Michael Armstrong, 86, Dies; Led Knapp Probe of Police Corruption


Michael F. Armstrong, whose dogged pursuit and exposure of crooked cops as chief counsel to the Knapp Commission in the early 1970s was credited with smothering an ingrained culture of corruption in the New York City Police Department, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 86.

The cause was uveal melanoma, a cancer of the eye, his daughter Joanne Brandwood said.

Mr. Armstrong, and the investigators and prosecutors he enlisted to root out police corruption, succeeded by penetrating the previously inviolable blue wall of silence that had concealed systemic bribe-taking in police ranks. That code had led officers to overlook or even join in illegal activities — including the theft of cash and narcotics seized in drug raids — while impotent or complicit department brass saw no evil. Elected officials, too, ignored warnings, fearing a political backlash from police unions.

“The point is, everybody knew what was happening, and nobody would admit that it was happening,” Mr. Armstrong said in 2009 in an oral history interview for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. “You know, kind of just looked the other way. What we did is, we took the rotten fish and dropped it on the table and said, ‘All right, deal with it.’”

The commission was appointed by Mayor John V. Lindsay after The New York Times published a series of articles by David Burnham that had been prompted in large part by two police whistle-blowers, Frank Serpico and David Durk. The two reached out to The Times after neither high-ranking police officials nor City Hall had responded satisfactorily to their complaints.

Led by Whitman Knapp, who in 1972 was appointed a United States District Court judge, the panel revealed that corruption was by no means limited to the rotten apples Mr. Armstrong and his colleagues had caught in the act and persuaded to testify.

“We found that the barrel was completely tainted,” Mr. Armstrong said in the oral history.

Among the commission’s star witnesses was William R. Philips, an officer who was caught taking payoffs from Xaviera Hollander, the madam who wrote the best-selling book “The Happy Hooker.”

“Frank Serpico had this statement,” Mr. Armstrong said, “which was ‘10 percent of the department is absolutely corrupt, 10 percent is absolutely honest and the other 80 percent, they wish they were honest.’”

Mr. Armstrong borrowed the last part of that quotation for the title of his 2012 book, “They Wished They Were Honest: The Knapp Commission and New York City Police Corruption.”

Mr. Armstrong’s interrogations led to the public shaming and in some cases punishment of corrupt officers. He acknowledged that his work did not suddenly instill scruples in the entire police force; but that 80 percent, he said, largely “turned around and became honest.”

“The line I have used is that you can still be corrupt, but now you have to lie about it,” he said. “You don’t brag about it.”

A tenacious prosecutor and a fierce advocate for his clients as a white-collar defense lawyer, Mr. Armstrong was both a law-and-order lawyer and a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“He pulled no punches in exposing the depth of corruption with a dramatic flair, and was unbowed in his attempt to determine the facts,” the former New York City police commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in an email.

District Judge John F. Keenan, a former Armstrong colleague and special anticorruption prosecutor, said, also by an email, “What Mike did really made the Knapp Commission, and the commission made the Police Department more honest.”

Michael Francis Armstrong was born on Dec. 14, 1932, in Manhattan to Joseph and Mary (Cassidy) Armstrong. His father was an advertising executive, his mother a homemaker.

After graduating from Bronxville High School in nearby Westchester County and considering a career in advertising, he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale and was admitted to Harvard Law School. He interrupted his law studies to serve in the Air Force and, after being discharged as a first lieutenant, graduated in 1960.

He married Catherine Joan Brennan, who died in 1998.

In addition to their daughter Joanne, he is survived by two other daughters, Deirdre Armstrong and Margaret Weiner; 11 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; two sisters, Elizabeth Streeter and Mary Spitzer; and his partner, Gretchen Siebel. Two children, Catherine and Michael, died earlier.

As chief of the United States Attorney’s securities fraud unit in New York in 1967, Mr. Armstrong successfully prosecuted the government’s case against Louis E. Wolfson, who was among the first corporate raiders. Mr. Wolfson and a business partner had been accused of selling unregistered shares in a company they controlled. The investigation implicated Justice Abe Fortas of the United States Supreme Court, and he resigned two years later.

In 1973, after serving for two years as chief counsel to the Knapp Commission, Mr. Armstrong was named interim Queens district attorney by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller following the indictment of the incumbent, Thomas J. Mackell, in a corruption scandal.

From the outset, Mr. Armstrong was disinclined to seek election for a full term. After getting a whiff of clubhouse cronyism, he became reluctant to engage in politics — so reluctant, he said, that he proclaimed to a reporter:

“You’re authorized to use this quote if I decide to run for public office. ‘No. 1, I believe there’s a Mafia and it’s all full of Italians. No. 2, I think it was a disgrace for the Irish to remain neutral in World War II. And No. 3, I sympathize with the Palestinians in the Middle East.’”

He added: “If I ever decide to run or think about running, I will know that you’re out there, with this quote. That will end it, for sure.”

In the 1980s Mr. Armstrong represented the children of Martha von Bülow in a civil suit against her husband, Claus von Bülow, who had been convicted of trying to murder her. They asked that he be barred from inheriting her multimillion-dollar fortune. They settled their suit in 1987 when Mr. von Bulow gave up his claim to their mother’s estate. (Sunny von Bülow, as she was known, remained in an irreversible coma from 1980 until her death in 2008.)

In other cases, Mr. Armstrong negotiated the surrender in 1974 of Jane L. Alpert, a fugitive leftist radical who had been sentenced in a wave of bombings in New York; represented Donald R. Manes, the Queens borough president, who later committed suicide in a municipal corruption scandal; and supported the plea of Martin Tankeleff, whose conviction of murdering his parents when he was 17 in 1988 was vacated two decades later.

In 1995, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani appointed Mr. Armstrong chairman of the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, which was recommended by a Knapp Commission-style inquiry headed by Milton Mollen, a former state judge and deputy mayor. Most recently, Mr. Armstrong was of counsel to McLaughlin & Stern, a Manhattan-based firm.

Through films and books, the Serpico episode and the Knapp Commission have endured for decades as benchmarks in the city’s fight against police misconduct, much to the surprise of some police critics — and of Mr. Armstrong himself.

“This whole thing was like a World War I airplane,” he once said. “You get a lot of baling wire and Scotch tape and you patch and patch and patch.

“Everyone kept saying we couldn’t do it, particularly with what little we had. Maybe we were able to do it just because we didn’t know it couldn’t be done.”

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