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Ferraro and the Family Trials : Atmosphere of Mistrust Spills Over on Candidates' Private Lives, She Complains

September 21, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Two flights up from the street in Little Italy, in the decidedly unplush offices of P. Zaccaro Real Estate, Geraldine Ferraro relaxed into a chair, carefully ignoring the mountain of papers on the desk behind her.

"My desk is so loaded, I hate looking at it," she said in the same fast, Queens-accented voice that for four months in 1984 rose to national recognition when then-Rep. Ferraro became the first woman to run for vice president for a major party. "That's why I'm sitting with my back to it."

Book, Speeches, Trials

Ferraro's second book is in the word processor. There are speeches almost every week, all over the country. Former Assistant Dist. Atty. Ferraro would like to go back to practicing law, specializing in trade, but first there is the upcoming trial in New York, now scheduled for next Monday, of husband John Zaccaro on charges of bribe-seeking and attempted extortion. Before the end of the year, Ferraro hopes their son John, 24, will face his own much-postponed trial in Vermont for possession and attempted sale of cocaine.

"All I have ever asked is that they be dealt with fairly," Ferraro said of the family's legal morass.

But in tones not entirely unreminiscent of former Democratic presidential aspirant Gary Hart, Ferraro expresses concern that her own public profile has compromised her family's privacy. While carefully sidestepping any discussion of the substance of the cases pending against her husband and son, she laments that spouses and children of public figures become targets of what she contends is excessive scrutiny.

"In an atmosphere like today's atmosphere, where corruption is on everyone's lips," Ferraro said, "there is a tremendous distrust of public figures." That suspicion and lack of trust, Ferraro argues, spill over onto the families of those figures, so much so that she jokes to her husband that "When you die, John, I'm going to put on your tombstone, not just 'John Zaccaro,' but 'John Zaccaro, husband of Geraldine Ferraro-ran-for-Vice-President-1984.'

"That's the man's name," she said, and quips with a slight bite of bitterness that much the same name could apply to her son.

"That's wrong," Ferraro said. "They do have lives of their own."

In the case of Ferraro's husband, allegations of wrongdoings by Zaccaro in real estate transactions ate away at her image and became a factor in her campaign. Almost as soon as she was nominated for the vice presidency, the financing of Ferraro's early congressional campaigns became an issue. Talk of possible Mafia connections sent reporters scouring through the family closets for Cosa Nostra-approved skeletons. The resulting cloud hovered hard over Ferraro's own integrity.

While daughter Donna was steaming through Harvard Business School and daughter Laura studied drama at Brown, John Zaccaro was earning the nickname of "The Pharmacist" at Middlebury College in Vermont. Soon after the 1984 vice presidential defeat, when Ferraro made her controversial television commercial for Pepsi, a spoof of the college paper's ran a parody featuring a picture of John Zaccaro. "My mom may drink Pepsi," read the caption that ran two months before young Zaccaro was busted, "but I like Coke."

"I was talking to John's lawyer the other day," Ferraro said, "and he said to me, 'Remember, this is the biggest case the D.A. up there has ever had and will ever have.' "

Ferraro said she was appalled, pointing out that the lawyer's statement implied the local authorities "had never handled a rape or a homicide."

Ferraro's voice grew tight. "What my son is accused of is selling one-quarter of a grain of cocaine to an undercover agent. How can you compare that to a rape or a homicide?"

In her own career in the district attorney's office, Ferraro said she was "extraordinarily sensitive" to the ramifications indictments and even allegations of crimes could have on personal lives. Ferraro ran the D.A.'s special victims bureau, where her clients were "elderly victims, victims of sex crimes, that kind of thing."

Her sudden laugh sounded hollow. "(New York Dist. Atty. John J.) Santucci, the guy who indicted my husband, was my boss," she said.

Indictment is Damaging

Recalling the case of an attorney accused, and later acquitted, of rape, Ferraro said, "You can ruin a person's reputation with just an indictment."

Then the famous Ferraro barbed-wire tongue came out. "You can indict anyone. You can indict a bologna sandwich, I'm telling you."

Still untitled, and as yet unsold to a publisher, Ferraro's new book will address precisely those issues.

"It's about the press," she said. "The press and the First Amendment."

In it, she will drawn on "a lot of personal stuff" as she discusses "the role of the press and how they deal with political figures." Specifically, Ferraro said she will focus on "First Amendment vs. Sixth Amendment rights," that is, the possible conflict between rights of free expression and the right to privacy.

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