New York — United States Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani was at his desk, busily composing a letter to the editor on a yellow legal pad. A month earlier, he had told the national press that it was ``a bad day . . . for the Mafia.'' That morning, Mr. Giuliani -- along with the heads of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department -- announced the arrest of nine men reputed to head a ``commission'' overseeing five New York crime families. Now he was replying to a brief article in a New York daily that morning that had suggested that certain Italian-American leaders were angry with him for using the word Mafia so freely.
This controversy -- whether use of the word Mafia demeans Italian Americans -- is not new to him, Giuliani says. But then this frank-talking Republican in Democratic territory is not shy about controversy, and is decidedly press savvy. Both critics and supporters label him as bright, aggressive, hard working, and -- the word that can have positive and negative connotations -- ambitious. He just says he is doing a job he enjoys and does well.
At a time when many Americans are angry with a criminal justice system that they perceive to be inefficient and easy on criminals, Giuliani is an articulate critic within the system.
``The thing you have got to do with the justice system is make it become a reality for the criminal, for the potential criminal,'' says Giuliani, who gave up the No. 3 job at the US Justice Department for the prestigious but lower-paying post in New York. ``It has to get out on the street that if you get arrested, you are in a lot of trouble,'' he says. ``Not if you are arrested that there are a hundred ways out and not much of a sentence. . . . The criminal justice system is a joke to potential criminals.''
This is not unusual talk from a man who is charge of federal prosecutions in a territory that includes Manhattan, the Bronx, and six counties north of the city. But it could be the talk of a person with political ambitions, a suspicion whispered loudest by critics. There is speculation that he will run for office in the next couple of years. A bid for the governor's seat in 1986, which would likely be a contest with Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, is most often mentioned.
``This is a job that I have always wanted to do,'' says Giuliani, gesturing around his office. ``And I think I am good at running a public office. . . . I hope in the future that I will hold other public jobs, either appointed or elected. But I am not running for anything.''
Most people give Giuliani high marks. ``He's doing great,'' says Harold R. Tyler Jr., who has worked with Giuliani in both the public and private sectors. ``He is very active, highly motivated, and knowledgeable.'' Mr. Tyler is a former federal district judge and former Justice Department official during the Ford administration, and a man whom some consider to be Giuliani's mentor.
A spokesman for Mayor Edward I. Koch says the mayor is pleased with the help Giuliani's office has given in investigating municipal corruption and in prosecuting alleged drug dealers. One day a week, people arrested in the city's Operation Pressure Point, a drug-busting program in Harlem and the Lower East Side, are brought into the jurisdiction of the federal courts.
``Apparently there is considerable fear among junkies about being arrested on that day,'' he says, noting that the day changes every week. ``They know there is a greater likelihood of a prison sentence.''
Even his critics admit that Giuliani is a talented prosector, who, for example, has has made attacks on drug dealing and organized crime a high priority, but does not seem to neglect other more traditional federal court issues such as white-collar crime or corruption.
But these critics also say his use of the press is ``unseemly.'' Gerald Stern, administrator of the State of New York Commission on Judicial Conduct, wrote in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times that the prosecutor's press conferences are ``exciting, sometimes elaborate, and far more informative -- but unethical because they violate specific, mandatory ethical standards.''
Mr. Stern says Giuliani's indictments often amount to pretrial conviction by his statements about a defendant's character, details on the evidence, and the merits of the case. Giuliani says he acts within Justice Department and court rules.
He is often quick to answer critics. Take the issue of the word Mafia, a word that he maintains is valid. Instead of spending time denouncing those who use the word Mafia, Giuliani says, Italian-Americans should denounce the people who are involved in the Mafia.
``The best approach for all Italians and Italian-Americans is to say, `It does exist,' '' says Giuliani, who is receiving an award from the Italian government and the University of Salerno for his role in fighting the Mafia here and in Italy. ``It's a very small proportion of Italian-Americans. It says nothing about Italian-Americans at all. The only people who would try to create a connection between the two are extremely prejudiced, bigoted people.''
On the subject of the criminal justice system, Giuliani is almost eagerly outspoken. In most urban areas in the US, he says, local systems are in ``horrible condition.''
``In urban areas, most Americans feel that the criminal justice system is not reasonably protecting them,'' he says, noting the government cannot perfectly protect people.
Courts need to be modernized, he says. Computers need to be brought in and programs made to track cases through the system. He makes other, more controversial proposals.
``This will get me in a great deal of trouble with a lot of prosecutors, but . . . plea bargaining largely should be done away with,'' he says, referring to the system whereby a defendant can have a charge or sentence reduced by pleading guilty rather than going to trial. Many prosecutors and judges say it is necessary in a overworked court system like New York's.
One New York lawyer terms the proposal ``wholly irresponsible,'' noting that nearly all felonies in the city courts are plea bargained. It would mean an increase of ``49 times'' in trials, he says.
After a ``painful period of readjustment,'' says Giuliani, the courts ``would dispose of as many cases, but on terms that would be a lot better for society.''