Steinbrenner breaks down on stand

April 24, 1991|By MURRAY CHASS | MURRAY CHASS,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — The lawyer for Howard Spira, the Bronx man accused of trying to extort money from George Steinbrenner, relentlessly questioned Steinbrenner about his 1974 federal conviction yesterday, trying to draw a parallel between his actions in that case and in the Spira episode.

Earlier in the trial's 10th day and Steinbrenner's first on the witness stand in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, the ousted managing partner of the New York Yankees was on the verge of crying, his voice quivering and tears appearing to well in his eyes, as he read names of members of his family from two telephone lists FBI agents seized from Spira's apartment in March 1990.

"Are you OK, sir?" Gregory Kehoe, the prosecutor, asked Steinbrenner.

"Yeah," he replied as he appeared to hold back tears. Steinbrenner, who a moment earlier had sniffled a couple of times, then took out a handkerchief and blew his nose.

Asked outside court what he thought of Steinbrenner's emotional display, David Greenfield, Spira's lawyer, said, "It's a crying shame."

In the courtroom, Greenfield pressed his view of the relationship of the case to Steinbrenner's conviction for making an illegal contribution to the 1972 re-election campaign of President Richard Nixon and then trying to induce two employees to lie to the FBI and the grand jury.

Steinbrenner received a presidential pardon from Ronald Reagan in January 1989, but Greenfield, having gained permission the previous day from Judge Louis L. Stanton to use the conviction in his cross-examination, peppered Steinbrenner with a series of questions about what he actually had admitted in pleading guilty to two counts in 1974.

Steinbrenner answered most of the questions by saying: "I did what the pleading says I did. I've lived with it for 19 years. I'm not proud of it."

But Greenfield pressed, asking in various forms, "Did you tell your employees to lie to the grand jury?"

Replying to the question at one point, Steinbrenner said: "I sat with them and recited to them what I thought happened. They took that to mean that's what I wanted them to say. In my subconscious, perhaps that's what I wanted them to do."

Greenfield asked minutes later whether Steinbrenner had "concocted and orchestrated a story to protect his business interests?"

"I pleaded to what that says," Steinbrenner replied.

Greenfield has contended that Steinbrenner, in effect, orchestrated the case against Spira, using Philip McNiff, his chief trouble-shooter, as the engineer.

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