NEW YORK — Years ago as a young prosecutor, Preet Bharara was driving in New York City’s Little Italy with a dogged investigator named Ken McCabe, who suddenly recognized some mobsters, rolled down his window and surprised them by addressing them by their Mafia nicknames.
In the U.S. attorney’s office in lower Manhattan, which Bharara now leads, there hangs a memorial plaque to McCabe, who died in 2006, honoring the federal investigator who was a key part of the government’s most significant Mafia prosecutions — and whose job as an in-house investigator is one of law enforcement’s most unsung roles.
“They have steel-trap minds,” Bharara said of the lawmen like McCabe who work not for police or the FBI but directly for prosecutors. “And they don’t get a lot of attention.”
But some of New York’s most prominent recent criminal cases — from public corruption indictments, wrongful conviction exonerations and even terrorism arrests — can be traced back to an elite crew of little-known sleuths who work directly for state district attorneys and federal prosecutors.
“They’re invaluable in proactive investigations,” said Robert Morgenthau, who, as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan in the 1960s, hired criminal investigators to the office for the first time. Then, as Manhattan’s longest-serving district attorney, he increased the number of district attorney investigators, called DIs, from about 20 to more than 80 over three decades.
There are just 18 such in-house federal criminal investigators in Bharara’s office, many of them former police detectives, ex-inspectors general or agents from other federal agencies with decades of institutional knowledge and honed investigative skills. There are 275 more DIs, many former detectives, working in the five-borough district attorney’s office and for the special narcotics prosecutor — far fewer than the roughly 3,000 investigating detectives at the New York Police Department.
Experts say they play a liaison function between sometimes competing law enforcement agencies, relying on years of relationships and knowledge.
“The job had such incredible potential,” said Joe Ponzi, who last year retired after 36 years in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office as chief investigator. In that time he secured an interview crucial in the prosecution of the so-called Mafia cops — two detectives convicted of moonlighting as hit men for the mob — and ran corruption investigations into two sitting state Supreme Court judges. “To me, it was more like a FBI agent than even a precinct detective.”
In recent years, federal and state prosecutors’ investigators have played key roles in some of New York’s most prominent law enforcement cases.
City DIs from the Bronx first noticed signatures from Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra on a filed petition for the state assembly in 2008 that resulted in a perjury charge against Nelson Castro — an indictment that wasn’t unsealed until years later after Castro wore a wire as part of a sprawling federal public corruption probe into his colleagues in Albany.
A federal criminal investigator from Bharara’s office questioned Libyan terrorism suspect Abu Anas al-Libi, now dead, who was charged in the 1998 deadly bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, during a seven-hour flight to New York from Tripoli in 2013. Another penned the complaint earlier this year detailing corruption charges against Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the state Assembly.
And three DIs in Brooklyn permanently assigned to a unit reviewing decades-old convictions for murder and other crimes recently drove Jonathan Fleming, a man who spent 25 years in prison for a 1989 murder he didn’t commit, from an upstate prison to court so his conviction could be vacated.
“More often than not, we come up with salient pieces that were overlooked in the original investigation because of time constraints,” said Terry Hays, a former DI in Manhattan who, with his now-deceased Syria-born partner Frank Ghussin, aided the FBI’s investigation after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “Most of our guys are schooled interviewers. They’ve all had 20-plus years on the job.”
DIs can trace their roots back to legendary DA Thomas E. Dewey’s racket busters of the 1930s and ’40s who gathered evidence that led to the conviction of Charles “Lucky” Luciano and others. Over the years, the position was considered a patronage post but has since morphed into the elite but largely unknown position outside law enforcement circles that it has become today.
“The role of the investigator is a relatively quiet role,” said Andy Rosenzweig, who served as Morgenthau’s chief investigator after a career in the NYPD. “They don’t exist. It’s a support role for the prosecutor and a very critical one.”