An Anti-Corruption Legend Has Died

The remarkable life of Robert Morgenthau – legendary anti-corruption enforcer.

Credit: Bogdan Vija


  • Robert Morgenthau has died at 99. He was the legendary quintessential anti-corruption enforcer.
  • During Morgenthau’s tenure, his Manhattan office handled more than three million cases.
  • Morgenthau was modest, but as tough as they come. Hundreds of public prosecutors learned from him to never fear investigating the loftiest of figures.

Robert Morgenthau has died at 99. He sent New York murderers, mafia bosses and tycoons to jail. But for me he was the legendary quintessential anti-corruption enforcer.

No American public prosecutor could match his record as he served as a U. S. Public prosecutor and then, for 34 years, as Manhattan District Attorney (being elected nine times to that post).

But it was not his longevity, rather his determination, his courage and above all his integrity that put fear into the souls of tens of thousands of criminals. During his tenure, his Manhattan office, according to his estimate, handled more than three million cases.

Money laundering

But his scope of action and attention extended far beyond just Manhattan and the crimes committed there. At a dinner in Washington, D.C. to celebrate his retirement in December 2009, he warned of the mounting dangers to the global financial system of rising money laundering.

The dinner, organized by Raymond Baker, founder of the Global Financial Integrity organization, underscored how even at 90 years of age Morgenthau was still concerned about the next major challenges facing law enforcement.

Morgenthau surely wasn’t about talking only. In fact, on the eve of that dinner, his office announced that Credit Suisse had agreed to pay a fine of over $500 million for violating U.S. sanctions on Sudan, Iran and Libya and laundering cash from those countries into U.S. assets.

He warned that these governments would use other banks for the same purpose. History shows that he was absolutely right.

Bringing down BCCI

Morgenthau was fearless — as his landmark investigations of the Bank for Credit and Commerce International showed. He called it the “the largest financial fraud in history.”

BCCI, directed from Pakistan, operated in 76 countries, laundered dirty cash for kleptocrats and tax evaders alike and sheltered much of its operations behind dummy companies registered in offshore Caribbean havens.

Central banks from London to Washington, D.C. suspected BCCI. But they feared the impact its demise would have on the wheels of global finance and so they sat on their hands.
Over many months, Morgenthau and his army of New York investigators compiled the evidence and then prosecuted the bank in 1991 forcing its collapse.

Clifford’s shame

But even with that landmark case, Morgenthau was far from finished. The public face of BCCI’s U.S. operations was Clark Clifford, then in his 80s.

Clifford was the ultimate Washington insider, smooth and suave, a former Secretary of Defense and personal advisor to such presidents as Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. In short, he was the very pinnacle of the establishment.

And what did Morgenthau do? He took him to court for being part of the fraud. And even though Clifford’s ill health saw the dismissal of charges, he was utterly humiliated.

Perhaps it helped that Morgenthau came from wealth and privilege to develop so much steadfastness. It stands to reasons that he was inspired by his father who was President Roosevelt’s Treasury Secretary. Following in that tradition, he dedicated his life to public service.

Morgenthau was modest, but as tough as they come. Hundreds of public prosecutors learned from Morgenthau to never fear investigating the loftiest of figures such as Clifford, or to take on hugely complex cases like BCCI.

They also learned to persistently dig for the true beneficial owners of sheltered offshore secret Caribbean companies operating in international finance, and never tp hesitate to investigate the world’s biggest banks when there is a whiff of grand corruption in the air.

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About Frank Vogl

Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. [Washington D.C., United States]

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