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

"Or with the mob guys-not that they haven’t done bad things, but I also see how what they do is exaggerated and made into something more serious than it was. So I never have a problem saying, ‘Should I let this guy come to my house?’ Bobby [Simone] actually liked to seem close to the guys he defended, but it was more perception than anything else, I think. He liked people to believe that you had to go through Bobby to get done, or that if you him off, Nicky would be mad at you, too. But the mob was only a small part of Bobby’s practice. I just think he liked being friendly with them. During one closing argument, he called Philip [Leonetti, Scarfo’s nephew-turned-informant] his best friend … not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hey, look, sometimes it haunts me, too. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Joe, I’d like to use you, but I’m afraid that people-the jury, the government, the police, the reporters-will think that I’m a mobster, too."

He pauses a second, looking beleaguered, then brightens. "But I also get people who say, ‘Well, he represents Joey Merlino, he must be good enough to represent me!’"

EITHER WAY, IT’S not really much fun being a lawyer for mobsters today. Most big organized crime prosecutions now take place in the federal courts, and there it has become almost a given that defendants will go down. Once upon a time, federal court was where criminals got the easiest ride. Today, it’s just the opposite. In fact, the majority of federal criminal prosecutions end not in trials, but in guilty pleas, and of those that do go to trial, more than 90 percent result in convictions.

"Back before the strict sentencing guidelines," Santaguida says, "if you got a sentence of five years in federal court, it was a lot. If your client got 10 years, you didn’t want to show your face! You would be too embarrassed! That’s why you didn’t have many rats back then-you got five years, you served two or three, and you were a stand-up guy. When you got out, everybody hugged you like you were a hero. I had guys who would do a year or two, come out, get caught again, do another two or three years, over and over and over. Maybe they’d do five different federal sentences over the course of time. But now, with drugs especially, it doesn’t take much to get a 10-year mandatory sentence, and if you get 10, you’re going to serve eight. I just handled a drug case in federal court with seven or eight defendants. Every one of them had a prior conviction, and none of them had ever cooperated before, because had all been convicted under the old guidelines. In this case, though, they were all facing 20-year mandatory sentences. And this time, they all cooperated. Lately, in federal court, I’ve had maybe two or three cases that were even tri-able. There, when they bring a case, they usually have so much evidence, so much surveillance and wiretaps and rats, you end up pleading your client guilty or to find some way to avoid going to trial.