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Little Big Man

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Indeed it is. On a chilly day last month, outside the courthouse at 100 Centre Street, Brafman looked positively pained when approached by two camera crews to comment on a case that did not end well: the sentencing of Dr. Richard Zinaman, a Central Park West dentist, for sexually abusing three women patients. “I want to go on TV for this case as much as I want to go through root-canal surgery,” Brafman quipped to me, then rolled his eyes and said, “Uhhh, bad metaphor.”

This was a case that should never have gone to trial. The dentist had been offered a good deal, a plea bargain with a guarantee of no jail time. Instead, he’d insisted that Brafman take his case to a jury, in hopes of discrediting the women and proving his innocence. The penalty for losing was steep: On this Friday morning, Judge Harold Beeler handed down a sentence of three to six years.

“Today, it is not fun to be Ben Brafman,” Ben Brafman declared unhappily. He insisted that he had cautioned the dentist that a trial might be risky, adding that clients don’t always believe him. “The baggage that comes with a remarkable track record,” he observed, “is that people feel that you can pull off an acquittal despite what seems overwhelming evidence. But you can’t do it every time.”

Curiously, Brafman made a good impression with the people who had reason to dislike him -- the dentist’s victims and their families. “He did his job and did it well,” said the father of one of the women. “He could have been much harder on my daughter, but he seemed to care.” His wife chimed in, “I was very impressed.”

Mention this, and Brafman beams like Sally Field winning an Oscar. “They really said that?” he wants to know. One moment, he’s all preternatural self-confidence and braggadocio; the next, he’s insecure and hungry for acceptance and approval. Even people who feel warm toward Brafman find him hard to take at times. As former Assistant U.S. Attorney Walter Mack puts it, “He’s an egomaniac. Like the best defense lawyers, he has a very high opinion of himself.”

It wasn’t always that way. Brafman was the class clown, a lazy, directionless student who dozed through yeshiva classes. Aaron Brafman, Ben’s studious older brother, now an Orthodox rabbi in Far Rockaway, says, “Our mother always worried: What’s Ben going to turn into? I was the goody-goody; he used to always be in my shadow.”

The two boys and their sisters, Malkie and Shevy, grew up in a house with shadows, the impermeable sadness of a family shattered by the losses of the Holocaust. Their mother, Rose, who died in 1996, fled Czechoslovakia for New York in 1938 at 16, the only one in her family to get papers to leave; her parents and sister were later killed in concentration camps. Ben recalls that he said in her eulogy, “This is the first day my mother is not afraid.” Their father, Sol, escaped Vienna with his parents after Kristallnacht in 1939. Shortly after meeting and marrying Rose, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

After the war, the Brafmans settled first in Williamsburg, then in Crown Heights, and finally in the more upscale Belle Harbor. Sol made a modest living as a production manager for a lingerie company. This was a strict, deeply religious Orthodox household with a classic immigrant work-hard-my-child ethos. To this day, Brafman remains observant, scheduling trial dates around Jewish holidays, taking Saturdays off from work, and leaving the office early on Fridays to try to get home before sundown. “I figure God will understand if I’m trying to save someone’s life and I’m home five minutes late,” he says. Brafman’s brother Aaron rolls his eyes at such liberties, saying dryly, “It doesn’t quite work that way.”

As a kid, Brafman wanted but couldn’t afford the finer things in life. Now “they roll out the red carpet at Ralph Lauren when Ben arrives,” jokes Avi Lebor, a mortgage banker and close friend. Brafman began working at age 10, helping waiters set tables at a Rockaways hotel. “I saved and worked for years to buy a bicycle, and it was stolen two days after I got it.” (Ah, another illustration that behind every successful man is a sled called Rosebud.)

Putting himself through Brooklyn College night school, Brafman waited tables in the Catskills during summers and got his break one night when the entertainment didn’t show. “I went out onstage with another guy and we did all this waiter humor, and we weren’t killed,” he says. Brafman liked performing so much that he printed up business cards and hustled a series of stand-up gigs, bringing his wife-to-be, Lynda, along for moral support. “He was the shul cutup,” says Lynda, 45, a pretty and petite woman. She met Ben in a very old-fashioned way: “When I was 14, I went to synagogue with my grandmother, and she pointed to Ben and said, ‘Here is the man I want for you.’”

Brafman put his comedy aspirations aside after taking a political-science class from one Stephen Solarz, who was running for State Assembly (and later served in Congress). “Ben was my best student, very eager, very conscientious,” says Solarz. Upon winning, Solarz hired Brafman, still in night school, to run his district office. That’s when Brafman first learned how to work a tough room. “When Steve Solarz had fifteen community events, I’d cover five,” said Brafman. “I’d come in, this short Jewish guy, and people would be really disappointed that the person they had expected didn’t show up. I’d have to win over 50 or 60 people.”

Brafman decided to apply to law school, but his grades weren’t so hot: Good-bye New York, hello Ada, Ohio, home of Ohio Northern University, which offered a scholarship. For the newly married Brafmans, small-town white-bread Ohio was a shock. As Lynda puts it, “We were totally insulated before we moved out there. I had never had a conversation with a non-Jew in my life before then.”

Determined to land a summer job at the Manhattan criminal-defense firm of Robert McGuire and Andrew Lawler, Brafman read up on cases the firm was working on, and called McGuire from Ohio to pass along a memorandum. The lawyer politely brushed Brafman off with a “Thanks -- call if you’re ever in New York and we’ll have lunch.” The next day Brafman hopped a plane to claim his meal. “We couldn’t get rid of him,” McGuire recalls with a laugh. “He was certainly the most aggressive interview I’ve ever seen. It was easier to hire him than figure out how not to hire him.”

Brafman spent two years at the firm after law school, then jumped to the Manhattan D.A.’s office for trial experience. “He had a reputation for trying everything that moved,” says a veteran prosecutor who worked with him in the rackets bureau. Brafman even took on the office joke, the “pigeon-shit case”: prosecuting a Parks Department employee for perjury over the poisoning of pigeons in Prospect Park. “How do you get a jury to take this case seriously?” says the prosecutor. “Ben won. He has the disarming ability to get people to take almost anything seriously.”

As an assistant D.A., he tried 24 cases over a four-year period (many involving mob extortion in the moving industry, police corruption, and labor racketeering) and lost only one. At night, Brafman took classes at New York University, earning a master’s of law in criminal justice, a fancier degree to hang on the wall. In 1980, he borrowed $15,000 from his wife’s grandfather, rented space from a lawyer practicing in an elegant townhouse at 74th and Madison, and went into private practice. “I began to hustle work, to talk to lawyers I knew,” he said: “I told people, ‘If there are cases you don’t want to bother with, if the fee’s too small, I’m that guy.’”


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