Bronx DA is no stranger to controversy

Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola works in a courthouse that, like many others throughout the country, is the scene of much human drama. In Judge Barry Salman's courtroom the other day, for instance, there were cases involving murder and robbery. But that was not why all the seats were filled and people were standing along the walls.

And that was not why outside in the hallway technicians from local television and radio stations were standing ready with a knot of microphones and camera equipment.

It was Mr. Merola who had brought them up to that part of the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium, with the latest of his controversial indictments, this one charging US Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan and nine businessmen with participation in a scheme to defraud the New York City Transit Authority.

Although this case, apparently the first to indict a sitting Cabinet member, brought unprecedented attention to the Bronx County Courthouse, Merola is far from being a stranger to press conferences, television lights, and controversy.

This summer Merola unveiled charges that workers at a Bronx day-care center were sexually abusing children. Later, a grandmother arrested in the case was exonerated by a grand jury.

Many critics said Merola's handling of the case, which received widespread publicity, had neared a breach of professional ethics.

He has also received criticism for speaking out on cases such as a murder investigation in which he named a prominent surgeon as a primary suspect before the grand jury had finished its proceedings. The doctor was never indicted.

And a federal appeals court criticized District Attorney Merola in 1976 for calling defendants in a loan-shark case members of the Mafia.

Despite such criticism, however, many local lawyers and legal observers credit Merola with honesty, political independence, diligence, and a commitment to the judicial process.

''He runs a clean office, which is no small achievement,'' says H. Richard Ulliver, a Columbia University law professor and former district attorney in Manhattan. ''A lot of people find him personally unpretentious, candid, and, in some cases, outspoken in an innocent and virtuous way.''

Having said that, Mr. Ulliver adds, it is also true that Merola is not a man of ''scholarly restraints.''

He and other lawyers contend that Merola desires press coverage and that this sometimes leads to a ''dubious relation'' with news people.

Merola puts aside such criticism. After the Donovan indictment, he said that reporters make publicity, according to the New York Times.

''You reporters are looking for stories every day,'' said Merola, who has been the Bronx district attorney for 12 years. ''You tell me we feed them stuff? Of course we do. Is that part of the system? Of course it is. Would I say I hate publicity. Of course I don't.''

During the court proceedings Tuesday, lawyers for Labor Secretary Donovan and the others complained of what they called Merola's political intent.

Merola denies that he has his eyes set on any office other than the $82,000 -a-year elected post as district attorney, which he holds.

Some New York observers concur, saying that his main goal appears to be to run a highly respected district attorney's office that is also somewhat in the limelight.

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