This story is true in infinite detail. The names have been changed to protect me. The "Boss" died in prison, cancer-ridden. He was referred to as "The Teflon Don." He was the head of one of the original five organized crime families and was gifted with so strong a magnetic personality as to be, simultaneously, illustrious and notorious. For me, it was a brief but indelible ride. Come along with me.
I got a call from "Sal", a New York lawyer with whom I had worked on several cases and a solid, trusting friendship had come to exist.
"The Boss wants to see you."
He was the boss of all bosses, a media magnet whose face, powerful yet charming, was, along with his alleged exploits, instantly recognizable by most of this country's population and beyond. Breaking with Mafia tradition, he was a star who truly reveled in ubiquity, with perfectly coiffed hair and a wardrobe that defined haute couture. He was a national figure, handsome and dashing, who was, curiously enough, deemed attractive and worthy of adulation by a significant many who, simply put, found him fascinating. He was being held without bail, having been federally indicted for racketeering. Suffice it to say, every criminal defense attorney would consider representing him to be an indelible badge of honor, but he would be the selector from these many lawyers who were waiving their hands for attention, and he had sent for me, whom he had never met.
Air-shutteling in from Boston, I arrived at the detention facility on the specified day at 10am. I didn't know what to expect but wanted to impress with confidence and enthusiasm when I met this man who reputedly took instant measure of whomever came before him. Sal had made it known that my summons had become a matter of substantial interest among the New York defense regulars but I had intentionally declined to pepper him with the thousand questions raging within, lest I betray my anxiety, which was substantial. I reminded myself of the cardinal rule to never break eye contact while speaking, for this was taken as a sign of disrespect. I was psyched, for this was truly the major leagues. The goal of every lawyer in my chosen line of work.
When I signed the inmate request form, specifying whom I wished to see, I was thrown a bit off stride. The officer informed me that the Boss would not receive visitors prior to noon, with no exceptions. To the best of my knowledge, there existed no statute, case law or federal regulation which set forth this rule of convenience, but if you think I was about to make this an issue, you're crazier than I am.
I killed two hours and resubmitted my request. A different officer handled it this time. He looked at the Boss's and then at me. I was suddenly someone of importance.
"You his lawyer?"
"Hope to be," I replied as the security screening process was accomplished. I was led into a large room enclosed by chain-link fenced walls and took a seat at a large table.
"He's on his way down," I was told, so I waited. It was 12:20pm when he entered the room. I took in as much as I could, as quickly as I could. He appeared to have just walked out of a Fifth Avenue hair styling salon. Every hair was perfectly in place. No prison pallor for him. Instead, a ruddy tanned complexion. So perfect was the fit that I expected to see a Giorgio Armani label on his orange jump suit. His white sneakers and socks were spotless. He exuded power, obtained the old fashioned way. He had earned it. 'Twas on the other side of the tracks, to be sure, but it was a surreal facsimile of meeting the President of the Other United States.
I stood and our handshake was longer than ordinary, as his appraisal of me began. His eyes were blue steel and his brain was at maximum sharpness. No matter how early you got up in the morning, it would be too late to even come close to putting one over on the Boss. The game began. He laid it out for me.
"Up 'till now, I've been represented by the same lawyer. He's been with me for a long time. But that's the problem. Everybody thinks of him as a Mob attorney. I want a new face for this trial and that's where you come in. Sal says good things about you. I've asked around and the word from People in Boston is good."
I nodded, controlling my anxiety as best I could. Better to listen than to over-speak. When in doubt, opt for silence every time.
He continued. "Now, here's how I'm gonna do it. You'll enter your appearance for Pete, for starters. That'll give me a few weeks to let my lawyer down easy. I don't want to hurt his feelings or reputation or embarrass him. You'll get to know all the players and, in about a month, you'll switch to being my counsel and my guy will represent Pete."
Pete was a made man, one of five co-defendants in the federal indictment at hand. The Buzz on him had it that he was a shooter. "He could blow your head off and eat spaghetti off your shoulders." Very comforting. Bail had been set for him, he had made it and was on the street. I wondered about the feasibility of a valium enema.
As the conversation continued, the other co-defendants casualy sauntered in, their attorneys followed, and the scene in the room quickly came to resemble an upper echelon meeting of the G------ family. A burly individual nudged me over with the statement, "I have to sit on his right." I shall refer to him as "Capo", for that is exactly what he was. The number two man.
Eventually, the defendants were sitting on one side of the large cell, with the lawyers on the other. Business was to be conducted and the attorneys' conversation was to serve as a cover of what was being said across the way. There came a time when we ran out of talk and temporarily fell silent. The Boss, taking immediate notice of this, raised his right arm and twirled it in a circular motion, instructing us to carry on with the camouflage. After awhile, the groups again intermingled and the Boss bid me farewell.
"Come back next week and we'll nail this thing down." I said I would and I did. I was reasonably pleased with myself in my handling of this first meeting. I had spoken in measured tone, my goal being to appear confident, intelligent and, above all, respectful. A masquerade of maximum anxiety, for I was dealing with the Ruler of the wrong side of the moon. In a way, the antithesis of the President of the United States.
The scene was the same when I returned the following week. Sal, the conduit, was again with me. I was greeted cordially by the Boss who explained that he had not yet informed his present counsel of the game plan whereby I would, at first, represent Pete and then switch clients, bequeathing upon me the equivalent of the Medal of Honor. But, not to worry. Everything would fall into place.
At one point, he mentioned that a well known lawyer had visited him during the week and, in discussing the Boss' case, had remarked, "You just can't beat a RICO case (the criminal statute in question). Too tough." Adhering to my code of conduct, I played it safe and said nothing.
When things were winding down, I decided to raise the topic ultimately consistent with my personal interests. The fee.
I explained what I believed would be expected of me and the enormous effort which characterized my case preparation. He cut me off with, "Discuss it with Capo. There'll be no problem." We shook hands.
As we were leaving, I motioned Capo and Sal to a corner of the room. Capo heard me out and asked what I had in mind. No time to be timid or bashful. The Boss would be a most difficult taskmaster. I knew what was at stake, time-wise, and I had to be paid accordingly. Speak now or forever hold your peace.
I quoted Capo a fee which, to me, was both reasonable and substantial, and held my breath. One-half to be paid now, before I entered my appearance, the remainder to be paid prior to commencement of trial. Sal did not register surprise. Capo did not hesitate. "O.K. Come back next week. I'll have the first half ready and somebody will drive you back to Boston. No way can you board a plane carrying that much cash."
Bingo! I was in! The biggest sure-to-be-media-followed case in the country. Daily headlines. I was anxious as hell, but not afraid. We shook hands.
I was determined to make a fast and impressive start. I grabbed the other lawyers, informed them that I was on the team and called for a meeting the next day so that I could begin to catch up, discuss strategy, etc. I wanted to assert myself and impress the Boss. It was set up for two p.m. the next day. Don't dip your toe into the pool. Dive in!
Sal insisted to buy me a celabatory lunch and took me to one of those Italian restaurants not included on the tourist trail. This is where the boys would meet to eat. Signed pictures of Sinatra and Dean Martin on the wall, Jerry Vale on the jukebox and waiters who saw all but said nothing. The aroma of authentic Italian cuisine permeated everything. We began to relax and Sal ordered a king's meal. He was thrilled for me. He hoisted a glass of wine and toasted the future. What an adventure this was to be. A magnificent antipasto was placed before us. Life was good.
Then, Pete walked in.
The look on his face did not spread joy to the world. I looked at Sal and it was obvious that his read echoed mine and he was the more knowledgable on matters of this kind. Pete sat down to my right, directly across from Sal. The most accurate description of this unanticipated turn of events is best set forth by the dialogue which transpired.
"So, you're my new counsel, huh?" Pete's tone was not comforting.
And I understand you've called for a meeting of the lawyers for tomorrow."
"Yes, I have. I want to coordinate things as quickly as possible."
Pete's face flushed. Not a good sign. "So, just what is this going to cost me?"
This set off all alarm bells. Capo had given me the impression that the Boss had given him authority to handle the matter of my fee. Indeed, the Boss had specifically said this to me. My brain was a flashing neon sign proclaiming "proceed with caution." Sal's anxiety had increased which had a domino effect on me. Thank the Lord for Sal being with me when I had talked to Capo.
"I discussed this with Capo a few hours ago. He agreed on my total fee, with the first half of $100,000 to be paid next week."
I watched the tide of red slowly rise from Pete's neck into his pissed-off face. My truthful statement had landed in a very bad place.
"That's funny. I just left Capo and he told me that your fee would be 25 grand."
I was in no-man's land. This was not a chess game allotting each player a specified time in which to respond. I was telling the truth and could only hope that this was apparent.
"There must be some misunderstanding, Pete."
His anger was ratcheting to the point where even Sal was shifting uneasily in his chair. As for me, I was about to lose complete control of my bladder. A nice headline: Mafia lawyer pisses himself.
"Are you calling me a liar?"
All bets were off. "Of course not, Pete. I'm just telling you what Capo said."
Pete's face got redder still. "So, are you calling Capo a liar?"
Pete's reputation mandated the ground rule that he was not, ever, to be trifled with. Sal's accurate instinct called for an immediate intervention. Beads of sweat had formulated on his forehead for he realized that things were on the verge of getting out of control and I was in way over my head.
"Pete, please, let's step outside for a minute." They both left and I, sitting alone, could feel the scrutiny of the waiters' eyes. Having observed the whole thing and being quite familiar with just who Pete was, they must have been making book on my fate.
A solid 45 minutes went by. I hadn't touched the food, only the wine. Hey, this was part of the game, wasn't it? WASN'T IT?
Sal returned. He looked drained. Ordeal wracked. Pete wasn't with him.
"It's o.k. I settled him down. It doesn't take much to get him hot but I told him I was there when you spoke to Capo. He realizes it was all mixed-up communications. Everything's o.k."
We finished the meal with not quite our initial zest. Calming down takes awhile. Sal drove me to La Guardia and I caught the shuttle back to Boston.
Four days went by and I got a call from Sal. He said that the Boss had decided not to hire me. I had asked for too much money. Nothing personal. I played it cool, suppressing my disappointment. The squabble with Pete must have been the deciding negative factor. And then, I thought of something else.
When the Boss had quoted an attorney's statement that RICO indictments can't be beaten, I had deliberately remained silent. The Boss was a fox. What if that was all a test designed to take my measure? What if he had wanted me to burst forth with, "That's bullshit! There's no such thing as a case that can't be won." The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. In any event, I had flunked.
The trial lasted four months. The Boss was acquitted. The New York media followed its every move. On that, I lost out. On the other hand, I heard that all the lawyers involved had gone through hell and back. The Boss was a strict taskmaster and did not restrain his displeasure at an attorney's perceived misstep.
Oh, well. It was still an indelible experience.
I'm from the old-time school where any excuse was just that.
Wrap it up and move on.
Except that to re-tell it is to re-live it.
Demz were da daze.