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

Santaguida did nothing to dissuade any –  one of his social habits during the famously raucous party at the Four Seasons hotel following the 1988 acquittals of Scarfo and eight other defendants in the Salvatore Testa murder. At that bash, the next day’s paper reported, he entertained all in attendance with his reenactment of the Frankie Pentangeli courtroom scene from Godfather II, the one where Frankie double-crosses the feds and testifies in a raspy croak, "Look, the FBI offered a deal, so I made up a lot of stuff, but it was all lies. The FBI kept saying ‘Michael Corleone did this, and Michael Corleone did that, so I said, ‘Yeah … sure … why not?”

At least once, though, Santaguida got a little too close to the action for even his comfort. In those wiretaps recorded in attorney Salvatore Avena’s office, John Stanfa railed against his archrival, Joey Merlino, and anyone in Merlino’s employ, including his attorney. Stanfa said of Santaguida, "Who he think he is? I gonna cripple him. I gotta be honest with you. Right now I got my own thing, but he gonna be next." The FBI alerted Santaguida to the threat. "I wouldn’t say I laughed about it," he says. "Maybe once or twice I looked over my shoulder. I just couldn’t think of why they would do it." Later, a Stanfa crony named Sergio Battaglia claimed he had actually stalked Santaguida on his boss’s orders-went to his Center City office armed, waited for the lawyer ‘to show up, and then, when he failed to do so, left empty-handed, so to speak. Battaglia claimed to have had a number of targets in his sights only to have them slip away, and so you could believe, as Santaguida does, that any assassination attempts were half-hearted at best and mostly talk.

There are two ways of looking at Santaguida’s habit of palling around with his clients.

Most lawyers think it’s a bad and unseemly thing. We’ve come a long way since the days of Bruno and Kossman eating peanuts and listening to Brahms. Nobody’s eating peanuts with Nicky Scarfo or John Stanfa, you may have noticed. "You don’t see any other lawyer hanging around with these guys, do you?" asks a fellow attorney. "He’s like their buddy!"

But a certain amount of that is pure snobbery from lawyers who have no problem taking money from mobsters they would never deign to have lunch with. "I don’t judge a person except by how they treat me and how they are with me," says Santaguida. "Not by what somebody else says they are, or who they’re supposed to be. I knew most of them before they were who they’re supposed to be! They’re guys like I am, regular guys, guys who liked sports, liked baseball or baskets or boxing or the racetrack. I don’t think-no matter who your client is-that you ever associate yourself with your client’s crime. So you never feel you can’t be civil to them or can’t have coffee or something. It’s partly why people like me, I think-I treat everybody with respect.