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

The contrast between the white hats and the black hat becomes amusingly clear when Santaguida is questioning the youngish, preppy leader of the FBI surveillance team, who has just described sitting in a parked stakeout car for 90 minutes, killing time.

"Whaddya … drinkin’ coffee?" Santaguida offers in a friendly tone. "Smokin’?"

"No," the agent replies coolly. "Reading."

"He is not polished," another former federal prosecutor says of Santaguida’s courtroom style. "He is not elegant. But he’s gifted in speaking in ways that jurors understand. He’s effective because jurors believe him." And such a gift might serve him well today, except for one small hitch: There are no jurors to sway, both sides having agreed to try this case before the veteran judge alone, who has presumably seen and heard it all and is immune to lawyerly charm. Still, Santaguida seems untroubled by any doubt.

The judge calls for a lunch break. Waiting for the elevator, Santaguida looks back at the corridor and the bevy of women surrounding his client. "One thing you can say about South Philly," he says, grinning slyly and stepping into the car, fixing his hat upon his head. "They turn out for their own." back when it was still only a semi-disreputable thing to be, Jacob was the number-one mob mouthpiece, widely hailed as a legal Wizard, best known as longtime counsel to Angelo Bruno. Famously, he and Bruno, the "Docile Don" (meaning he had maimed or killed only as a last resort) would sit in the lawyer’s office telling stories, eating peanuts, and then dozing off to the strains of classical music on the radio. In the ‘50s ‘60s and ‘70s, Kossman was as a representative for Bruno as well as for Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Costello and other mobster clients, though he also defended many unorganized criminals, especially in federal income tax evasion cases. He wasn’t much of a fashion plate-articles recalling the lawyer refer to his wrinkled, mismatched suits and rumpled style-but he earned the admiration of allies and opponents and had a long and successful career almost until he died, in 1989.

As wily and wise as Kossman undoubtedly was — in his Inquirer obit, he was referred to twice as "a genius"  — the fact is that he operated mainly back in the days before the devastating (to criminals) federal antiracketeering act known as RICO (the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act), before high-tech electronic surveillance, before severe mandatory sentencing. In other words, he had the advantage of working back when the bad guys still had a chance in their games against the good guys. They were also the days before the Twenty –  Year War, the time of chaos and treachery that began with Bruno’s murder in 1980 and still has gangsters trying to restore equilibrium and fill the power vacuum.

Kossman’s successor as the city’s best –  known mob defender, Robert Simone, was also hailed as a brilliant trial advocate, a charismatic closer with a knack for the devastating cross. But Simone’s time as unofficial organized crime mouthpiece was anything but decorous. For one thing, his number one mob client was Nicodemo Scarfo-a troublesome and violence-prone boss lacking the management skills of his predecessor. Just as Bruno’s reputation for competence and restraint reflected well on Kossman, Scarfo’s infamous reign led people to wonder about Simone. The lawyer’s devil-may-care style, not to mention the open secret of his crushing gambling debt, did nothing to deflect any suspicion about his role in his client’s schemes. By the early ’90s, with the mob itself on the run, the Justice Department adopted an aggressive stance toward lawyers who, in its view, aided mobsters in their dirty work; in 1992, prosecutors convinced a federal jury that Simone had taken a criminal role in Scarfo’s botched attempt to extort $1 million from developer Willard Rouse. After that conviction came a charge of income tax evasion, to which Simone pleaded guilty.