JUSTICE

The ‘Bess Mess’

A family-feud trial has gripped the public

LARRY BLACK November 28 1988
JUSTICE

The ‘Bess Mess’

A family-feud trial has gripped the public

LARRY BLACK November 28 1988

The ‘Bess Mess’

JUSTICE

A family-feud trial has gripped the public

Few things arouse the interest of jaded New Yorkers more than a scandalous trial—especially when the allegations revolve around members of the city’s rich and powerful elite. The “Bess Mess,” as New York’s tabloid newspapers have nicknamed the standing-room-only bribery trial of former New York City cultural affairs commissioner Bess Myerson, has all the necessary ingredients. They include the 64-year-old Myerson—who was Miss America in 1945— her 43-year-old millionaire lover, Carl (Andy) Capasso, and Hortense Gabel, a retired state Supreme Court justice. The prosecution alleges that Myerson hired Gabel’s daughter for a city job and, in return, Gabel reduced Capasso’s alimony payments in his 1983 divorce case. Emotional exchanges between prosecution witnesses and three teams of high-priced defence lawyers have produced melodramatic courtroom scenes. Said district court Judge John Keenan after some particularly steamy testimony last week: “I don’t want this case to turn into a daytime soap opera.”

But it has been just that family-feud aspect of the trial that has gripped the imagination of the public and the media in the past month of testimony. Many of the figures involved in the trial so far were once close friends. At the start of the trial, Myerson and the prosecution’s key witness against her, Gabel’s daughter, Sukhreet, exchanged hugs and kisses before enter-

ing the courtroom. Hortense Gabel and her daughter continue to have lunch together every day in the courthouse cafeteria, despite the daughter’s damaging testimony against her mother. What all the Bess Mess participants have in common is an involvement with New York City politics under the 11-year reign of Mayor Edward Koch.

His reputation may be harmed by the central accusation of the trial: that Myerson, then one of his closest confidantes, put Sukhreet,

39, on the public payroll in August, 1983, in order to convince Gabel to reduce Capasso’s weekly alimony payments to $617 from $1,850.

What has angered some trial-watchers the most has been Sukhreet Gabel’s accusations against her mother, now a frail 75 and nearly blind. In nine days of often-witty testimony, Sukhreet, who has a history of depression and instability, blossomed into what she herself described as a “15-minute sensation”—echoing artist Andy Warhol’s claim that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. At one point, beaming from the stand, Sukhreet admitted that she had secretly recorded telephone con-

versations with her mother for use by government investigators. That led Keenan to question why she was smiling: “Is it humorous? Do you find something funny about recording your mother, Ms. Gabel?” Sukhreet responded seriously to the rest of the day’s questioning, only to joke to television cameramen outside the courtroom that she did not have to pose for them because “this isn’t the Miss America pageant.”

Since then, the court has heard further dramatic testimony. Herbert Rickman, a senior aide to Koch who is alleged to have played a key role in Sukhreet’s hiring as Myerson’s $24,000-a-year personal assistant, became involved in a shouting match with defence lawyers when he challenged a key point in Gabel’s defence. Rickman contested the claim by Gabel’s lawyers that the judge knew nothing of Myerson’s affair with Capasso when she made her September, 1983, ruling reducing the alimony payments to the former wife of the wealthy sewer contractor. Myerson’s lawyer accused Rickman of giving himself “free rein to lie” in order to “cover his derriere.”

One city official who worked in Myerson’s department, Walter Canter, testified that he was instructed to rewrite Sukhreet’s job résumé for her a month after she was hired. Another official, Richard Bruno, said that he was told to provide misleading information to the gossip columnist for the New York Post, who first reported the curious circumstances of her hiring. Prosecution lawyers said that Bruno met with Myerson and Capasso before the trial in circumstances that Keenan said “smacks of a coverup” and “an effort to buy somebody out.”

No afternoon television courtroom drama would be complete without an eavesdropping maid—this one fired from Capasso’s Westhampton, N.Y., estate after he won his alimony appeal. Speaking with an English accent that grew thicker as her story became richer, Shirley Harrod told the court in detail of the lovers’ attempts to hide their affair. She also described Capasso’s tormented complaints to Myerson about his alimony settlement—“Isn’t there something you can do about this?”—and Myerson mentioning the difficulty that Sukhreet, suddenly a frequent guest at the estate, was experiencing finding a job in New York. The maid quoted Myerson as saying, ‘TU have to see if I can do anything to help her out.”

Capasso, who is already serving a four-year prison sentence for an unrelated 1987 conviction for tax evasion, has not yet taken the witness stand. Neither has Myerson—but that occasion will probably arise this week when the former beauty queen once again grabs the spotlight.

LARRY BLACK in New York City