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James Lardner
James Lardner
Crusader: The Hell-Raising Police Career of Detective David Durk
ISBN: 0394576489
Crusader: The Hell-Raising Police Career of Detective David Durk
James Lardner talked about his book, "Crusader: The Hell-Raising Career of Detective David Durk," published by Random House. He described the life and career of David Durk, a New York City police officer who struggled against corruption in the department and who helped others fight corruption in government and business throughout the nation.
Crusader: The Hell-Raising Police Career of Detective David Durk
Program Air Date: July 28, 1996

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: James Lardner, why did you call your book "Crusader"?
Mr. JAMES LARDNER: It's about a guy who devoted years of his life to trying to wake up the city of New York to the fact that its police department was systemically corrupt.
LAMB: Who is this man, David Durk?
LARDNER: He became a New York City police officer a little later than most police officers do. He was 28. He'd gone to Amherst. He was the son of an eye surgeon; grew up in the upper West Side of Manhattan. His mother expected him to become a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. And he was kind of flailing around, not satisfied with any of the career choices that were facing him, and he joined the police department.

He was instrumental in bringing about a huge corruption scandal in the late '60s and early '70s in New York City, the Knapp Commission scandal. And he became tremendously famous for a moment in New York City. His stories about him on the front page of The New York Times, and talk of making a movie about him with Paul Newman playing the role. And he was invited to the White House when Richard Nixon was president, and one of the White House plumbers, Egil "Bud" Krogh, talked to David Durk about, quote, "packaging" him and selling him to the Nixon administration's emissary to the campuses, because he was trying to recruit college graduates to become police officers. And then he had a rather tortured afterlife from the Knapp Commission time until the present of continuing to fight battles that had to do with higher level corruption, as he saw it, and not with the same degree of success.

LAMB: Before we go any farther, I want our audience who regularly watches to know that I know you pretty well, but I haven't seen you for a long time, and that you did an article on this network -- What? -- two years ago.
LARDNER: About three, I think.
LAMB: Three years ago, for the New Yorker magazine, and I just vaguely -- I haven't seen you since then, and I vaguely remembered you saying that this fellow, David Durk, had something to do with why you got interested in C SPAN.
LARDNER: That's right. He watched C SPAN a lot, and he said I should do a piece about you and C SPAN, and I wound up doing it because he suggested it.
LAMB: Why would he watch the network, though? What was the reason? Did you ever find out?
LARDNER: He loves public affairs and books the same reason a lot of people watch it.
LAMB: Where is he today?
LARDNER: He is, to all intents and purposes, unemployed, although he gets some work every once in a while. He has a rotten pension from the New York City Police Department of $17,000 a year that was kind of calculated with as little generosity as possible, and he lives in upstate New York in Dutchess County, about an hour from the city.
LAMB: If you were around him a lot, what would you -- how would you describe him?
LARDNER: He has a little warren of an office in an attic above his living room, which is just filled with files and tape recordings, and he spends his days, a lot of them, on the telephone. He has a network of informants, although he does not like that word, sources. He's often negotiating between whistle blowers in various bureaucracies, including, still, the New York City Police Department, and on the one hand, and on the other hand prosecutors or journalists trying to surface some of the stories that people bring to him about skulduggery of one kind or another.
LAMB: When he was the most prominently seen on the front pages of the newspapers, what had he done that got him that kind of attention?
LARDNER: A couple of things. He got the attention because he was the instrumental figure in exposing corruption. He and the far more famous Frank Serpico, who was a friend of his at the time, had gone to a series of public officials of the city and state and even some federal officials and to talk about the seriousness of corruption. No one had acted. The administration of then Mayor John Lindsay had not acted. And finally he took it to The New York Times, and he became famous as a result of that. He became famous as a result of his passionate testimony before the Knapp Commission. And even before that, he was on there in Life magazine because he was going around to colleges around the country recruiting police officers and generating a lot of interest in that notion.
LAMB: If I met him, what would I say about him after I'd talked to him for a couple of hours?
LARDNER: You might have a hard time following him, because he's bursting with stories mostly about ex-situations that cry out to be exposed. And he makes all kinds of historical connections, and his brain is filled with the names of various criminals and public officials and people who haven't acted on various issues, and he spits it all out, sometimes kind of leaving out the transitions and things that you need to really follow his stories. He's very intense. David Burnham, a New York Times reporter who wrote the exposé of police corruption that started the whole scandal going, met Durk first over dinner, and Durk talked about the police corruption, and the names whizzed by so fast that Burnham said later, `I thought he was quite insane. I couldn't follow a word of it.'
LAMB: How long have you known him?
LARDNER: I met him in 1970, when I had just graduated from college, and I had gotten taken with the idea of becoming a police officer, and I did, and here in Washington, DC. I first tried to join the New York City department. I was from New York City. I failed to get on, they weren't hiring fast enough. But the DC police were because Richard Nixon had promised to make Washington a law enforcement model for the nation, a little remembered aspect of the Nixon administration. And so I wound up serving here for two and half years. And along the way, I heard about Durk, and I met him, called him up, met him, and you know, he told me about the job, what it was like, although he did not mention corruption.
LAMB: Did you see corruption?
LARDNER: Basically no, which goes to show that not all police departments are the same. Nobody ever handed me any money. The only corruption I ever saw was a fruit stand up on Columbia Road, and the proprietor used to try to fob off his more yellowed and aged fruits and vegetables on us for free. There were a couple of restaurants that would discount or give you free coffee, if you were disposed to accept their offers. That was about it.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
LARDNER: I went to Harvard.
LAMB: What did you study?
LARDNER: History, American history.
LAMB: And how did you get to Washington?
LARDNER: Well, it had to do with the fact that it was the department that was hiring. And I wanted to do this. I wanted to do it, I guess, because I had this tremendous consciousness of having had a really insular upbringing and not knowing about the world. And I had vague thoughts that I wanted to be a writer, and what was I ever going to write about? And on top of all those other considerations, I had decided with, not entirely easily, I had decided that I didn't want to go, be drafted and didn't want to go to Vietnam, and you could get a draft deferment as a police officer at that time, a little known fact. And I, in fact, I was the alternative for me was to become a teacher, and I thought, `I don't want to do that.'
LAMB: Why didn't you want to go to Vietnam?
LARDNER: Because I thought the war was wrong. I had, in fact, you know, written things in the Harvard Crimson, along with many other people, that were against the war, and...
LAMB: Now the Lardner question. I remember asking you this when we first met and take because George Lardner writes for The Washington Post, and he's got a book out. What's George Lardner's relationship to you?
LARDNER: He's a second cousin of mine, and I used to work for The Washington Post, so I actually know George Lardner more from having been a colleague of his than from being a second cousin of his.
LAMB: Who's Ring Lardner?
LARDNER: Ring Lardner was my grandfather, who was originally a sportswriter, and started writing short stories about baseball, vernacular about, you know, ordinary baseball players, who had always been treated as kind of heroes before he got to them.
LAMB: Where did he live?
LARDNER: He grew up -- he was born in Niles, Michigan. He moved to Chicago. And that's where he originally practiced his trade as a journalist. And then he eventually came to New York.
LAMB: What year did he die?
LARDNER: He died in 1933.
LAMB: And what year was he controversial? Wasn't he involved in the blacklisting or something?
LARDNER: Ah, you're thinking of my father.
LAMB: OK, and what was his name?
LARDNER: My father's name is Ring Lardner Jr.
LAMB: OK. Now what about your father? Now where was I? Where did he live? Is he still alive, by the way?
LARDNER: Yes, he is. He is a screenwriter, and he was a member of a group called the Hollywood Ten, who in 1947 were called before the House Un American Activities Committee, which was investigating alleged subversion in Hollywood. And a group of these writers and directors were asked the usual questions: `Are you now or have you ever been,' and `If you have, you know, who else?'

And my dad, who had been a member of the American Communist Party, refused to answer the question, citing the First Amendment, the right of free expression and association. And he along with nine others was convicted of contempt of Congress, and he went to prison for a year and was blacklisted as a screenwriter. And I was about three years old when all this happened. And when I was growing up, my father was writing television shows, including "The Adventures of Robin Hood," under a pseudonym.

LAMB: Did you ever spend much time talking to him about all this?
LARDNER: Sure. I was fascinated by Hollywood and the movie business. And I sort of wanted to know as much about that as possible.
LAMB: What about the whole Communist thing? Did you ever ask him why he was a Communist, and what it was like to go to prison?
LARDNER: He once tried to take me along with him to visit the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, where he had served his time. And they didn't seem to recognize the idea of the alumni visit. They turned us away. He wrote about all of this in an article for the Saturday Evening Post, and I suppose I know as much about it from that article as from talking to him.
LAMB: How old is he today?
LARDNER: He's 80.
LAMB: Where does he live now?
LARDNER: In New York City.
LAMB: And what impact did both your grandfather and your father have on you wanting to be a writer?
LARDNER: Well, I had a lot of writers in my family, and I think writing is one of those ways of making a living that might look exceedingly difficult, I mean, not just the writing itself, but just how to make a living at it. And to me, maybe it seemed a little more natural because I had examples around me, and there was a lot of conversation about words. And so in that sense, it helped a lot, and I had uncles who'd been writers as well. And I think I originally thought I wanted to write fiction or, you know, movies or, like my father. But in college, I worked on the college newspaper, and I just loved it, and somehow I became a journalist.
LAMB: David Durk, you set up a scene, standing outside of `21,' the restaurant in New York City, and Toots Shor drives up at some point, I assume in front of his restaurant, with his car. And tell us that story, and why did you use that to kind of kick off this thing? What it's one of the stories you used.
LARDNER: Well, David Durk was then a young patrolman. It was like 1963 or '4. And he was working in midtown Manhattan, where all the restaurants and hotels and big department stores were very tight with the precinct. And it was, although he didn't really quite understand this, you didn't mess with these people. Toots Shor was a famous restaurateur of the era, and Dave was just walking his beat, and this guy drives up in a Cadillac, I think it was, and breezes on into the restaurant, and actually said to the patrolman, David Durk said something like, `Watch it for me, kid,' meaning the car.

And, you know, Durk was offended and appalled and had no idea who this man was and proceeded to write a parking summons on this vehicle. And he said to himself that if his sergeant came by, that surely he would be appalled if the patrolman had not written a ticket on this, flagrantly it was parked in front a fire hydrant, I forgot to say, and the sergeant did come by, and he was appalled, and promptly reassigned Durk to some abandoned park over near the West Side Highway.

LAMB: What are some other stories like that, that offended David Durk in the early days, things that were natural for a New York policeman?
LARDNER: Well, at the Plaza Hotel, they occasionally, a guest would die in residence. And the police would have to sit and wait with the body until the morgue, the coroner's people arrived to, you know, check it out. And the customary arrangement was that the Plaza would, as Durk recalled, would send up refreshments, food, maybe even liquor. They would take care of the police officer who had this assignment. And one of his obligations when it was all over was to be very discreet about how he removed the body from the premises, so that nobody should have to see that this horrible thing had taken place. And in addition to that, the Plaza was one of a number of places that rather freely double parked and triple parked, you know, sometimes, vehicles out front. And it Durk, who could get really roused up in indignation about this sort of thing, thought they were treating the police as security guards. And, indeed, many police officers would go on after they took their pensions to go to work for the Plaza as security guards.

So he was so indignant about this that he decided that he directed the morgue wagon attendants to take the body out of the hotel right through the central lobby, right through the palm court, and to pause when they needed a rest, right in the middle where all of these people were sitting, having their drinks. And the maitre d' was really appalled, and patrolman Durk said, you know, `It was a heavy body; they needed a rest. They took the most direct route out of the hotel. You lift it if you don't think it's heavy,' you know.

He was doing this kind of thing frequently. He objected to -- Radio City Music Hall would have police officers, in effect, doing crowd control for them. And one day he shows up there, and a 16 year old kid who's dressed in a white tuxedo and is handing Durk a velvet rope, and telling him -- giving him instructions about when to let the patrons in or not, and Durk, you know, refused to participate in this, and then protested to his inspector. He was fighting these kind of battles constantly. And to me there was a kind of strange fascination, because most of us go through our work lives trying to get along and very carefully picking our fights. And here's someone who did not pick his fights. He saw something that bothered him, and he raised a stink about it, almost invariably, no matter what the implications were for his career. And I found that kind of compelling.

LAMB: You say in the back that you've shared the proceeds from this book with him?
LARDNER: Yeah, and I've never done this before, and I don't imagine I'll ever do it again. But this seemed a case in which that was called for. I mean, this is someone who's not been accused of being a criminal, so there weren't, you know, moral issues of that kind, as there sometimes are with what's called `checkbook journalism,' and who had lost his employment with the city of New York in the 1980s and has been living on, you know, not much of a pension. And his wife also has a job, but he's needed a lot of his time, and I couldn't really see any other legitimate way to do this. And he certainly wouldn't have wanted to do it otherwise, either.
LAMB: How much material, you say 30 years of tapes and notes and everything were turned over to you. How much material was that?
LARDNER: Well, the most important material was just talking to him. I then proceeded to talk to a lot of other people besides, I mean, I formed a conclusion that he had been the pivotal character in bringing about this corruption scandal, based not only on talking to him, but on talking to a lot of other people, and I tried to confirm things. But in addition to the hours and hours and hours of interviews, which beyond counting with him, he gave me a lot of clippings and some police reports and other stuff.
LAMB: I don't know if this will work or not, but I wrote down a lot of names that the audience will recognize. And I thought it might be useful just to go down the list, and have you just explain a little bit about them, and then we can come back, so that we can get a sense of who's involved in this. Jay Kriegel.
LARDNER: Jay Kriegel was a top aide to Mayor John Lindsay. And as a very young newcomer to politics and to the Lindsay administration, he met Durk as a patrolman. There was a little demonstration in Central Park, and Kriegel was impressed with the way Durk calmed some people down and actually gave some passersby a lecture on the First Amendment when they were trying to shout down a speaker. And then Durk started giving some advice to Kriegel about what was wrong with the police department from a patrolman's point of view. And this was during the campaign of 1965. John Lindsay, then a congressman, was running for mayor. Kriegel was a volunteer, working for him. And some of David Durk's ideas were used in the campaign, and he continued to have a relationship with Kriegel as a kind of adviser after Lindsay became mayor, and eventually he went to Kriegel, spilling the beans about the corruption situation.
LAMB: And Jay Kriegel went on to work for Larry Tisch at CBS or someone?
LARDNER: That's right, yes.
LAMB: Is there a point made in the book that, because of this scandal, John Lindsay feels he didn't become president?
LARDNER: That would be going too far. But certainly it did him no good, and you might say this episode became a test of the Lindsay administration, a test of whether, given really horrifying information about something, there would be a natural human response of, `Oh, my God. This is really serious. We have to drop some of our other concerns and attend to this right away.' And it's a little bit like, I was just thinking, because I was reading "Primary Colors," there's a test in that novel of the ethics, of the characters who are somewhat based on Bill and Hillary Clinton. Will they respond in that way? And in the Lindsay administration's case, it really failed this test badly.

Kriegel and others, including, it seems, the mayor himself, seemed to have always have other things that were higher on their list of priorities than this matter of police corruption, no matter that it had a really terrible effect, especially in inner city neighborhoods of New York, where knowledge was really quite widespread that the police were on the take. And I'm talking now not about minor corruption, but corruption that involved narcotics. The biggest narcotics unit in the police department, the most elite unit in the police department at that time was massively corrupt.

LAMB: By the way, where do you live now?
LARDNER: I live on the upper West Side of Manhattan, where I grew up.
LAMB: Married?
LARDNER: Yes. I'm married, and I have two children.
LAMB: How old are your kids?
LARDNER: Two and seven.
LAMB: Artie Gelb is another name.
LARDNER: Arthur Gelb was, at the time of these events in the '60s and around 1970, was, I think, the deputy, he was the metropolitan editor and the deputy metropolitan editor, then the metropolitan editor or assistant managing editor. I don't really remember the titles exactly. But he was the editor to whom David Burnham reported, and he was the editor who had to be won over before The New York Times would consider doing a big story on police corruption, and he was initially skeptical. Durk and Serpico and a number of other police officers whom Durk kind of rounded up went in to give the Times a briefing, and that sort of turned the tide.
LAMB: Dave Burnham, you mentioned earlier. He's done this show, but he, I think he lives here in town now.
LARDNER: Yes, he does.
LAMB: What role and at some point in this, you say that this was a significant, his work was significant change in journalism in New York City and The New York Times. And what was it?
LARDNER: Well, we -- he went to work for the Times in the late '60s to cover the criminal justice beat, or the police. And at that time, there was a long tradition of covering the police a certain way. They had reporters who became almost police officers themselves. They immersed themselves in the culture of the department. They hung out at what were called `shacks,' which were little dingy press rooms attached to various police facilities around the city. And they just accepted the tidbits that the police department offered them. And they rarely, if ever, wrote about anything bad that the police department might have done or accusations of anything bad. And they certainly never looked at something systemic or below the surface.

And Burnham, before he took the job with the Times, he asked for advice from a professor, who said, `You should look at why institutions don't perform the functions they're supposed to perform.' And he had that in his mind always, and it became clear to him that corruption was one big reason why the New York City Police Department didn't perform the mission it was supposed to perform, at least, didn't perform it too well.

LAMB: What was Dave Burnham's motive and I see you've talked to him since then, do you think, to get into this corruption stuff?
LARDNER: He's a really dogged reporter with a lot of populist passion. And he and Durk were a great alliance in a way, because, in a sense, Durk was more than just an ordinary source. He really worked with Burnham for a period of months on helping put this thing together. And Durk didn't have the organization, but they both had similar passion. A colleague of Burnham said that Burnham on the track of a good story reminded him of John Brown at Harpers Ferry.
LAMB: Henry Ruth.
LARDNER: Henry Ruth, who was part of the Watergate prosecution team and I think was Watergate special prosecutor for a time, had earlier been at the Justice Department, and he got David the grant that allowed him to go around the country recruiting on college campuses, recruiting police officers, at a time when Durk's real work, actually, was this sub rosa enterprise of exposing corruption. And he was in trouble in the police department; his career was in trouble. And so this was both a real plan to recruit police officers on campuses, and it was also helpful getting him out of the way of trouble.
LAMB: Arlene, Joan and Julie.
LARDNER: Arlene is David Durk's wife, whom he's been married for more than 30 years and who has lived through, you know, the life of a whistle blower, with all its ups and maybe more downs.
LAMB: What's she like?
LARDNER: A very stalwart and very -- defends his honor resolutely. She has worked as a psychiatric social worker, working with disturbed children. And she's a kind of student of bureaucracy, and she said to me that most people, when they do things that they get awards for, they're also calculating what's good for their career. And the thing that she s pointed out to me about her husband was that he was constantly doing things that were lousy for his career. But it has been very hard for her, very hard for anybody living with him.
LAMB: Where did they meet?
LARDNER: They met when David was studying law at Columbia Law School, and she was studying social work, I think, at Barnard, or she was an undergraduate, I'm not sure which. And they went to a -- they met at a lecture, which both had gone to independently called Must Men Hate? by the psychiatrist I'm not sure if he was a psychiatrist, Erich Fromm. And the hall was not that crowded, and Durk saw this attractive young woman sitting in the hall, and he sort of sat down next to her, and he said, `What time does this thing break up?'
LAMB: What are Joan and Julie like?
LARDNER: Well...
LAMB: How old are they?
LARDNER: I don't know. I've sort of forgotten. I guess, 30, 35, maybe...
LAMB: I mean, you often write of them being 10 years old and having to be around all this in the house.
LARDNER: Right. Joan Durk, when she was about 10 years old, said, `I don't want to go, I don't want Daddy giving me lifts in his car anymore because I know he's going to go out and arrest people.' He was making off duty arrests all the time. And she just wanted, you know, she, wanted to get to her play date. And she is a teacher. And Julie, their younger daughter, is actually a motion picture executive in Hollywood.
LAMB: Did you talk to them about what this was all about for them?
LAMB: What's the impact on them?
LARDNER: It's -- they've taken it a little differently. I think it was painful for one or both of them. They knew that their father had been a pivotal character in bringing about this scandal. But then, because of the huge success of the book and movie "Serpico," which turned events around a little bit, he was reduced not only to a peripheral role in the eyes of an enormous, worldwide public, but a kind of foolish role.
LAMB: Do you see this turning into a movie?
LARDNER: I don't know. Maybe there, I think that he'd be a great character for a movie. Whether somebody would want to tell the whole 30 year story or not, that's another matter.
LAMB: He's Jewish. What impact does that have in a, you know, with a police force that's got a lot of Irishmen in it?
LARDNER: Well, David Burnham pointed out to me that both of these key instigators Serpico and Durk were on the outs, you might say. They were not the standard cut of police officer. Serpico was Italian American. There were a lot more Italian Americans in the police department than there were Jewish Americans. But still, both were a minority. And I don't know. I haven't given much thought to that. I thought more about the impact of the times and about being an upper middle class or coming from a professional family, being a white male without worries about material things at that era in our nation's life. It seems to me it was a time when people got out of college and they did not worry about how they were going to make a living not the way people worry now, anyway. It never seemed quite so easy as it did then, and there was, you could be at liberty to really think, `What would I truly like to do with my life?' I mean, not everybody did think that way, but David Durk certainly did.
LAMB: You know, a couple of weeks ago, you were reviewed in The Washington Post, and I picked up the paper and just opened it up and saw, the next week or so, there were four letters to the editor. One of them was yours. And I don't know where to start. One of them's yours, one of them's Henry Ruth's, one of them's Dave Burnham's and one of them, of course, is the response from somebody named Loren Estleman. Is that the way to pronounce it?
LARDNER: I think so. I didn't see the letters; I did see the review.
LAMB: Let me read it. It's I gather Loren Estleman.
LAMB: Do you know who he is?
LARDNER: I know that he is an author of novels, some of which have to do with police and the Detroit Police Department and some of which have to do with police corruption. I don't know more.
LAMB: I'm going to read his response to your letter...
LAMB: ...just so it'll give you a chance to talk about your letter. `I haven't much time to waste on the kind of a writer who squanders his talent drafting angry letters to reviewers, but I will say this, he's talking about you. 'David Durk may, indeed, be the courageous, saintly individual James Lardner maintains he is in his letter. My only introduction to him has been Lardner's book, and the picture he paints there is of a sanctimonious prig. If Durk is not, then it is Lardner who has maligned him, not I.'
LARDNER: I didn't portray David Durk in my letter as a saint. The reason I chose to write about him, or one big reason, was that there are these people called whistle blowers, and I think we'd all like to imagine that they're just sort of humble, well meaning people who are sitting around doing their job when, suddenly, something appalling rises up in front of them and they feel compelled to do something about it. But in real life, they're often very difficult and cantankerous people to start with. And, of course, the way in which they interact with their bureaucracies after they start to raise a ruckus about some of these issues causes them to become even more adversarial.

I was just reading a biography of Walter Wriston of Citicorp, and there's a story like this about a guy who worked for Citicorp who tried to blow the whistle on tax fraud that Citibank, Citicorp was involved in, parking money in Nassau and the Bahamas. And he at first, he just wanted to work through the system. He wasn't trying to bring down Citicorp or anything like that, but they ignored him for years. And eventually, he became a determined enemy of this company.

Anyhow, it's the -- David Durk has been disliked by a lot of people, and he's not an easy man. I found, in my relationship with him, writing about him, that I sometimes repeated the patterns of some of his colleagues and superiors in which they grew totally disgusted with him. And there was some feeling on his part toward me likewise. I wanted to write about somebody who was right about a lot of things, who did something very impressive and who was also sometimes sanctimonious and sometimes had, made no distinctions between what was really important and what wasn't important and was alienating people who should have been allies and so forth, because I think that's the real nature of a lot of whistle blowers, and it certainly is the real nature of this one.

LAMB: Is it your nature to write a letter like this?
LARDNER: I would like, in general, to let reviews speak for themselves and not answer. This reviewer said something about my bringing in myself into the story and planting myself in the center of this story because of, as far as I could make out, a one paragraph mention of my being a police officer in Washington, DC, and how I had met David Durk. And I thought this was grossly unfair. I thought there were a couple other things that were pretty off the mark about this review. I've gotten other better ones, I'm glad to say. And so I since it seemed to me that I would have been accused of and rightly accused of deceiving my readers if I hadn't mentioned that I had known this guy, David Durk, for years and how I had known him, I put that in the book, and I just, I kind of wanted to set that straight.
LAMB: Back to some names. Whitman Knapp.
LARDNER: Whitman Knapp was a Wall Street lawyer and a former Manhattan DA who was named by John Lindsay to head up a commission of inquiry when the time finally came, after the Times had published its articles, that Lindsay realized he had to act. And then he ran this commission; later became a federal judge.
LAMB: What year was this? What year was the Knapp Commission?
LARDNER: The Knapp Commission was formed in 1970, and held hearings in 1971 and issued its report in 1972.
LAMB: Go back and, let's see. We've got a policeman who sees corruption. We've got a reporter who wants to write about police corruption, David Burnham. You had Artie Gelb, who had to decide whether or not David Burnham's articles could get in the paper. And then, after they were published on the front page, you had….Who moved then? I mean, in other words, there was an attempt in this process also, as you said, to go to Jay Kriegel, to go to John Lindsay, but they didn't do anything.
LARDNER: At first, Durk and Serpico as well, were simply trying to work through channels. I mean and...
LAMB: Were they together, by the way?
LARDNER: They didn't work together in the sense of being partners, but they were friends and they spent a lot of time together. They originally met in something called plainclothes school. They hung out a lot together. They drank together. They ate together. Serpico spent a lot of time at the Durks' house. And there came a time when their purpose changed, or at least Durk's purpose changed. At first, he was just trying to wake people up, and he had in mind that he would be gratefully received by the Lindsay administration and by Jay Kriegel and that they would thank him for this information, that they would act on it, that they would do something about it, they would be, you know? At a certain point, he realized that they were trying to duck this issue. And he then, rather mischievously but ingeniously, decided that he wanted to create a record, he wanted to give everybody an opportunity either to do something about this or not to do something so that the story would finally include not only the misdeeds of rank and file police officers, but also the inaction, the informed inaction of a lot of high officials. And that's the way it finally came out when it appeared in The New York Times, to the great embarrassment of a lot of people, some of whom were then witnesses before the Knapp Commission.
LAMB: But you told a very interesting, just a little technique in this process; where David Burnham had his articles written, he couldn't get them into The New York Times. So he goes to the Lindsay administration and Jay Kriegel and does what?
LARDNER: He went, actually, to somebody else in the Lindsay administration and at a cocktail party. And with a drink in his hand, he says to the mayor's press secretary, a man named Tom Morgan, he said, `You know, I'm working on this really wonderful story about police corruption. I know you'll be so delighted to see this, these articles when they come out.' And as he anticipated, the Lindsay administration then proceeded to do something. It named a little panel -- in-house panel to investigate the problem of police corruption.
LAMB: Before the articles came out?
LARDNER: Before the articles appeared, and that gave the Times' Arthur Gelb the news hook, and they then decided to run the articles.
LAMB: How often, in your experience, does that kind of thing happen up there in New York City, or in Washington, for that matter?
LARDNER: Well, there's a number of questions you raised there. I imagine that sort of thing probably happens more than we all know, but I can't say I know of other examples of it. What's so peculiar about the situation was that the relationships weren't normal. I mean, David Durk wasn't just a source. He was helping engineer these articles; he was cutting deals with the Times and with Burnham, as much as he could, and Burnham was insisting on certain professional declarations of professional independence, but their relationship was really tight. And for months, the deal was, `We give you all this information, but you can't publish the story until we say OK', Durk and Serpico, because they didn't know what was going to happen with their careers.
LAMB: You know, one of the things we haven't talked about is, when were the police at their worst? What's the worst thing that Serpico and David Durk found in this process?
LARDNER: I think that can be answered. Durk worked in 1969 on a narcotics investigation in East Harlem. An old man who worked in a shop in Greenwich Village who actually knew Serpico, who lived around the corner and who had talked to Serpico as well, trying to get some police officer who was friendly and honest to do something about his immediate preoccupation his own son was becoming a runner for drug dealers in East Harlem. And this old man, as Durk called him, he wasn't really that old, had...
LAMB: Is he still alive, by the way?
LARDNER: No, he's not. He had information, a lot of good information about a whole network of big time drug dealers in East Harlem. He had worked for them doing, you know, construction work or something. And he had all this data, and he wanted one thing. He wanted the guy that his son worked for, who was a drug dealer named "Ernie Boy" Abbamonte he wanted him locked up so that the old man's son would see that his hero could be nabbed by the police, and then he would, you know, understand that he was on the wrong path in life. And the information that he gave David Durk, which was very detailed information, including maps and locations of apartments, where drugs were being cut and packaged and so forth and became the genesis of a big investigation. But the unit to which David Durk brought the information, the special investigation, investigating unit of the narcotics division of the police department did nothing with it for months and months and months, maybe years I can't remember the exact timing.

And David suspected that they were taking money from drug dealers to not pursue them, and he went around trying to get somebody interested in that accusation, including various prosecutors, who told him he was crazy, basically, or that he had no hard evidence. He found yet another police officer, one Bob Leuci, who was an SIU Detective, and who was feeling a little guilty or else a little worried about the possible, maybe a crackdown coming, and he eventually brought this guy Lucci to the Knapp Commission. Anyhow, that unit was probably and what it did was probably the worst thing. It had grown out of, by the way, the French-connection drug case, written about in the early '60s, and it was massively corrupt. The score the kind of money that ordinary policemen were taking was small potatoes, comparatively speaking. You know, you could, as a patrolman, you might get a couple hundred dollars a month or something; if you were in gambling enforcement, you might make $500 or $800 a month. But in this kind of elite narcotics work, there were scores, as they were called, individual payoffs to let somebody go, that would sometimes come to, you know, $5,000, $10,000 cash-money.

LAMB: Did anybody go to jail after the Knapp Commission?
LARDNER: Yes. Out of -- by the way, about 75 or so people that were in this unit at any one time, SIU, something like 50 or more were either disciplined or indicted or transferred. A couple of detectives committed suicide. And the most, the pivotal witness for the Knapp Commission, an incredibly crooked police officer named William Phillips, is still serving a double life term in Sing Sing for murder in addition to his other crimes.
LAMB: When you were talking about, telling the story about the old man in the book, the old man would ride around in the car?
LARDNER: He took Durk up to East Harlem the first night they met. And he sat in the backseat the old man did so that he wouldn't be recognized, and he was on the floor, basically. Occasionally, his head would pop up so that he could point something out to Durk, but basically, he was narrating the street scene from lying down on the backseat of this car and he was pointing out various cars, cars belonging to drug dealers, and various addresses. And he would even say, you know, `You could go in this door of such and such a building and there's a secret passageway, and you could come out this other door if somebody was chasing you,' or something like that. And David eventually, in a follow up meeting with this man, drew maps which he turned over to the special investigating unit.
LAMB: Who hates David Durk the most, and why?
LARDNER: Well, I ran into a lot of people who did, a lot of prosecutors.
LAMB: By the way, what age is he in this picture?
LARDNER: In that picture, I think he's about 35, maybe. That's from about the Knapp Commission time.
LAMB: What's he look like today?
LARDNER: He's got very white hair and a little more jowl, and he's, you know, he's 60.
LAMB: I interrupted. I wanted to go ahead. We were talking about, you know, who hates him.
LARDNER: That's another thing that interested me. I mean, this is a guy, another reason I wanted to write about him was that when -- I started by writing a profile of him for the New Yorker. And I interviewed a lot of his former law enforcement colleagues and a lot of his ex bosses, some of whom really hated him with a passion, even people who had not had any dealings with him for years and years. Now this was partly because he kind of broke new ground in whistle blowing, and the new ground he broke was to tell tales about people whose only crime was to have information about corruption and sit on it. And he would recall conversations he had with people, you know, I went in and told such and such a chief, or such and such a assistant DA that, you know, that this unit was corrupt, and they didn't do anything.' Or he would even recall what people said. Like he would recall that Jay Kriegel said something about not wanting to upset the cops, and Durk's conclusion was that the Lindsay administration's understandable interest in avoiding riots in the inner city was causing the mayor and his people around him not to want to raise the issue of corruption. And I think that he embarrassed a lot of people. He embarrassed a number of public officials with his testimony.
LAMB: But was there one person that you can remember talking to that said, I mean, I remember your quote...
LARDNER: Yes. Oh, that's right. There was a guy who had been a prosecutor, who is now a judge, who, well, there are two people. One was a prosecutor and now is a lawyer in Westchester County who said, `Why would you want to write about him?' And another guy said that, I'm trying to remember the line, that, oh Durk was constantly accusing you of being in bed with the malefactors, and he was -- the Crusader title also comes out of the fact that this now judge, former prosecutor, said he was like one of the Crusaders. He wanted you, you know, out of town by sundown and his zealotry knew no bounds and he couldn't make any distinctions between, you know, really out and out criminal behavior and minor stuff. And, you know, there was a lot of venom.
LAMB: What's the status of corruption in the New York City Police Department today?
LARDNER: After the Knapp Commission, the response of the system, the response of the police department, was basically to impose a lot of new controls. A lot and this was a bureaucracy that had a great number of `thou shalt nots' already, and it acquired a whole new layer of thou shalt nots. `Thou,' if you're a patrolman, `shalt not go into any bars or make any drug arrests because, you know, the potential for payoffs is so great.' Or some crimes were almost legalized, in the sense that police officers were told to ignore them. It wasn't necessarily formalized or put down on paper, but if you talk to police officers today in New York City, they will say that they understood, until a couple years ago, that they were not supposed to make drug arrests, uniformed police officers, period.

And it produced a tremendous amount of cynicism and a lot of bitterness. And I think it made, perversely it made some police officers who later became corrupt feel that, what the hell. The department didn't really want them doing their job anyway. And you had a new outbreak of corruption of a different kind in the 1980s. It wasn't the same kind of systemic payoffs where everybody was kind of involved. It was pockets especially in inner city neighborhoods which had big drug problems -- pockets of police officers who were robbing drug dealers, were taking their drugs, dealing drugs themselves. There was a guy named Michael Dowd, who was the leader of our ring that was dealing drugs out on Long Island, where most of them lived, and that in some...

LAMB: A cop.
LARDNER: Yes. And interestingly, David Durk tried to blow the whistle on this same guy in the mid '80s.
LAMB: Recently.
LARDNER: Yeah. And David had a friend who was working with this guy Dowd who called up Durk and said names of, I think it was 10 or so I don't remember the exact number of police officers in his unit who he said were in bed with drug dealers. And Durk went to an FBI agent friend of his who, in turn, went to the internal affairs unit of the police department this was all back around 1986 gave the names. And as far as anyone can tell and Durk wasn't the only person who tried to blow the whistle on this group the only response of the police department at that time was to reassign a couple of these people including this guy Dowd, who later was the pivotal witness in another set of corruption hearings to reassign him to a new unit where he was basically had a clean record and his superiors didn't know that he was a rotten guy, and he was free to start up his activities all over again.
LAMB: Here's who you dedicate the book to. Who is this?
LARDNER: Oh, Diane Cleaver was my agent who died at the beginning of last year and was someone who got deeply involved in this project and cared for every client of hers, and they cared for her.
LAMB: How old was she?
LARDNER: She was 53 when she died.
LAMB: Died of what?
LARDNER: As far as I know, I mean, it's not clear of what she died of. It was natural causes, but I don't know what.
LAMB: I mean, was it...
LARDNER: She just -- home sick one day, something she almost never was, and fell down dead.
LAMB: And how long was she your agent?
LARDNER: Ten years.
LAMB: How long was this book in the works?
LARDNER: Well, in a way, it was in the works from, like, 1989. I started to write about him around about then, and on and off, I did some other things.
LAMB: And why did Peter Osnos of Random House buy your book? What you mentioned the New Yorker in here.
LARDNER: Well, I can only say that in my mind, it was a window onto the history of police, the history of corruption, the psychology of whistle blowers, the experience of whistle blowers in law enforcement, and it was a great vehicle for talking about, I thought, for talking about some of the history of New York City from the '60s to now.
LAMB: Has David Durk read the book?
LAMB: What's he think of it?
LARDNER: He's got his gripes, and I think he's basically pleased, but I'm not sure.
LAMB: Where did you write it?
LARDNER: I mostly wrote some of it, I wrote at the New Yorker; some of it I wrote at home.
LAMB: But you mentioned a couple places up in the hills or mountains or...
LARDNER: Oh, that's right. Yeah. Well, when I first started work on it, I had what's called a residence at an artists' colony in the Adirondacks, and I went to yet another one, too, and spent cumulatively, I guess, maybe two months at these places.
LAMB: The Blue Mountain Center?
LARDNER: The Blue Mountain Center is a simply wonderful institution in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, where writers and painters and photographers and theater people and some social activists go and do their work.
LAMB: How important is this book to you?
LARDNER: Well, I put a lot of effort into it, and so it's important.
LAMB: But, I mean, you know, you wrote a book on VCRs at one point. I mean...
LARDNER: That was important, too. I guess I can answer it this way. I, somewhere along the line as a journalist, I realized that I had been writing a certain kind of story. I had been writing a number of pieces about provocateurs or malcontents or people operating on the fringes of respectability but people who had some kernel of good in them, and I didn't even kind of realize that I was doing this until I looked back. And I'd always been interested in police, too, having been a police officer. So this subject represented the intersection of these two interests, and so I was really fascinated by his career.
LAMB: What are you working on now?
LARDNER: I'm trying to write another book, but it isn't far enough along yet to really say.
LAMB: Can you give us the area?
LARDNER: Oh, work life.
LAMB: Work life. I'd be interested in, you did this article in the New Yorker on this network. Did David Durk ever react to that, once he had put you onto the idea?
LARDNER: Oh, he liked that article. Yeah. He's still a great fan of C SPAN, and so am I.
LAMB: Does he intend to ever get back into police work? You say he's, What is he? 60 years old?
LARDNER: Yeah. David loves the police, and if someone came along and offered him something, although he might find a way to screw it up, because he has a talent for screwing up opportunities, which is also one of the things that drew me to him. I mean, because he's a little bit of an operator, and if he were a more successful operator, I might feel about him as the reviewer in The Washington Post did. But he's constantly doing these things that undermine his own chances. And often, you discover that the issues that he's obsessed about, even though they are immensely irritating to people and, at first, seem to be foolish and about nothing, he often turns out to be annoyingly right.

Anyhow, I was going to say that he was a hero in an episode that, in fact, launched a lot of careers. A lot of people associated with the Knapp Commission much less pivotally than David Durk went on to glory; he did not. And he's -- a friend of his, a lawyer named Lawrence Goldman, said to me, `Somebody should give Durk $50,000 and a year and say, "Durk, go out and be Durk."' And that's sort of the way I feel about him.

LAMB: Here's the book. It's called "Crusader." Author, James Lardner. And we thank you for joining us.
LARDNER: Thank you.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1996. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.