The Last Mouthpiece

The old bosses have been sent to the big house, and Skinny Joey’s most serious (recent) charge is ... drunk driving. For Joe Santaguida, defending “alleged” mobsters isn’t what it used to be

But the hat stays put. And in any event, a few alleged mobsters remain out there (and many more in there), and they still require legal representation from time to time. Most prominent among them is Santaguida client Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, who is generally called (by authorities, I mean) the "boss" of the Philadelphia mob. He is, without question, its most glamorous celebrity. Santaguida first represented the mob scion (son of former Nicodemo Scarfo colleague and now federal inmate Salvatore "Chuckie" Merlino) in a youthful caprice that was a particularly disorganized crime-an armored car heist of $352,000 back in 1987, when Joey was but 25 years old. Clearly, neither Merlino nor his connections provoked much terror then  –  both his comrades testified him, and he was convicted and served a four-year term.

An inauspicious start for a career in what is supposed to be highly disciplined mayhem, am I right? Not exactly young Vito Corleone. However, the stage having been cleared of all the seasoned mob executives who once won the headlines and the headaches that go with the job, Merlino is the guy, which automatically elevates Santaguida from his previous among the second tier of "mob lawyers" to the rank of number-one mouthpiece. Whether he wants it or not. 

But how much of a mob defender can he be when there’s so little mob left to defend? Consider the charges Merlino has faced since that armored car case: drunk driving (not guilty); carrying an open beer in Margate, New (pleaded guilty and paid a fine); littering in Longport, New Jersey (dismissed); and twice entering an Atlantic City casino after state authorities had banned him (cleared once, when Santaguida proved that the banishment letter had been mailed to his client’s cousin, also named Joseph Merlino; convicted and fined on the second occasion). And that’s about it. It’s a given that Merlino is under energetic surveillance and scrutiny, and so one might understandably wonder why there still has been no major case made him, either for a particular crime or for the usual grab bag of misdeeds contained in federal racketeering indictments. Maybe such a case will come. But who knows? Maybe Merlino will be Philadelphia’s last mobster. In which case, Santaguida could become our last mob lawyer.

In any event, they haven’t exactly required courtroom fireworks to remain a vibrant team. When Merlino puts on the dog and holds his annual Christmas party for the indigent, Santaguida is there helping out, as is his secretary, who has served at the festivities as a costumed elf. "I’ve known Joey since he was a kid," Santaguida says by way of explaining the depth of their relationship. "And during the [Scarfo gang] trials back in the ’80s, he would come and watch, and then when he thought he had a problem with the armored car thing, he called me." How close are they? "If he has a christening, he invites me. If I had some kind of affair, I would invite him. His kid’s birthday, I would go. My grandson had a party, he’d be there."

"He’s like a father to me," Merlino says in a telephone interview. "I used to stay at his house when I was a kid. He’s a friend. And he’s a great lawyer. He won’t sell you out, and he tells you what he can do and can’t do. Ninety percent of lawyers, they’ll tell you one thing and then do another. Joe’s a straight guy. A lot of lawyers are treacherous."