Robert Morgenthau, the prosecutor renowned as one of the nation's top law enforcement officials over a nearly half-century career, announced Friday he would retire when his term ends in December.
Morgenthau, 89, the model for TV series Law and Order prosecutor Adam Schiff, said he recently calculated he had served 25 years past the ordinary retirement age, and "decided I wouldn't push my luck any further."
"I have been the conductor of an extraordinary orchestra," he said, praising a staff of more than 500 attorneys and other personnel that comprise one of the nation's largest prosecutor offices. "I owe each one of them a great debt of gratitude for all the terrific work they've done."
He said he would spend the rest of the year working on pending investigations, including what he cryptically alluded to as a case related to suspected weapons of mass destruction.
Age did not figure in the decision, said Morgenthau, a World War II Navy veteran who in recent years has walked with a shuffling gait and suffered hearing loss. His wife, writer Lucinda Franks Morgenthau, sat at his side during his announcement, repeating reporters' questions he'd missed.
News of his impending retirement prompted near universal tributes for Morgenthau's handling of thousands of major cases — many involving complex financial fraud — and heated an already simmering succession battle for his coveted post.
"He is the great law enforcement figure in our country over the last 50 years. There is no question," said Michael Cherkasky, CEO of security services firm USIS and a former top Morgenthau investigator and administrator. "To have someone other than Bob Morgenthau being the dean of prosecutors in our country is obviously going to be a huge change, the end of an era."
President Kennedy tapped him as Manhattan's top federal prosecutor in 1961 after Morgenthau worked on his winning White House bid one year earlier. After being fired by President Nixon, Morgenthau first won election as Manhattan's district attorney in 1974.
Actively expanding the traditional role of local prosecutors, he used Manhattan's stature as the nation's financial capital as the venue to investigate suspected crimes in some of the millions of global business transactions that pass through the borough.
What began in 2002 as an investigation into suspected art fraud culminated in the 2005 conviction of Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski and CFO Mark Swartz on charges they looted approximately $600 million from the then-New Hampshire run conglomerate.
In 1997, Morgenthau's office obtained an indictment that charged brokerage A.R. Baron & Co. of defrauding investors of more than $75 million. The prosecution produced 12 guilty pleas and one conviction after trial.
Morgenthau also targeted the Mafia, winning a 1990 indictment against seven alleged Gambino crime family members on charges they exacted a mob "tax" on most fashion industry garments produced in Manhattan. The case led $12 million in fines and appointment of a special court agent to monitor restructuring of the industry's trucking business.
Admirers cite his investigation of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International during the late 1980s and early 90s as most emblematic of Morgenthau's willingness to take on difficult prosecutions not always pursued in other legal jurisdictions.
The case involved evidence that hundreds of millions of dollars had been looted from depositors of the international bank. Ultimately, the bank was forced to close and a member of Saudi Arabia's main banking family and an associate agreed to pay a $225 million settlement, part of $880 million in total fines and forfeitures in the case.
"No one else was going to take on this type of banking system, because it's complicated, and difficult and goes to the heart of influence and power," said Cherkasky. "It was a wake-up call about how interlocking banking systems were and how a bad bank can cause incredible misery."
Morgenthau similarly has taken pride in his office's reputation for investigating and winning convictions of suspects in violent street crimes. "Every case is important to the victim," he said Friday, repeating a favorite maxim.
It was one of those violent crimes, the near-fatal 1989 attack on a female jogger in Central Park, that led to a relatively rare, but decided embarrassment. In 2002, he asked a state judge to throw out the convictions of several young men found guilty in the case, acknowledging that DNA evidence and a confession showed another suspect had been the lone attacker.
Morgenthau's impending departure opens the way for the already active campaign bid by Leslie Crocker Snyder, the former New York state judge who lost a bid to unseat him in the 2005 Democratic primary.
Other potential candidates include Cyrus Vance Jr., a former Morgenthau assistant whose father served as secretary of state during the Carter administration, and Daniel Castleman, Morgenthau's veteran investigations division chief.
Morgenthau declined to discuss whether, as widely expected, he would endorse and campaign for a favored successor.
"I'm not going to get into the political stuff," he said. "That's for another day."