MANHATTAN (CN) – Among treasured mementos from his decades on the bench, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman has a picture in his chambers of when the mayor of New York City swore him into his first judicial post.
Three years before President Bill Clinton would appoint Berman to the Southern District of New York, the black-and-white image from 1995 shows Mayor Rudy Giuliani behind a lectern bearing the city seal at a ceremony appointing Berman to Queens Family Court.
This was the “old Rudy,” as Berman put it in an interview 23 years later.
Before Giuliani moved into Gracie Mansion in 1994, the Brooklyn native spent eight years at a very senior level in the Justice Department followed by another five as an aggressive federal prosecutor in the Southern District.
“In retrospect, I may have been one of the first people to encounter professionally the ‘new Rudy,’” said Berman, referring to recent criminal proceedings where Giuliani represented Reza Zarrab against charges that he helped Iran launder billions of dollars through Turkish banks.
Hired by Zarrab after the gold trader’s arrest in 2016, Giuliani and ex-Attorney General Mike Mukasey worked behind the scenes, without stepping foot in court, on a quasi-diplomatic mission between Ankara and Washington to have Zarrab freed as part of a prisoner swap.
Berman took care, during an interview in his chambers, to show how Giuliani’s machinations in the case left him gobsmacked. In addition to speaking at length about the former mayor’s “unusual” conduct, Berman dwelled on Giuliani some more in a sheet of hand-written notes.
“I am still stunned by the fact that Rudy was hired to be – and he very actively pursued – being the ‘go between’ between President Trump and Turkey’s President Erdogan in an unprecedented effort to terminate this federal criminal case in the middle of the case,” Berman wrote in notes he prepared for the interview.
“Had Rudy succeeded, he and the two presidents I mentioned, would have helped very significantly the country of Iran – which was the beneficiary of the conspiracies to avoid USA sanctions against Iran, i.e. the very heart of the allegations in this case,” the notes continue. “My head still spins when I consider that.”
Though Giuliani was most publicly associated with his role as a surrogate for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, the former mayor had also joined the law firm Greenberg Traurig in January of that year. Giuliani resigned from the firm last month, shortly after taking a leave of absence to focus on special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian influence in Trump’s campaign. The White House referred comment on Giuliani to his outside counsel, Jay Sekulow. A spokesman for Sekulow at the American Center for Law and Justice did not return a press inquiry on his cellphone.
Berman recalled that the “old Rudy” staked his political reputation as an anti-Iran hawk who forged his anti-terrorism bona fides in the fires of the fallen Twin Towers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In every sense calm and measured, Berman let out a characteristically quiet exclamation about Giuliani’s transformation: “I mean, how ironic!”
Zarrab ultimately pleaded guilty to seven counts of sanctions violations, money laundering and bribery when Giuliani’s pressure in his case failed. The ensuing cooperation agreement Zarrab reached with prosecutors led to a trial here that would make Judge Berman a household name halfway across the world.
Because of what happened after Berman’s first trip to Turkey, however, the judge now rules out plans for a return visit. “There’s no way I would go,” Berman said.
When Berman first traveled to Istanbul for an international symposium in May 2014, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was already several months deep into a purge of police, prosecutors and judges — part of an effort to quash a corruption probe that Erdogan branded a “judicial coup.”
Berman has conflicted feelings now when he thinks back on the trip. “I was having sort of difficulty in reconciling what appeared to be going on or starting to go on politically with the fact they’re holding this huge and fabulous conference on the rule of law,” said Berman, who joined other esteemed judges, law professors and attorneys at the time in urging Turkey to protect its democratic institutions.
“One, me, didn’t have the sense that I would get arrested or anything like that,” Berman added.
Impressed by the hospitality of his Turkish hosts, Berman came back from his trip with a fine rug his wife had purchased from a shop in Istanbul and fond memories of his gracious reception.
“There seemed to be a great affinity to Americans, or to us,” the judge said.
Today though the Turkish government and its media organs has tarred participants in the conference by association. State media published a picture of the 5-star Four Seasons hotel room in Istanbul where Berman stayed. Other headlines labeled him a “FETO-Linked Judge.”
Short for Fethullahist Terrorist Organization, FETO is the word by which the Turkish government demonizes followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania. Erdogan’s government uses the acronym more broadly to discredit any judge, attorney, reporter or human rights worker perceived to be criticizing his regime.
Turkey’s judiciary faced a rapid deterioration following an apparent coup attempt on Erdogan in July 2016. Imposing a state of emergency, Erdogan used his newfound powers that summer to raid the Istanbul offices of Yuksel Karkin Kucuk, a Turkish firm associated with DLA Piper that co-sponsored the 2014 conference.
“That was to my knowledge, when we went over there, one of the most prominent law firms in Istanbul,” Berman said.
Zarrab’s prosecution in New York meanwhile put a spotlight on Erdogan’s standing in Washington. After Erdogan won a referendum last year that stripped away checks on his power, he received an expression of congratulations by Trump, who has real estate in Istanbul.
Evidence in the Zarrab case showed as well that Giuliani’s law firm Greenberg Traurig acted as a registered agent for the Turkish government.
Just last month, the Trump White House intruded in another of Berman’s cases through the pardon of Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative commentator who pleaded guilty to a campaign-finance violation.
“He was treated very unfairly by our government,” Trump tweeted of D’Souza in May.
But back in 2014, it was Berman who gave D’Souza an opportunity to prove selective prosecution. He said that offer came up empty.
“Not only was there not some, there was no evidence of unfairness,” Berman said. “It was not because he was treated unfairly. The pardon was for some other reason. If I had to guess, I would say politics because it’s become known that Senator Cruz intervened on Mr. D’Souza’s behalf.”
D’Souza’s spokesman did not return an email request for comment by press time.
Trump’s allies could not subterfuge the wheels of justice in the case against Zarrab, who still faces sentencing. Last month, Berman gave another member of the conspiracy, Turkish banker Hakan Atilla, a 32-month sentence for what he described as a minor role in the case.
Echoing his words from Atilla’s sentencing, Berman remarked on the 101 letters of support Atilla received from Turkey paint a vastly different picture of U.S.-Turkish relations than the Erdogan government would have it.
“It is very difficult to reconcile the collaborative, polite, informative, kind and generous letters of support for Mr. Atilla from Turkish citizens with the sometimes very harsh rhetoric from the highest Turkish officials,” Berman said.
As Erdogan heads for re-election on Sunday, the lead opposition candidate, Muharrem Ince, has led a surprisingly competitive campaign attacking what the candidate calls his rival’s “society of fear.” The much softer tone has drawn millions of Turks to Ince’s rallies.