CHIEF JUSTICE WILLIAM HUBBS REHNQUIST stared stonily out at the crowd in the marble-columned chamber from the Supreme Court’s center chair, the chair in which Ronald Reagan had put him two years before. It was June 29, the last day of the Court’s 1987-88 term, and one decision remained to be handed down – the big one.
"Number 87-1279," the Chief Justice began. Methodically, he summarized the background of this momentous challenge to the Federal independent prosecutor law, brought by the Administration and by former top Reagan aides caught in the law’s toils. The Watergate-inspired law – which provides for a special court to appoint prosecutors independent of the executive branch to investigate alleged crimes by top Federal officials – stood as an affront to the sweeping, unfettered vision of Presidential power that has become part of today’s conservative political creed. Administration conservatives hated it with a burning passion. Now Rehnquist, their choice for Chief Justice, was announcing the Court’s opinion, making it clear that he had written it himself.
Finally, he reached the question on which his audience hung. "We now reverse the Court of Appeals in an opinion joined by seven members of the Court," he said, "and uphold the validity of the independent counsel provisions of the Ethics in Government Act."
In a third-floor corridor of the Federal District Court on Manhattan’s Foley Square, one afternoon last month, a tall, bespectacled man looking no more than his 36 years stood talking with friends, nervously drawing on a cigarette. Myron S. Goodman had, over the course of the 1970’s, been the mastermind behind the meteoric growth of the multimillion-dollar O.P.M. Leasing Services Inc. He had become a leading figure in the computer-leasing field and an extravagant philanthropist. Now, together with his partner and brother-in-law, Mordecai Weissman, Goodman was to appear before Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. for sentencing in one of the most massive corporate frauds in American history. Goodman and Weissman had pleaded guilty to defrauding banks and other lenders of more than $210 million before their company went bankrupt in 1981. Along the way, they had hoodwinked some of the nation’s largest and most prestigious companies, including Rockwell International, American Express, Chase Manhattan Bank and Lehman Brothers Kuhn Loeb.
Just before 4:30, Goodman stubbed out his cigarette and entered the cluttered, high-ceilinged courtroom, where he proceeded to promise the judge: ”The wrongs I have done are behind me.” But when the sentences were pronounced, they were tough: 12 years in prison for Goodman, 10 years for Weissman. The judge had not been moved by Goodman’s promise, which had a familiar ring for some in the courtroom.
Over his years as O.P.M.’s executive vice president, Goodman had made the same promise again and again, sometimes in tears, to the group of men who served as the company’s attorneys. And over the years, they had believed him – or, at least, they had acted as though they believed him – while they carried out his directions. As a result, their firm, Singer Hutner Levine & Seeman, has been accused by some lenders of complicity in the leasing company’s fraud.