A Perjurer's Tale

An excerpt from "The Choir Boy" chapter of
A Perjurer's Tale

Author's Note: In this excerpt, Nathaniel Rowley and Francis P. Donlan meet for the first time. Rowley was still a political editor and columnist for The Post Gazette when he received a tip from a lawyer, Theodore Jessup. Jessup tells Rowley of an assistant district attorney who accepts bribes in return for plea bargains that keep some of Jessup's clients from serving jail time. Jessup, who is a heavy drinker, refers to the assistant DA as The Choir Boy.

Given Jessup's heavy drinking, Rowley isn't sure whether he should follow through on the tip, but he finds himself unable to ignore the tip Jessup has given him. The Choir Boy, of course, is Donlan.

I was intrigued with what I had learned about Donlan, but I was wary of doing a story about him because I didn't know if years of drinking had affected Jessup's ability to distinguish between fact and fiction. Jessup, for example, told me that it was Donlan who demanded dough from him. Another time, however, he said that the money was his idea. Then again, I wasn't a reporter who let doubts about a source come between me and a good story. Let the Lymans [Rowley's competitors] and their reporters attend those seminars where they talk endlessly about the ethics of journalism. What Jessup had given me was solid enough to make me think Donlan was on the take. Wasn't it worth my while, then, to investigate these allegations? Also, who knows what else I might discover when I looked into an assistant DA who had yet to turn thirty but already showed a proclivity for soliciting (or accepting) cash bribes?

Francis P. Donlan, I soon learned, was the only child of a tavern owner and a school teacher. He had attended Xavier Academy, the high school favored by well-off Catholic parents who expected their sons to become doctors or lawyers, but unlike his classmates, Donlan did not go directly from Xavier Academy to Xavier University. Donlan went off instead to Yale. He made up for that lapse, however, by enrolling in Xavier University Law School the year after he graduated from Yale.

It was Donlan's mother who insisted on sending him to Yale. She was by all accounts a quiet woman, bookish and refined, the exact opposite of her husband, who was jovial and gregarious and far from bookish. Donlan's old man, whom I knew by name, thought of himself as a rip-roaring success because he was on a first-name basis with two former managers of the Red Sox and was mentioned now and then in a column written by a rum-soaked sportswriter who gave a plug to any bar owner who provided him with free drinks.

Donlan once told someone writing a profile of him that he never could figure out how two people as different as his mother and father had ended up marrying each other. His mother, Donlan said, disliked the business her husband was in and disliked even more how much her husband enjoyed running it. That might explain, wrote the Donlan profiler (and other journalists at various times) Donlan's infamous "split personality," or his talent for not only being able to hold contradictory positions on a given issue but to argue convincingly for either side.

Stories about Donlan also included mention of his many moods, the contrast, for instance, between Donlan, the brooder, and Donlan, the exuberant, flesh-pressing pol, and there was endless speculation on whether Donlan, lusting as he did for public approval and adulation, wasn't, in reality, a man torn between trying to please both his mother and father. Personally, I've never cared much for journalists who seem to think there's something terribly complex about people who run for or hold political office. What's so goddamned complex about someone who would kiss your ass if you cast a vote for him?

Nevertheless, Donlan developed at an early age a skill for donning whatever personality (or disguise) that best suited him, given the situation he found himself in just then. He was such a quick-change artist that his mother was supposedly shocked (and saddened) to learn that her son, the Yale graduate, had decided to run for public office. By contrast, Donlan's father was supposed to have boasted for years about how his son, Franny, would someday be elected governor, and maybe even more than that.

When I was calling around to check on Donlan, everyone I talked to mentioned, in one way or another, the following things about him. He was bright. He was charming. And he was extremely self-centered. No matter how much people praised Donlan—and they did praise him—they would invariably mention his all-consuming interest in himself. One of Donlan's law school classmates put it this way: "This is a guy who's very good at two things—one looking out for himself, and two, fucking anyone who gets in his way."

Several other people I talked to doubted whether Donlan's personable manner was genuine, but nobody who was at all familiar with him had any doubts whatsoever about his intention of running for public office. One lawyer who had extensive dealings with Donlan told me, "Everything he does, I mean, everything, from the way he parts his hair to deciding what side of the street he'll walk on is a calculated move. All he cares about is how something he does or doesn't do will affect his chances when he decides what he's going to run for."

Learning that an assistant DA had political ambitions was a bit like hearing that snow has been discovered at the North Pole. And that only made me worry again about the story Jessup had told me. If Donlan was a young pol on the make, why would he take the risk, so early in his career, of accepting penny ante bribes?

In the end, however, I put aside any doubts I had about doing a story on Donlan because I so despised the district attorney he worked for. The DA, a shameless self-promoter in a field overflowing with shameless self-promoters, waged war on pornography with the zeal of someone who had been deputized by God to watch over other people's morals. In his view, he was entitled to hold public office because he attended mass every morning and was the father of several daughters, all of whom he shamelessly exploited as props in his campaign appearances. The DA's antics made me feel that I had an obligation, on behalf of everyone who disliked that self-righteous, pompous prick as much as I did, to derail his little caboose. And what better way to accomplish that than to reveal the game Donlan was playing right under his nose?

But before confronting the DA—and giving him a chance to put some distance between himself and Donlan—I decided first to call on Donlan. I wanted to see how he would react when I told him that I knew all about his dealings with Jessup. I walked in on Donlan in the middle of his lunch hour, while he was eating a sandwich at his desk. I saw immediately that Jessup was right about one thing. Back then, before Donlan's hair thinned and his face was marked with creases and frowns, he could have been taken for a choir boy. I also noticed how easily he smiled and how relaxed and self-assured he seemed to be when he stood up to shake my hand and greet me. Almost as impressive as Donlan's appearance was his voice. It was deep enough, with the resonance that enabled Donlan to deliver a convincing speech when he was up to it. But his voice also had an edge to it, a nasality, that set him apart from your typical smooth-talking politician and allowed him, if necessary, to shift instantly from earnest citizen to class clown.

Donlan still wore glasses in public then, glasses with simple, clear plastic frames. With those glasses, and with his demeanor, Donlan could have been cast as the "good boy" in one of those old Hollywood films about two brothers, one of whom became a priest while the other—the fast-talking wise guy—turned to a life of crime. I could just imagine that final scene, when the hoodlum brother, running from the cops, ends up taking refuge in Father Donlan's church, and kindly, understanding Father Donlan—after calmly walking through the police lines—confronts his brother, coaxes from him a tearful confession, and then hands him over to the police.

The notion of Donlan as an actor became obvious to me the moment I told him about the story I was working on. Like any good actor, it was not so much what Donlan did as what he managed not to do. He didn't raise his voice and pound on his desk while denying that he ever took a bribe. He didn't say I had confused him with somebody else, nor did he accuse me of acting on behalf of a political enemy. He didn't even fall back on the old standby of any public official who's about to be exposed as a crook, which was to threaten a libel suit. He was so serene, sitting there, his hands folded in his lap as he listened to what I had to say, that I was the one who sounded as if I had something to prove.

When Donlan did speak up, he gave me the usual malarkey about how plea bargain arrangements saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars that would have been spent on court trials. He also claimed that in each case he handled—and here, he cited two Jessup clients—the punishment received under the plea bargain was almost exactly what the courts would have handed out had the case gone to trial.

Donlan's performance, superb in every way, had one drawback. He was too calm. His ability to rattle off statistics about money saved and punishment that was appropriate to the crime might have impressed Marjorie Prentiss and her friends at the Civic Betterment League, but the more Donlan talked, the more obvious it was to me that he was bluffing. Since I was doing a bit of bluffing myself, I raised the stakes by telling him that the information I had was backed up by three lawyers I had talked to.

With his chin raised slightly, a Mussolini-like gesture of defiance that would some day be captured so nicely by newspaper cartoonists, Donlan challenged me to name the lawyers. Then, with a grin on his face, he supplied the answer himself.

"Let's see," he said, "I'd say your lawyers were associated with the firm of Jessup, Jessup and Jessup. Good old Jessup, three sheets to the wind, but still doing his best to make people think he's the second coming of Clarence Darrow."

I did my best to look unruffled while Donlan, still with a grin on his face, rose from his desk and walked towards the window in his office. With one shoulder resting against the window frame, and his body turned slightly so that he was half-looking out at the street below and half-facing me, Donlan didn't give the appearance of an assistant DA who had just been accused of accepting bribes.

"The last time Jessup was in this office he was so shit-faced that I asked him to leave," Donlan said. "Then to make sure he didn't hurt himself, I went down the elevator with him and helped put him into a cab."

Donlan then turned so that he faced me more directly.

"You should understand that I was the one who repeatedly warned Jessup to stop stuffing $50 bills into legal papers. The last thing we need around here are stories about assistant DA's who take payoffs. Jessup, I might add, was always disappointed when I gave him back his money."

I couldn't help but be impressed by Donlan's performance, but I tried once more to shake him.

"I have a story written," I said, "and I think it holds up, your denials notwithstanding."

"So run your fucking story," he said. "If you want to print lies, that's your business. As for me, I have to get back to court. Those of us who represent the People are expected to be punctual."

In all the years I had been covering politics, nobody, until then, had so effectively told me to go fuck myself. Either Donlan was a young man who didn't understand what damage this story could do to his career—which was something I doubted very much—or he could afford to be so ballsy because there was no truth to what Jessup had told me.

As I left Donlan's office, I vowed never again to pay attention to any story I picked up from a lawyer who was in the process of drinking himself to death. I also decided that I might be taking too much of a risk if I went ahead with the story that said Donlan accepted bribes from Jessup. But my encounter with Donlan left me looking for some way to bloody that little bastard's nose. That's why I decided I would visit the DA and let him in on the allegations Jessup had made about Donlan. Not that the DA was particularly virtuous. For all I know, the DA himself might even be getting a share of any supplemental fees Donlan collected, but once I told him what I knew about Donlan he would probably have to suspend him until it was determined whether the allegations I made had any merit. And that, in my view, would teach that twerp, Donlan, not to treat me like some cub reporter.