office is run … but to go after my little dog …"

As for Mr. Levitt, Ms. Mode sighed. "He’s a very bright fellow." When pressed, she offered this anecdote: "You know what he said to me one time, he said, ‘Is the Commissioner a self-hating Jew?’ and I said, ‘Are you?’ And his colleagues—and there were several standing around—said, ‘No, just self-hating.’"

While many of Mr. Safir’s Washington enemies are retired, his critics in New York are active indeed. Even rank-and-file police are getting in on the act, angry about the demands placed on them to crack down ever harder on minor infractions. With morale at its lowest level in years, the upcoming election for the leadership of the P.B.A.—the most important police union—has turned, improbably, into a Safir-bashing contest.

In recent months, it has been death by a thousand paper cuts for the once-unstoppable Mr. Safir, whose proposed memoirs were to be entitled You Can Run but You Can’t Hide. Taken to task, fairly and unfairly, for rules violations of a breadth and variety unimaginable in his more secretive days as an undercover lawman in Washington, Mr. Safir seems at a loss to adjust to the heightened scrutiny of his current position. But he is a survivor, and indications are that while it may be hard to adjust, he’s giving it his best shot. He recently withstood with an unnerving calm one tough question after another from veteran WNBC-TV newsman Gabe Pressman, and he told The New York Times, "When I’m just sitting somewhere—I look like I’m mad. But I’m not."

In Rudy Giuliani’s world, the tougher Mr. Safir is, the more he may be likely to survive. Mr. Safir is confident he will stay in the Mayor’s good graces. "The Mayor and I know each other very well. The Mayor sees these attacks in the press for what they are … He’s the only mayor I’d work for. The reason that I’m here is because I know what kind of tough, loyal and fair guy he is. I know the real Rudy Giuliani. This is a mayor who believes in his people and stands by them."

In any case, he’s not sweating it out. "I’ve always believed I could make a living anywhere, whether it’s here or in the private sector. I’m not sitting here saying ‘Oh my God, am I going to be police commissioner tomorrow?’ If I’m not police commissioner tomorrow, I’ll be something else."

Perhaps publishing. "Somebody offered me a book deal last year. I turned it down." He declined to elaborate, but noted: "It was a pretty good offer."

And there’s always Hollywood. The producer of NYPD Blue, Bill Clark, said Mr. Safir was a "natural on the set." Might Mr. Safir be welcomed back? If the story line calls for it, Mr. Clark said, "Absolutely." Mr. Safir, who displays a signed picture of the young actor Ronald Reagan on his office wall, is equally enthusiastic. "They were very nice," Mr. Safir said. "Everybody on the set was very gracious." Mr. Safir explained that he had flubbed some of his lines — as, he noted, had actor Jimmy Smits, whose Detective Bobby Simone met quietly with "Commissioner Safir" before a big promotion. "[But] it was a blast for me." Mr. Safir points out that his original role called for just two lines, but by the time he’d finished, he had a whole scene. It even included a reference to Uncle Louis.

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