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Little Big Man

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Brafman is handling so many high-profile cases these days that his librarian wife, Lynda, has nicknamed him H.P. It’s an eclectic roster: a Talmudic scholar-businessman accused of laundering money for the Cali drug cartel; a retired cop charged with murder; a rabbi charged, with Assemblyman Dov Hikind, of misusing federal funds; and the nightclub impresario Peter Gatien, who goes on trial January 5 on federal charges of running his popular nightspots, the Tunnel and the Limelight, as anything-goes drug supermarkets.

While this particular morning Brafman’s attention is focused on Abdela, late in the afternoon he’s huddling with Gatien at his twenty-sixth-floor midtown office overlooking the East River. Slouched in a chair in a wood-paneled conference room, Gatien exudes the exhausted, dazed calm of a man who still can’t quite believe how quickly his life has unraveled. “I’ve never been in trouble before,” he says. Out of jail on a steep $1 million bail (recently reduced by half), Gatien is charged with aiding and abetting the distribution of ecstasy at his clubs to lure customers. In black jeans and a gray pullover, he looks more like an aging college student than the king of the night. His ominous-looking trademark black eye patch (he lost his left eye in a childhood hockey accident) has been replaced with silvery reflective tinted glasses. “The government has told people they’re going to get me at all costs,” Gatien insists. He may have softened his image, but the seamier side of the Limelight scene was back in the news in September, when promoter Michael Alig pleaded guilty to dismembering club kid Angel Melendez, apparently in a dispute over drugs or money.)

Gatien met Brafman socially through friends well before his legal problems began. “Frankly, I never anticipated that we’d ever be doing business,” he says, matter-of-factly. But in May 1996, when drug-enforcement agents raided his home one day at 6 a.m., Gatien decided to trust his first impression of Brafman rather than go lawyer-shopping. “I know Ben believes I’m innocent,” he says. “I feel totally comfortable with my whole destiny in his hands.”

The case has more twists and turns than The Big Sleep: Gatien was one of 40 people (party promoters, security guards, alleged dealers, etc.) originally indicted on drug-related charges. Roughly 30 cut deals with the government, limiting their prosecution by agreeing to testify against their former boss and colleague. Then things got even stranger: three defendants turned informants flipped again and are now backing Gatien, claiming the U.S. Attorney’s office and drug-enforcement agents fabricated evidence. According to court papers, a DEA informant named Sean Kirkham offered to sell Gatien a peek at the government’s confidential files for $10,000. Gatien and Brafman turned him over to the FBI; Kirkham pleaded guilty to lying to a federal agent and awaits sentencing.

Brafman is using bare-knuckle tactics to win this case. In a June affidavit, he inserted a footnote claiming that Kirkham alleged “a tale of a rather extraordinary personal relationship with one of the members of the Gatien-prosecution team.” Having planted this gem, at least in part for the benefit of the tabloids, Brafman went on to note piously that “because of the sensitive nature of this specific allegation, counsel does not detail that information at this time, as we have not been able to corroborate that allegation and do not wish to damage anyone’s reputation.” (The Village Voice reports that a recent Justice Department inquiry found the charges baseless.)

Apart from the legal maneuvering, the case has been played out in the press so acrimoniously and intensely that Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Friedberg took the unusual step of demanding a gag order against Brafman. Declining an interview request, Friedberg referred New York to the legal papers he filed, in which his rage is evident on every page. He charges Brafman with making “improper,” “inflammatory,” and “scurrilous” remarks to reporters in order to taint the jury and damage the credibility of witnesses. Federal District Court judge Frederic Block instructed both lawyers to stop talking to the press. The normally loquacious Brafman -- well acquainted with the court of public opinion -- is now watching his tongue. “High-profile cases like Gatien and Abdela bring extra pressure, because everything is in the public eye,” he says. “If you make a mistake and the world press is watching, it’s a bigger mistake.”


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