Michael Grimm was not among the four Republicans asked to respond to the State of the Union address last night, but he might as well have been. Not one to cede the spotlight casually, the representative from Staten Island eclipsed the dull speeches of his colleagues with a vintage, action-packed Michael Grimm performance.
Footage of a United States congressman physically threatening a reporter may not have been the Republican Party’s preferred story of the evening, but it was the one that Grimm delivered:
Shortly afterward, NY1 released a transcript of the incident. After obtaining Grimm’s brief response to the President’s address, the political reporter Michael Scotto began to ask a question on another topic—a federal investigation into the congressman’s campaign fund-raising. Grimm walked away as the question was asked. After Scotto signed off, Grimm, a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a former F.B.I. agent who worked undercover, came back into the frame with his chest puffed, backing Scotto out of the picture:
GRIMM: Let me be clear to you, you ever do that to me again I'll throw you off this fucking balcony.
SCOTTO: Why? I just wanted to ask you…
GRIMM: If you ever do that to me again…
SCOTTO: Why? Why? It’s a valid question.
GRIMM: No, no, you’re not man enough, you’re not man enough. I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.
In Grimm’s world, there are
The exchange with Scotto had a familiar ring to it. In 2011, I travelled to Grimm’s Washington office to interview him about his work as an undercover F.B.I. agent with a paid informant and con man named Josef von Habsburg. I also asked Grimm about a 1999 night-club incident in which Grimm, who was an agent at the time, was accused by an off-duty N.Y.P.D. officer of threatening a fellow-patron (“I’ll fuckin’ make him disappear where nobody will find him,” Grimm is alleged to have said), waving a gun at the officer (“I’m gonna fuckin’ kill him”), and using racially charged language in the fracas’s aftermath (“All the white people get out of here”).
Grimm denied all of these allegations—and did so again, later, through a spokesperson. He also called me a “liar” working on a “chop job.” “You don’t rate to come and question me on it, quite frankly,” he said, before dismissing me from his office. After The New Yorker published the story, in May of 2011, Bill de Blasio, the public advocate at the time, called for the N.Y.P.D. to release any files pertaining to the night-club incident—files for which I had also filed public-records requests. Those requests remain unfulfilled. Grimm, for his part, called the story “fiction,” “a witch hunt,” and “a hatchet job” perpetrated by the Democratic Party. For a moment, his past seemed to fade into the shadows as his congressional star began to rise.
Boys will be boys, though. In 2011, a reporter at the Daily News uncovered Grimm’s ties to a convicted felon in Texas named Carlos Luquis. A fellow former F.B.I. agent, Luquis had served as a director of an energy firm that Grimm co-owned. Prior to that, he’d served two years of a twelve-year federal sentence for fraud.
In 2012, another “boy”—in this case, a female reporter, Alison Leigh Cowan—reported extensively on allegations that an aide to a New York City rabbi had helped Grimm collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable campaign contributions, much of it in envelopes full of cash. Cowan later reported that yet another one of Grimm’s business associates, a partner in a failed Upper East Side health-food restaurant, had been accused of having ties to the Gambino crime family. Both the House Ethics Committee and the Justice Department are reported to have opened investigations into Grimm.
Grimm again denied any wrongdoing, and coasted to reëlection in 2012. Since then, his only brushes with impropriety involved reports that he had sex with a woman in a Brooklyn bar bathroom and a strange incident in which Grimm claimed that vandals smashed the windows of his Staten Island office in order to wipe the hard drives on his campaign computers. After Grimm announced that the attacks were a “politically motivated crime” and an “assault on democracy,” police could find no evidence that the computers were tampered with at all. An eighth-grader later confessed to the vandalism.
Then, two weeks ago, federal authorities arrested still another of Grimm’s associates, a Texas woman who allegedly funnelled more than ten thousand dollars in illegal funds into his campaign. (Grimm denies any wrongdoing.) The arrest raises questions about what Grimm knew of her actions and whether federal investigators may be actively pursuing the congressman himself for fund-raising improprieties during the 2010 campaign. They are sensible questions for a local New York reporter to ask Grimm. And Grimm’s constituents might expect him to be man enough to answer.
Evan Ratliff is the C.E.O. of The Atavist.
Read the rest of our State of the Union coverage: John Cassidy on the power of Obama’s speech, Jeff Shesol on executive orders, Amy Davidson on Cory Remsburg and the meaning of war, and a live chat about the speech with DavidsMichael Grimm: former FBI agent and marine with history of fiery behaviour
When he worked undercover in the late 1990s, posing as a New York hedge-fund manager in order to infiltrate a crooked stock trading company, he passed himself off as Michael Garibaldi. But everyone knew him by his nickname “Mikey Suits” – a nod to his sharp dress sense and dapper looks.
For nine years Michael Grimm – to give his proper name – worked as a special agent for the FBI where he was described by a colleague as a “good undercover with a big ego”. He may not have quite been the “first and only FBI agent to successfully infiltrate Wall Street”, as he once claimed expansively to Fox News, but this chisel-jawed and piercingly blue-eyed former marine did take on the Gambinos, inveigling himself into the circle of the notorious mobster family of John and Peter Gotti.
More than a decade later, Grimm now finds himself in an environment that might be expected to be more sedate than his old stomping ground – the US House of Representatives, where he is a congressman for Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn. Yet elements of his colourful past appear to have travelled with him to Washington – notably his facility with fruity language.
On Tuesday night, Grimm achieved an accolade enjoyed by very few politicians of either party: he managed to upstage the president. Shortly after Barack Obama finished his State of the Union address, Grimm engaged in what might politely be called a contretemps with a reporter for local TV station NY1.
When the reporter, Michael Scotto, had the audacity to ask him about a financial scandal swirling around the congressman's head, Grimm at first walked off camera, then returned, and with the tape still running, proceeded to threaten him. “Let me be clear to you: you ever do that to me again I'll throw you off this fucking balcony,” he said, according to NY1's transcript of the conversation.
Scotto protested that his question was legitimate, to which Grimm replied: “No, no, you're not man enough, you're not man enough. I'll break you in half. Like a boy.”
In the inevitable firestorm that followed, Grimm at first acted as though he could not understand what all the fuss was about. “I doubt that I am the first member of Congress to tell off a reporter, and I am sure I won’t be the last," he said in a statement.
It took a further 14 hours for the apology to come. He called up Scotto and said that he had “overreacted”, offering to take him out for lunch. Addressing reporters he said: "I'm sure my Italian mother is gonna be yelling at me saying, 'You weren't raised that way,' and she's right.”
Grimm's robust treatment of a reporter might be considered a one-off quirk for a politician who was educated at a Roman Catholic school, who sang as an altar boy in Rome for Pope John Paul II, and who had a lauded service as a US marine on the front lines of the first Iraq war in Desert Storm. But robust behaviour, it seems, has also accompanied him down the I-95 from New York to Capitol Hill.
On Wednesday, the journalist Evan Ratliff recalled interviewing the Republican representative in 2011 in his Washington office for a New Yorker piece he was writing about the FBI. During the interview, Grimm called Ratliff a liar and accused him of being on a “chop job”.
The New Yorker piece that eventually emerged recounted an alleged incident in which Grimm, back in his undercover days, had got into a brawl at a Queens nightclub with the former husband of his date. In the course of the 1999 fracas, Grimm was reported to have said: “I'll fuckin' make him disappear where nobody will find him,” before waving his FBI gun around the club.
According to the article, Grimm later came back to the nightclub with FBI and NYPD reinforcements, forced all the white customers to quit the premises, lined everybody else up against the wall and declared: “The FBI is in control.”
Grimm denied the New Yorker's account. When asked by Ratliff whether he had threatened to kill anybody, he is reported to have replied: “That's not my personality. I don't need to speak that way. A guy with a gun who knows how to use it doesn't need to say anything.”
It is fair to say that Grimm is fond of guns. One of his first acts as a freshman congressman in 2011 was to propose to the Republican leadership that they legislate to allow representatives to carry concealed weapons on the floor of the House. Asked by his local Brooklyn paper to expand on the idea, Grimm waxed lyrical: “If somebody pulls out a knife to attack you and you draw a gun, they’re likely going to drop it,” he said. “But you have to be prepared to kill; it’s not for everyone.”
While Grimm's apparent anger-management issues are unlikely to cause him enduring political problems, the same cannot be said about the subject of the initial NY1 question that triggered the storm – the scandal engulfing some of Grimm's close associates. The Department of Justice – paradoxically deploying the forces of Grimm's old employer, the FBI – as well as the House ethics committee are reported to have launched investigations into allegations of campaign finance irregularities.
Earlier this month, the FBI arrested a Texas-based fundraiser for Grimm, Diana Durand, on suspicion that she broke campaign finance rules by raising more than $10,000 on his behalf for his first election bid in 2010. Questions have also been asked about oversized donations from a millionaire New York rabbi.
The scandal guarantees that Mikey Suits will continue to be accosted by reporters armed with awkward questions. How he deals with them in future will show whether he has heeded his mother's advice.
on, Steve Coll, Rebecca Mead, and Evan Osnos.