The odds were always stacked against Vaughn L. McKoy. He grew up in gang-ridden Paterson. His family was plagued by drugs and tragedy. He attended the beleaguered high school that was the basis for the film Lean on Me. So how did he rise to the position of director of the state Division of Criminal Justice by the age of 34?
“He’s got ‘it,’ whatever ‘it’ is,” explains Henry Klingeman, who worked with McKoy at the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of New Jersey, and is now in private practice in Florham Park. “There are certainly people born with silver spoons in their mouths who had a lot of resources from birth that he was denied. He’s overcome obstacles, the poverty and illness and loss, and achieved great things despite all that.”
His mother, Nettie McKoy, worked as a nursing aide. His father, Willie Leverett, who was employed at a manufacturing plant, died when McKoy was 12. McKoy had six older brothers and sisters. Three died — one in childhood before McKoy was born; Glenn, of AIDS; and Joseph, who was found dead in the street.
“I knew Joseph had a history of drugs,” McKoy says. “I was told that when he was found, a needle was nearby.”
McKoy found a safe haven in the world of sports, which his siblings and neighbors encouraged him to pursue.
“I played sports partly because people in the neighborhood kept pushing me to do it, but also because I really enjoyed it,” he says.
Because of where his birthday fell on the calendar, McKoy was the smallest boy on his baseball team.
“When you’re the youngest guy, you learn to sit back and watch and learn, watch what missteps everyone else is making,” he says. “By watching, I learned the discipline that I needed. It’s actually one of the benefits of being a notch below.”
Even nearly 30 years later, McKoy can’t help but beam as he recalls his first game.
“I was playing second base, and we were playing the Riverside Vets,” he says. “We lost 6-2, but my double was the one that drove in the two runs for our team.”
His talent, drive and knack for team play propelled him to athletic stardom. He played baseball and was the captain of the football and basketball teams at Paterson Eastside High School. His gregarious nature was recognized when he was voted “Personality Plus” in the yearbook.
Team sports also helped him learn to create consensus.
“Everyone needs a common goal, a purpose to exist,” he says. “If you’re going to get along, you’ve got to have a common goal.”
In 1986, he graduated from high school and went to Rutgers University on a football scholarship, where he was one of only two freshmen to get game time for the Scarlet Knights (he was a defensive back and punt returner). The school was academically challenging, the campus culturally diverse, and football took him all over the country. Suddenly McKoy saw possibilities he’d never dreamed possible.
“When I went to Rutgers, I had no idea what the real world was like,” he says. “It opened my eyes past the streets of Paterson.”
While he always dreamed of playing in the NFL, McKoy planned pragmatically for graduation and resurrected a half-formed childhood idea. “In fourth grade, a teacher said that I’d make a good lawyer because I was argumentative and like to talk a lot,” McKoy says. “For some reason it stuck.”
But McKoy had no idea how to pursue it. That’s when Arthur M. Goldberg stepped in.
Goldberg, who passed away in 2000, was a wealthy and influential casino magnate, the driving force behind Bally’s Entertainment. He hobnobbed with U.S. senators and the elite of the American business world. And he was a fan of Scarlet Knights football — and of McKoy’s performance as a player.
Goldberg’s personal trainer happened to be the trainer for the football team, and he introduced the two in the weight room at the university. They forged a close bond immediately.
“He said, ‘There is a toughness about you when I watch you on the field,’” McKoy says. “He told me he sensed something in me, that it was in there but I needed someone to pull it out of me.”
McKoy looked to Goldberg for career and personal advice. They chatted every week, at Goldberg’s insistence.
“I’d go in to see him at his office, after practice sometimes, wearing shorts, surrounded by guys in suits, some of the most powerful men in the state,” McKoy says. “But he always had time for me. He said of all the big investments he’d made, I was one of the best.”
Goldberg introduced McKoy to politicians, judges and the state’s most important lawyers, and invited McKoy to family functions. Even after McKoy graduated from college, they regularly attended Scarlet Knights football games together, walking together behind the bench and giving the players encouragement. When McKoy was considering asking his future wife, Marnie, to marry him, he asked Goldberg for advice.
“I wouldn’t call it a father-son relationship, but it was as close as you can get without it being a father-son relationship,” says lawyer Elnardo J. Webster II, who played football with McKoy and is still a close friend.
With Goldberg’s support, McKoy prepared for law school and got into Rutgers School of Law, where Goldberg sometimes bought McKoy’s law school books. McKoy worked part-time during school in the general and commercial litigation groups at the Newark firm of Sills, Cummis, Epstein & Gross, and then joined it full time when he graduated.
“He understands consensus and how to build it, which is something you don’t learn — it’s intuitive,” says partner Clive Cummis. “And his people skills translated from his athletic skills to his professional skills. That’s a sign of maturation.”
After five years with Sills Cummis, McKoy joined the U.S. Attorney’s office to get more hands-on experience in litigation. He spent four years on white-collar crimes and arson, narcotics and civil rights cases.
In one extortion trial, McKoy’s technique in the courtroom so impressed his opponents that they courted him for their own firm.
“He did one of the best closing arguments I ever saw,” says Cathy Fleming, then with Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen. “He used his five fingers to count off the elements of what the defendants were accused of, and then closed it to make a fist, making the point that they’d tried to take this property by force. He had integrity, a team mentality and good style. He had the whole package. Obviously, I was impressed because I took him to Wolf Block with me.”
McKoy went to Wolf Block a few months later, after he’d already decided to move on from the U.S. Attorney’s office. But his stay wouldn’t be long. After less than a year, he was asked to be second-in-command at the state Division of Criminal Justice starting in February 2002, under director and First Assistant Attorney General Peter C. Harvey. “An opportunity to be the state’s biggest prosecutor was something I just couldn’t pass up, even if it was a cut in salary,” McKoy says.
And when Harvey was promoted to New Jersey attorney general in 2003, McKoy took his place, heading a staff of more than 1,000.
“I was impressed with his thinking, his calm, his congeniality,” says Harvey, now with Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler of New York. “Also, I knew he’d tried many cases in federal court, and I was looking for trial lawyers to energize the division.”
It was a division that sorely needed energizing.
“One of the first things that he did was schedule a retreat of the executive staff, and in my 23 years here under many directors, this was the first time I’d had that type of experience,” says Greta Gooden Brown, an insurance fraud prosecutor at the division. “A lot of us approached it with skepticism, but by the end of the day, we were all asking when he’d schedule the next one. We’d accomplished so much.”
McKoy and Harvey went further, streamlining the Byzantine bureaucracy and updating obsolete technology. New Jersey had been heading toward an insurance crisis, with companies rapidly pulling out of the state because of the amount of insurance fraud. They aggressively prosecuted such cases, and the state’s antifraud prosecution went from being derided to being lauded by insurance companies.
“Geico came back to the state because of us,” McKoy says. “State Farm didn’t leave.”
Meanwhile, the division went after gangs, prosecuting more than 150 gang members within three years. And McKoy personally stepped in and fashioned a plea agreement between several New Jersey and Pennsylvania jurisdictions in the case of Charles Cullen, the nurse who murdered as many as 40 patients with fatal injections. Overall, the number of convictions the division won went from 506 in 2001 to 844 in 2004.
There were criticisms, however. Among them was that while the feds were going after several political-corruption cases in the state, state prosecutors weren’t as successful. McKoy points out that his division prosecuted many corruption cases, but that the state’s resources didn’t lend themselves to the kind of high-profile cases the feds pursued. “We did a great job with what we had,” he says.
When Goldberg died, McKoy was one of two people to eulogize him. He remains close to the Goldberg family and does his best to live up to his mentor’s example of giving back to the community.
“He speaks at different events to young people, often talking about Paterson and where he came from,” says Bishop George C. Searight of the Abundant Life Family Worship Church. The two have been friends since Rutgers, and McKoy led a team that arranged for the church to buy its land in downtown New Brunswick.
This year, after a new administration was ushered into office in Trenton, McKoy left the division to take a position as associate general counsel to PSEG Services Corporation. It’s an exciting job — but not likely to be his final destination.
“I would like to be a CEO or general counsel for a Fortune 500 company,” he says. He realizes that the higher he ascends in the business world, the more opportunities he will be able to give to those who need a break. It’s what Goldberg would expect from him.
“I once asked Arthur why he was doing all this for me,” McKoy says. “He told me, ‘Because somewhere down the line, you’re going to do this for someone else. That’s what real leadership is.’ I always remember that.”