CAROL DeMARE Staff writer
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, September 17, 2000

When legendary Democratic Party patriarch Dan O'Connell tapped Sol Greenberg, a little-known Schenectady lawyer, to run for district attorney in 1974, the reaction was ``Sol who?'' Party faithful in Albany County fretted, convinced that without a big-name candidate they couldn't recapture the powerful seat lost years earlier to Republican Arnold Proskin. Greenberg, then 52, was a virtual unknown. But the bosses wanted a loyalist and, in Greenberg, a former Democratic committeeman, they got one.

``He's been a hard worker for the party for a good many years and we think he'll win it,'' predicted Jimmy Ryan, O'Connell's top operative and the party's executive secretary.

Ryan was right. Greenberg not only won, but he went on to become one of the longest tenured district attorneys in the state and a political institution in his own right.

Supporters say he became an aggressive law enforcement official who put away street criminals. But critics say he never rose above the role of a political crony, rarely tackling controversial public corruption cases and running an office that was outdated.

If Greenberg's legacy was born in the smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear, the circumstances of his retirement echoes that era. The timing of his announcement, days after the primary and before the end of his term, suggested a behind-closed-doors deal struck among key party leaders to smooth the way for Assistant District Attorney Paul A. Clyne, avoiding a messy political battle. Greenberg's retirement is effective Tuesday. Despite his identity crisis in 1974, Greenberg squeaked by incumbent Republican Ralph W. Smith Jr. by 487 votes. Smith was Proskin's chief assistant who had been in the job a year, appointed after Proskin became a county judge.

Smith went on to become a federal magistrate judge, and Greenberg went on to win six more terms as district attorney, sailing through all of them. The last time, 1997, he got Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independence Party endorsements.

Greenberg, 78, took office Jan. 1, 1975, the same day Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was sworn-in. Now 81 and still in office, Morgenthau, upon learning of Greenberg's decision, said: ``I think he's too young to retire, but I respect his decision. He has been a dedicated and outstanding public servant.''

Greenberg had a reputation as a hands-off administrator, setting broad policy but delegating courtroom work to assistants and rarely setting foot in a courtroom. ``I had a good cadre of assistants here,'' Greenberg said. ``I set the policy here. They weren't going to do anything to embarrass me or embarrass the office.''

He administered one of the area's biggest law firms -- overseeing 32 full-time assistants, double the 16 he started with. He always found time to attend dozens of events like political functions and police retirement parties every year.

He showed up at crime scenes and was always available to police and the media. He took long lunch hours, leaving the Albany County Courthouse to hit the more popular diners and coffee shops. Sometimes he ate lightly, and sometimes just visited. Everyone knew him. His congenial manner was infectious.

A striking figure with wavy silver hair, square jaw and his familiar pipe clenched between his teeth, he had a pocketful of anecdotes and shared them indiscriminately.

For years, the district attorney shouldered criticism -- he claims it was mostly generated by the media -- for not aggressively pursuing white collar crime and public corruption, and for going easy on police officers. His office worked with the police, so it would be a conflict to prosecute them, he said, something better left to special prosecutors.

Last week he defended assertions that he shied away from looking into allegations of corruption surrounding then-County Executive James Coyne and the construction of the downtown civic center, now called the Pepsi Arena.

``The FBI spent 2 years investigating him,'' which ultimately resulted in Coyne's conviction and jail term for bribery, corruption and other charges. ``Do you think we had the resources for 2 years?'' Greenberg asked.

He discounted claims he looked the other way in certain cases involving corruption on Capitol Hill, pointing to allegations against some state politicians that were later dismissed by the courts.

Greenberg said he is leaving to spend more time with his family, a decision made ``with great emotions,'' he told his staff in a memo.

``You have mixed feelings,'' he said. ``But as far as that goes, there comes a time when you have to make a decision. Both my wife and I enjoy relatively good health, and we want to spend more time with our children and grandchildren.''

A son, Harry, lives in Guilderland and he has two children; his daughter, Elizabeth, lives in Connecticut and has one child. Greenberg will have been married to Bea for 56 years in February.

He said he has no job offers. ``I haven't decided what I want to do, whether go into the private sector or public sector. But it would be a job with less pressure and stress and part time.'' He turns 79 on Nov. 6.

He maintains his decision to step down was made without pressure, but the timing caused an uproar among some Democrats. Within hours, allegations surfaced of a political deal to circumvent what certainly would have been a primary next September. Numerous lawyers, many from the DA's staff, have coveted the office for years. The job pays $131,400 annually.

Making his resignation effective 6 p.m. Tuesday provides for an election Nov. 7 for a full four-year term under the Public Officers Law. Had Greenberg resigned a day later, Sept. 20, the election would be in November 2001.

When he was tapped by party bosses to become district attorney, most of his experience was in estate and trust work, and he numbered banks and corporations among his clients. He had limited criminal experience, but his strengths as a candidate were a clean reputation and a lack of political baggage.

His first week in office, he got a baptism by fire -- gunfire.

On New Year's Eve a Cohoes man killed a mail carrier and wounded two police officers in a bizarre series of shootings. Greenberg rushed to Cohoes even though it was hours yet before he would be sworn-in.

The next day, as he was sworn in, a State Police lieutenant shot and killed a 16-year-old suspected car thief from Arbor Hill as the youth tried to flee. Greenberg later presented the case to a grand jury and the trooper was cleared.

Two days after he was sworn in, two 16-year-old robbers from North Albany fatally stabbed a retired state engineer in his Loudonville home and left the man's wife for dead. They were convicted of murder. His first year in office there were 28 homicides in Albany County, he remembered.

His long tenure has been filled with accolades including high-profile, precedent-setting cases. ``From day one through August 2000, we have disposed of 14,277 felony cases,'' Greenberg said.

His office successfully prosecuted the case of serial killer Lemuel Smith, one of the most infamous murderers in state history. His office tackled the prosecution of Ralph Tortorici, the hostage-taker at the University at Albany in 1993, and the prosecution of George Wesley, who was convicted in 1992 of raping and killing a 79-year-old woman, a landmark case. It was the first time in the nation that a judge approved DNA fingerprinting for use in trial.

He was instrumental in getting a rape crisis unit started in Albany County, the second in the country, fulfilling a campaign promise, and he formed a sex offense unit in his office and beefed up prosecutions of repeat drunken drivers.

But critics say his office was quick to plea bargain with criminals and had a poor record of convictions on less high-profile cases, according to a 1997 investigation by the Times Union. He was reluctant to ask the county government for money to bring the district attorney's office into the modern age and to bring his prosecutors' salaries into line with other offices around the state.

Greenberg never seemed attracted to technology and his own desk didn't have a computer, but was filled with books and papers that he said dated back 25 years.

Nor was he much attracted to material possessions. He lives in the same modest home on Lenox Avenue in Albany that he had when he first ran for office. Greenberg worked for various Capital Region law firms and had a practice on State Street in Schenectady when he first sought the Albany County prosecutor's job.

The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, he was born Nov. 6, 1921, in New York City but lived in Albany since childhood, growing up in the South End. His father was a hatter who ran shops on Beaver Street and other downtown locations. His mother was a couturier.

Greenberg attended local schools and the University at Albany. Although accepted at Harvard Law School, his plans were interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He spent three years with the Navy during World War II and 25 years with the Naval Reserve in Albany, retiring in 1970 as a full commander. After the war, he enrolled in Albany Law School.

``It's been a quick 25 years on a fantastic road,'' he said.