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Len Levitt

Len Levitt

Posted: August 2, 2010 10:34 AM

Charlie on the Griddle

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Now on the Congressional griddle for widespread ethical and possibly criminal misdeeds, Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel has been a controversial figure in his dealings with the NYPD for four decades.

On April 14, 1972, as a new Congressman, Rangel was involved in one of the police department's most appalling incidents - its release of a dozen suspects after police officer Philip Cardillo was fatally shot inside a Harlem mosque.

Fearing a riot outside the West 116th Street Mosque Number 7, police allowed the suspects to go free without first identifying them, relying on alleged promises by Rangel and Minister Louis Farrakhan that the men would later surrender to the police.

The suspects never showed up and no one was convicted in Cardillo's death.

Eight years later in 1980, a Manhattan grand jury under District Attorney Robert Morgenthau determined that police brass had caved in to political pressures, dooming any chance of justice from the start.

The police investigation had been "curtailed in deference to fears of civil unrest in the black community," the grand jury report read. "The long-term interests of justice in apprehending criminals were overridden by the short-term concern of preventing civil disorder."

According to the department's top secret report, prepared a year after the shooting under James Hannon, the Chief of Operations, then the department's highest ranking uniformed officer, Rangel was one of three prominent black officials who appeared at the mosque as the riot raged outside.

The report, which the department kept secret for the next 11 years, said that the other two black officials, Farrakhan and the Deputy Commissioner for Community Relations Benjamin Ward, "took the position that the street would return to normal if the police were removed from the area, including the mosque."

Chief of Detectives Al Seedman then made what Hannon's report described as "the reluctant decision" to move the investigation to the 24th precinct "on the promise of Mosque officials to produce the detainees thereat."

"Seedman," the report stated, "continued his investigation in the Mosque but after about 15 minutes either Rangel or Farrakhan approached him and told him that they had better get out of the Mosque or there would be trouble; that they could not control the crowd outside. Seedman now felt that with the reduced uniform presence protecting the scene outside, he was in an untenable position."

According to the report, Seedman said that the decision to transfer the investigation to the 24th precinct was his. He explained that "no police officers at the scene could identify any person ... as being involved in the incident."

Seedman added that either Farrakhan or Rangel had promised he would produce the suspects at the 24th precinct.

None showed up.

In 1983 after Ward was named as the city's first black police commissioner, Newsday asked Rangel whether he had promised to produce the suspects released from the mosque, as Seedman had claimed.

Rangel denied making such a promise.

"I couldn't promise anyone to the precinct," he said. "For me to negotiate over a bunch of hoodlums with an officer I didn't know is ... ridiculous."

Retired police captain Edward Mamet, who has been on something of a crusade to vindicate Seedman, has offered another explanation. He says that after Ward was named police commissioner, "Seedman gave me his notes, from memory, regarding what he had told the grand jury."

Seedman, said Mamet, "told me that he was pressured by Ward and Rangel who told him that if he didn't release the prisoners [the dozen suspects], they were sure there would be a riot..."

So was Seedman telling the truth to Mamet about Rangel? Was he telling the truth, as he stated in the department's official report, that Rangel had promised to produce the suspects?

Did Rangel tell the truth to Newsday that he had made no such promise?

Today, 38 years after that terrible day, we still don't know.

THE GOOD CONGRESSMAN. What we do know is that Rangel, representing his Harlem constituency, has often been at odds with the police department over the years. After four police officers fired 41 shots, killing the unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in Feb., 1999, Rangel was one of numerous black officials who appeared at Police Plaza in daily choreographed displays of civil disobedience.

As his chief of staff at the time Jim Capel said the day before Rangel appeared, "Unless there's snow or rain that will give him pneumonia, he is likely to commit some acts of civil disobedience."

The following March, Rangel and former mayor David Dinkins met with Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, then the No. 2 man in the Justice Department, to discuss trying the four officers who shot and killed Diallo on federal civil rights charges. No charges were brought.

Rangel also raised some eyebrows last year with a snarky quip about another police-related tragedy: the deadly shooting of black undercover officer Omar Edwards in East Harlem by a white cop who mistook him for a car thief.

The weekend after Edwards was killed, President Obama was due to visit New York City, prompting Rangel to say: "Make certain he doesn't run around East Harlem."

WHAT WE ALSO KNOW. Rangel's ethical charges are widespread -- including failure to report earned income; not paying his taxes; and backing a controversial tax loophole for an offshore drilling company while at the same time asking its owner for a million dollar pledge.

However, it appears that neither the Justice Department in Washington nor the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan has begun a criminal investigation of Rangel.

What's so different about his alleged transgressions and those of former police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who is now serving four years in federal prison for accepting free renovations for his Bronx apartment and failing to report a series of gifts and loans?

Remember the remarks of special FBI agent David Cardona, head of the FBI's New York Criminal Division, at Kerik's indictment?

"Moral relativism is not an appropriate yardstick for our public officials," he said. "The only acceptable level of corruption in a trusted government office is zero."