Steve Cozen Profile: The Inside Man

Whether he’s suing big corporations in disaster cases or Saudi Arabia over 9/11, Steve Cozen has built his career siding with the underdog. Now, with his hands in both casino deals, has the ultimate outsider become the quintessential insider?

When I ask Cozen about it, he says he never made a deal with the turncoat; he just met with him for about 30 to 45 minutes — “I don’t know how you find out about fraud if you don’t meet with the guy who’s the turncoat” — and also pointed out that the first judge to examine the allegations against him (not Reed) was later impeached for unrelated misdeeds. But he agreed that the MGM case taught him “a very, very important lesson” — that “even when you’re in the most chaotic, pressure-filled kind of situation, you have to always exercise very, very careful judgment.” He added, “Listen, it’s an upsetting thing. The most upsetting thing in the world, I think, is to have anyone question your integrity.”



WHICH BRINGS US, finally, to the casino deal. Casinos. Deals. Plural.

In the movie There Will Be Blood, the final scene, the apotheosis of the protagonist’s lifelong struggle to prevail, takes place at a bowling alley, and it ends with his enemy bludgeoned to death with a bowling pin. If a movie were made of Steve Cozen’s life, the final scene would be far less bloody, and everyone would leave smiling and clicking at BlackBerries. It would take place in an 11th-floor office at the Hyatt at the Bellevue hotel, with Cozen talking to the governor, Ed Rendell, about a matter of importance to his client, Foxwoods casino.

The scene is right there in the Inquirer’s recent investigative piece, which, if you read it one way, is the story of the casino process writ large, a sad story about private influence and secrecy trumping openness and the popular will, and if you read it another way is just the story of a guy doing his job for his rich clients (one of whom, Ron Rubin, is a frequent golfing buddy), and doing it well. According to the Inky, Foxwoods was in deep trouble, getting heat from legislators who wanted to revoke its license for continually blowing its deadlines, so Cozen met with Rendell, to whom he and his firm’s political action committee have contributed more than $200,000 in the past decade, and made his pitch: Foxwoods needed the deadline extended. Rendell agreed. Cozen made calls to legislative leaders, who at the last minute, behind closed doors, inserted something close to what Cozen wanted into the table-gaming bill. State Representative Mike O’Brien, some of whose constituents will live within feet of the new casino, learned about the language late on a Friday — too late to do anything about it.

But Foxwoods is just one of Cozen’s casino clients. The other casino client is SugarHouse, which he represented in front of the state Supreme Court when the city revoked SugarHouse’s right to build on riverfront acreage. After SugarHouse won the case, its investors cut Cozen in on the action, giving him a one-third of one percent stake in the casino. (At SugarHouse, Cozen deals with Chicago real estate billionaire Neil Bluhm and Philadelphia attorney Dick Sprague, two major investors; Bluhm referred a call to SugarHouse CEO Greg Carlin, who didn’t return an e-mail asking for comment; nor did Sprague.) “Dick and Neil gave me a tiny little piece,” Cozen says, “which is not very much, but it’s nice … a nice recognition on their part, for the work.” “Tiny” is in the eye of the beholder; if SugarHouse approaches $100 million in after-tax profit — a reasonable estimate — even a sliver of a percent becomes big bucks. (It’s also worth mentioning that Cozen’s nephew, Michael Heller, chair of Cozen’s business law department, owns an 18 percent stake in the forthcoming slots parlor at the Valley Forge Convention Center.)

It’s a pretty amazing deal for Cozen, actually — he keeps one casino afloat while he sets himself up to get a nice percentage off the other. It would seem like at least the appearance of a conflict: “I scratch my head,” says Mike O’Brien.

 I asked Cozen a question: Would SugarHouse have been happy to see Foxwoods languish? “I don’t think so,” he said, immediately ramping up to a higher pitch. “Are you kidding me? You gotta be dreaming. The idea that the City of Philadelphia is a duopoly is nonsense. You’ve got casinos all over the goddamn place.” According to Cozen, there’s no legal conflict here — only a “business issue” long ago resolved. “I went to both Dick Sprague and Neil Bluhm, and both of them said, hey, you go ahead and do what you’ve been asked to do, we don’t have an objection to it, we’re ahead of these guys [i.e., Foxwoods], and there’s gonna be two of us here anyway, and it’ll give us an opportunity to work together because we have one guy in common we both trust.”

If there’s something unsatisfying about this answer, it’s not Cozen’s fault. Trial lawyers — lawyers who go to court and argue cases, as Cozen always has — are storytellers at heart. Cozen is a great lawyer because he’s a great storyteller. He tells a particular type of story to juries and to judges and to people like me: a story about how disaster can befall the pure of heart and the strong of spirit, and how things can be put right. He’s done this for 40 years. He’s not going to change the story even if he’s not exactly representing the Gavlick family anymore, concocting some great underdog business at the kitchen table, but instead huge companies and billionaires and wired lawyers who’ve already got every advantage, including the ultimate advantage, the ultimate insider — Steve Cozen. You may have been under the impression that casinos were some dirty rigged game, but you got the story wrong, because here is “a new and burgeoning industry that we can get in on the ground floor of. I mean, it’s the American story, isn’t it? It’s capitalism.”