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

"This is not just the case in Philadelphia, as famed New York defense attorney Bruce E. Cutler will attest. It was Cutler who earned for his client, John the nickname "the Teflon don" in a series of trials almost a decade ago, he won stunning acquittals. In fact, Gotti was finally convicted in a federal murder and racketeering trial in 1992 only after the government succeeded in Cutler disqualified as counsel.

"Other than, say, a John Gotti, very few men face a trial today," Cutler says. "Not they take any kind of sweetheart deal, but as a form of damage control, to use the ’90s, cell phone terminology. They take pleas not because they’re cowards, but they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives in jail. Men like John Gotti and others who want their day in court-I don’t say they’re saints. But they have toughness that you know when you see it. That old-school tough fellow has gone away, too. These men now, they’re denied bail, their lawyers are disqualified, they face anonymous juries, their due process is taken away, they are threatened with draconian sentences, and finally they say to the government, ‘Look, you want a piece of me? How much of a piece? Ten years? Twenty? What will it take to close the books?’ A lot of them take the plea, and I don’t criticize them. So you no longer have many of the perceived super-powerful underworld figures taking on the government when it comes at them.

"I don’t want to think of myself as a relic from a time gone by-I just turned 50-but I was lucky, because I represented a lot of older clients when I was in my mid-30s. Even today, I have a case coming up representing Tony Giacalone, a man in his 80s, fighting kidney failure and also fighting a big, big federal racketeering case in Detroit. Or John Gotti-I met him when I was 36 years old. And to have represented him as a lawyer, a once-in-a-lifetime figure-I could fight as I felt comfortable, with no holds barred. Now, the clients you get have different needs. Many of them want to minimize their problems. John Gotti didn’t want to go to jail. He doesn’t want to see his son having these problems-it breaks his heart. [Cutler was co counsel for Gotti’s son, who recently pleaded guilty to a long list of federal charges including racketeering, bribery and extortion.] I believe his son is innocent. I believe we’re going to win. I believe he’s only in this case because his name is Gotti. But we’re up against the federal government of the United States, the most powerful force on the face of the earth. "

Which makes life a lot less meaningful for certain members of the     bar. "I don’t get any pleasure in taking a plea,” Cutler says. “Anybody can stand up with a client and resolve a case that way. For me, the pleasure is in the fight."

Another reason being a Philadelphia mob lawyer isn’t much fun these days has to deal with the mobsters themselves, in particular with their ability to pay for a defense. To understand this, it helps to first sit through a lesson in basic gangster economics, as delivered by Professor Santaguida. "Let’s say that tomorrow you become a mobster," he begins over a chicken cutlet sandwich at a bar near his Center City I office. "That doesn’t entitle you to a pay check! You still have to have your own, hustle! Did you see Donnie Braseo? One guy had a good thing going, and so he had a lot of money. But another guy was broke. He was robbing parking meters. When he gets pinched, he can’t afford a lawyer. And these young guys here, they’re just getting started-they don’t have any money saved. Even the average drug defendant has a better chance of paying for a lawyer than some  of these mob guys do."