Jew canoe. Kosher cowboy. Jew bastard. These are terms not typically associated with anyone in law enforcement, but there they are in all their sophomoric splendor. No surprise that it's election season in our not-so-fair city.
District Attorney Paul Pfingst, the county's top prosecutor, has denied using such epithets in the mid-'80s about a deputy district attorney who is Jewish and who happens to be suing Pfingst over claims that he was denied promotions due to a medical condition that requires constant proximity to a bathroom.
In sworn depositions, two deputy DAs have backed up the allegations of their colleague, Richard Sachs, who slapped the DA's Office and San Diego County with the discrimination suit last year. James Atkins, one of the deposed deputy DAs, alleges that Pfingst once told him that “when you're from New York, you learn to hate Jews.”
Could such things really have emanated at some point from the mouth of the county's No. 1 prosecutor? In such he-said/he-said circumstances, we may never know the truth-particularly during the mud-slinging final weeks of an already scalding election between Pfingst and his determined challenger, Superior Court Judge Bonnie Dumanis.
Dumanis has remained relatively cagey on the anti-Semitic charge, preferring instead to rattle off a litany of what she considers more pertinent failings within the DA's office since Pfingst won the seat from six-time incumbent Edwin L. Miller Jr. in 1994-from bungled cases to internal cover-ups of employee malfeasance.
But this was all news to New York's Nassau County District Attorney Denis Dillon, for whom Pfingst cut his prosecutorial teeth in the 1970s.
“Paul? Anti-Semitic? Get outta here,” the former-Democrat-turned-abortion-clinic-protesting DA said in a phone interview this week. “Some of his best friends in the office when he was here were Jews. Susan Berger, Stella Schindler...”
And friends in petty crime, as well. Saying he felt more like a parent than an employer, Dillon forced Pfingst, Berger, Schindler and three other assistant DAs to resign in 1978 after he learned that the sextet had been using marijuana.
“One of the other assistant DAs told me there was a group of assistant DAs who were purchasing marijuana from a supplier who came out from the city,” Dillon recalled, “and that they were distributing it among themselves where they would use it privately.”
Dillon said he asked Berger about it (“She was a good friend of mine”), and she 'fessed up. “At that time, I said alright, you go back and tell your friends that it's all over. Don't do it anymore. And I let her go.”
Dillon said he embarked on a two-week in-house investigation of the charges, and when local reporters caught wind of the story, he decided to ask for their resignations. A grand jury was impaneled two months later to consider criminal charges against the six, and one-not Pfingst-was later sentenced to four months in jail for selling marijuana to the other five.
“You know, this was right after Watergate, and I always thought the big problem that Nixon had was covering it up,” Dillon recalled. “So I thought these guys are all lawyers. It's not going to hurt them. I'm just going to ask for their resignations. I think they had a lawyer who went to court and tried to prevent me from asking for their resignations. I just remember saying that unless the resignations were on my desk in a half hour, they would all be fired. That meant they wouldn't get their benefits. I got all the resignations.”
The Nassau County DA remembers giving Pfingst a good recommendation, which he promptly used to get a job in the nearby Kings County DA's office, where Dillon said Pfingst “really developed” as a top prosecutor.
“Paul was unusually good,” he added, “and, of course, he's doing very well out there in San Diego. And he's making more money than I am.”
Another non-believer in the 16-year-old anti-Semitism claims is Pfingst's own father, Joseph, whose own story could fill a book. He didn't talk long from his Carlsbad home, but the former state Supreme Court justice from Suffolk County didn't mince words.
“The allegation made is a lot of horse pucky,” he said in a phone interview. “Come on, 16 years ago? That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Thank you for calling.”
The younger Pfingst rarely discusses his father's checkered past publicly. “I knew about his problems, but Paul never talked about him,” Dillon said.
But it's not every day that a sitting DA has a felon for a father. In 1972, Joseph Pfingst was sentenced to four months in jail-out of a possible five-year term-for his part in a conspiracy to conceal $220,000 from a pending bankruptcy proceeding. The case involved two Long Island dairies that he represented prior to his election to the state bench.
Before Joseph Pfingst's sentencing, presiding Federal Judge Jack B. Weinstein-a maverick judge to this day-told the defendant: “Lawyers must know that when they do illegal and unethical things they will be seriously treated and that the legal profession itself will deal harshly with those of its members who commit crimes of this kind.”
The elder Pfingst was eventually disbarred and allowed to move to California, while on probation, to take a job as a salesman.
A spokeswoman for Pfingst this week again reiterated the DA's rejection of the accusations against him. While noting the DA was “brought up a Catholic,” the spokeswoman added that he had a Jewish grandfather who died when Pfingst was young.
That, too, was news to DA Dillon. “I always thought he was Jewish,” he said. “Isn't he Jewish? It's not so much that he had Jewish friends. I just always assumed that he was Jewish. We had a number of Jewish people in the office, and he got along very well with them.
“If he needs an endorsement, I'll give him a strong endorsement-as a lawyer and a prosecutor. Youthful indiscretion, that's all I saw.”