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Brooklyn Brawl Rages On

By Tom deignan

It sounds like a story right out of the days of Tammany Hall. A political brawl involving lads with names like O’Hara and Brennan and Keefe, and even a district attorney named Hynes.

But this is a battle still raging in Brooklyn. Yes, in 2005, dueling Irish American factions of the Brooklyn Democratic Party are still waging war with each other over accusations of fraud, intimidation, clubhouse politicking and more. 

The latest salvo in this war came in a series of scorching letters sent by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, as well as New York State Assemblyman James Brennan, to Harper’s magazine. The letters were spurred by a lengthy report in Harper’s which chronicled the strange political career of perennial reform candidate/gadfly John Kennedy O’Hara.

“In the early 1990s, when he was running for office and losing just about every year, John O’Hara was known as “Mad Dog” for his quixotic campaigns,” Christopher Ketcham wrote in the December issue of Harper’s, under the headline “Who’s the Boss?” 

The article was a look at local Brooklyn politics in all its ugliness, at least according to Ketcham. O’Hara, in the article, is depicted as eccentric, but also as the victim of a vicious political bullying campaign, and thus the ultimate martyr for political reform.

Ketcham continues, “(O’Hara’s) political enemies wanted the young lawyer ‘leashed, muzzled, and caged, if not shot,’ as one of them put it. Such was the notoriously vindictive — some would say corrupt — atmosphere of Democratic machine politics in Brooklyn. 

“In the old days, insurgents got their legs broken by plug-uglies, or lost ferociously at the polls by the hands of repeaters. Today, the world being less simple, you go before a winking judge to get thrown off the ballot on a technicality and end up bankrupted from the court costs. The plug-uglies have law degrees.” 

The article continues, “In O’Hara’s case, he was also charged with a felony for the impudence of his candidacies. He was heavily fined and, in lieu of prison, given five years probation and 1,500 hours of community service, which consisted of cleaning up garbage in parks.”

Ketcham then went on to accuse Assemblyman Brennan and a top staff member, John Keefe, of various ill behaviors related to the worst kind of clubhouse political cronyism. Brooklyn District Attorney Hynes — a former fire commissioner who announced his 2001 run for mayor to the blare of bagpipes — doesn’t come off much better. The article suggests he might have committed a felony through false voter registration.

Well, this month, Brennan, Keefe and Hynes are firing back.

The Harper’s article “is a catalogue of malicious falsehoods and omissions spun by John O’Hara, who was unanimously convicted by two separate juries of felony-level election fraud in the late 1990s,” Brennan and Keefe write in a letter to the editor.

“Your writer, taken by O’Hara’s barroom bravado, accepts O’Hara’s claims of victimization at face value rather than relying on the transcripts of the criminal and civil trials at which his persistent frauds were proven.” 

Meanwhile, Hynes writes, “Christopher Ketcham’s accusation that I committed a felony is the worst journalistic excess I have seen in my long public career. He shows a deliberate disregard of the facts surrounding my voter registration record and of the prosecution of John O’Hara, whose activities he links with me. It is sloppy reporting at its worst.” 

Ketcham, though, stands by his suggestion that clubhouse politics are alive and well in Brooklyn.

“The real reason,” Ketcham writes in a response, “for the persistent prosecution of O’Hara ... is not that he voted but that he fought, repeatedly, for political office in a system essentially fixed against challengers, a system that Assemblyman Brennan, in tandem with hundreds of peers in the New York State Legislature, perpetuates in a shameful affront to our democracy.” 

Of Hynes, Ketcham adds, “Hynes, like Assemblyman Brennan, does not appear to comprehend that it is the absurdity of the election law itself that is the problem, not John O’Hara.” 

Boy, where is Boss Tweed when you need him to settle a squabble like this! 

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tomdeignan@earthlink.net)


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