"Being Oscar: From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas - Only in America" (Weinstein Books), by Philadelphia native Oscar Goodman, with former Inquirer staff writer George Anastasia, arrived in bookstores Tuesday. This is the second of of two excerpts.
IBM, NOT FBI
The FBI and the New Jersey and Pennsylvania State Police had been building cases against the Philadelphia mob for a number of years, and it all came to a head in the mid-1980s. Two murder cases were pending in Philadelphia's Common Pleas Court, and a drug case and a racketeering case were pending in federal court. [Nicky Scarfo's lawyer] Bobby Simone and I got along very well during the Rouse extortion trial, and he asked me to get involved in the other cases.
[Nicky] Scarfo's nephew, a handsome young man named Philip Leonetti, was a co-defendant in three of those cases, and Bobby asked me to represent him. He was an easygoing man who was thirty-six at the time. I met his mother Nancy, who was Scarfo's sister. She was very nice, and I felt sorry for Philip. I thought he had been targeted in part because of who the feds said his uncle was.
Scarfo was portrayed in government motions as a psychopath. The media, naturally, ate it all up. You would think this was the second coming of Al Capone or the Philadelphia version of Murder, Inc. . . .
The [racketeering] case ended with all sixteen defendants, including Scarfo and Leonetti, being convicted. . . . To my amazement, Leonetti joined the choir shortly after he was sentenced. He turned into a rat and became a government witness in cases up and down the East Coast. Many in law enforcement circles say that he was the reason Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano turned. Leonetti was ready to testify about Gravano's involvement in a mob murder in Philadelphia.
I couldn't believe it when I heard that Leonetti had flipped. I really thought we had a chance on appeal to overturn his convictions. But I was informed that he was replacing me with another attorney, one who worked out his cooperating agreement. I couldn't believe that a guy with his reputation . . . would become a rat. I couldn't believe he was such a weakling. The first time he faced any kind of adversity, he turned on his family. And I don't mean crime family; he turned on his own uncle, his mother's brother, the man who had raised him after his father left. As far as I was concerned, the government made a deal with the devil.
They said Leonetti had committed ten murders. After testifying at a number of trials, he went in for a sentence reduction hearing. Instead of forty-five years, his sentence was reduced to five years, five months, and five days, which was the time he had served when the hearing was held. He walked out of the courtroom and into the Witness Protection Program. Five years for ten murders? Not a bad deal.
I love Philadelphia. It's a great city. And going back there to try all those cases was a wonderful experience. I only wished my father had still been alive so that he could have come to court and watch me practice law. I think he would have been proud of me, and that makes me feel good.
The only sour taste I have from the whole experience was Leonetti. I don't represent rats, and I think he's a liar. I know he lied about me after he began cooperating, claiming that he had paid me thousands of dollars in cash and implying that I had taken the money under the table and had not declared it as income. Any payment I ever received for those Philadelphia trials came in the form of a check written by Bobby Simone, Scarfo's lawyer.
Don't get me wrong - I was paid well. And while we're on the subject, let me point out that I always charged a flat fee. I'd quote a price to a client based on what I thought was involved, how much time, how much research, how complicated the issues in the case were. Other lawyers might charge by the hour, but that wasn't the way I did it.
It usually worked out fine. If, for some reason, a case settled quickly or a trial took less time and effort than I had anticipated, I made out really well. On the other hand, I once quoted a client a fee for what I thought was going to be a six-week trial. I hadn't factored in that this was one of the judge's first cases. He was a "virgin" and was feeling his way along. The trial lasted six months.
I never gave a fee back if a case wrapped up quickly, and in this instance, I never asked for more money. I just had to take my losses. That's the economics of practicing criminal law. Overall I did very well and, as a result, my family and I lived very well.
I was a high-profile criminal defense attorney, a go-to guy in a world that people wrote books and movies about. It was a heady experience and I loved almost every minute of it. The strategy, the battles, the clash of wit - all were an adrenaline rush. I loved being center stage and that's what a courtroom was. The stakes were high, and that made it all the more exciting. . . .
But at the same time, I don't want to glamorize organized crime figures. The criminal underworld can be a dark, uncaring, and inhumane place. Some of my clients lived and died there. But when I could, I tried to look at my clients from a different perspective.
First, under the law they were entitled to legal representation, and I was going to give them that. Second - and not everyone might agree with this - they lived by a certain morality that you and I might not be a part of. But I respected the fact that they had a code.