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Little Big Man

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By that time, he and Lynda had two children, Jennifer (now 23) and David (now 19), and they were living in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Forest Hills. “I knew we’d get there someday,” Lynda says, “but I didn’t know we’d get as far as we did.” Lynda and I are having this conversation in the Brafmans’ enormous Long Island brick mansion, newly renovated and decorated with Jennifer’s paintings, dozens of family photos, and comfortable modern furniture. The rooms are twice the normal size; in the basement is a fully equipped gym. In keeping with Lynda’s profession, there are walls of books. Scan the titles in Ben’s study and a telling theme quickly emerges: Gangland, Mafia Cop, Mobbed Up, Last Days of the Sicilians, and, of course, The Boys From New Jersey.

“I’ve read all these books because I know these people,” says Brafman, with an ain’t-I-bad grin. The legal fees from “these people,” in fact, helped pay for this sumptuous home, since Brafman’s career was jump-started by a famous Mafia case. The year was 1985, and ten members of the so-called Gambino crime family were on trial, including boss Paul Castellano; Brafman was representing one of the lesser-known defendants, Anthony Senter, on murder and stolen-car-ring charges. So eager was he to take the case for its publicity value that he lowered his fee (he may be the first lawyer who regarded the mob as a pro bono defendant), explaining, “It was my chance to break into the big leagues.”

He did. After Castellano was gunned down outside Sparks Steak House, a front-page New York Post photo of the mob leader’s wake prominently featured Brafman. This raised eyebrows among Brafman’s former colleagues in the D.A.’s office, who saw the visit as a sleazy way to attract new clients. “He was looking for mob business when he went to Castellano’s funeral,” grumps a prosecutor. “There are those who say, ‘Why are you showing respect for this man?’”

Brafman insists that it felt like the right thing to do after weeks spent sitting next to Castellano at trial. “He was a sophisticated, intelligent man. We’d talk about music and art,” he says. “When someone dies, you don’t pass judgment on his life.” What brought Brafman new friends in low places was not so much the house call as the verdict after the trial resumed: His client, Senter, was acquitted on 21 out of 22 counts, while six other defendants received jail time. (Senter later received jail time himself when he was convicted on other counts related to the trial, but Brafman’s reputation was already made.)

As organized-crime cases began rolling in, Brafman became known for working wonders with wiretapped conversations, finding in the hours of government evidence snippets to convince a jury his clients were entrapped or innocent. “The government accuses people of being associates of mob families, but not everyone targeted as a mobster is one,” he argues. And even if they are mobsters, so what? “If a person like me begins to pass moral judgment,” he says, “you shouldn’t be in this business.” Brafman won a series of acquittals for people like George Sciascia, an alleged Gambino family member charged with heroin trafficking. “There was a time when the phone would ring at 3 a.m. and people would talk in code,” says Lynda. “They’d say, ‘Tell Benjy that I got to meet him at the place we met last time.’”

His son, David, now studying at a yeshiva in Israel, thought the whole thing was cool. “I loved it,” he says. “Everyone at school was asking, ‘Do people drive by your house and shoot?’” Ben’s mother was concerned that it might actually happen. “When there were rumors that Ben was going to defend one of John Gotti’s sidekicks,” Ben’s brother Aaron says, “my mother called and warned him, ‘Just make sure when you leave the courtroom, don’t stand next to him.’” (Gotti’s sidekick was Sammy “The Bull” Gravano -- charged, ironically, with whacking Paul Castellano. Brafman was thrilled to represent Gravano, but at the last minute his services were no longer needed when his client decided to sing.)

Lawyers who defend the Mafia are typically viewed by the rest of the legal profession as morally compromised. And it’s hard to reconcile the persona of Brafman the committed and religious man with his chosen role as mouthpiece for the underworld. “Ben’s not working for the Mafia; they’re clients,” insists his brother Aaron. Brafman’s rabbi, Kenneth Hain, the leader of Congregation Beth Sholom, also defends him, saying, “The nature of the system is bad guys and good guys get defended. Like all decent people, it’s not real comfortable for him.”

Brafman is extremely sensitive about the notion that he’s married to the mob, pointing out that of the roughly 500 cases he’s handled in private practice only a dozen have involved organized crime. “You’ll hear people say, ‘This is a real white-shoe kind of case -- he was Gravano’s lawyer, maybe he’s the wrong guy,’” he complains. “I bristle at that. I represent the president of a Fortune 500 company, bond traders, doctors, lawyers, actors, sports celebrities.” He claims to have turned away mob business at considerable financial sacrifice. “It’s one thing for a prosecutor who gets a check every week to say, ‘Oh boy, I’d never represent that guy,’” he says. “It’s another thing for me to pass on a case when the person is walking out the door with $250,000.” Brafman wants it both ways -- craving respectability and prominently displaying a painting of a thug, labeled Tough Guy, in his office -- and doesn’t fully understand why the world doesn’t work that way.

One potential client who was put off by the mob connection was Marv Albert. The sportscaster initially contacted Brafman to defend him on the Virginia sexual-assault charges, but after 24 hours brought in Roy Black instead. “Marv was concerned about how a big-city boy was going to do in a small town in Virginia,” says private investigator Les Levine (who worked for Albert and is also employed by Brafman on the Gatien case), adding that as far as he knows Black doesn’t have organized-crime clients in his portfolio. Miffed at the lost opportunity, Brafman takes some satisfaction in the disastrous public-relations outcome. “It’s always easy to second-guess someone else,” Brafman says, “but I was surprised by how the case ended. If you’re going through the humiliation, see it through. If you want to avoid that, the plea was on the table from the beginning.”

The phone rings now, interrupting our dinner-table conversation. It’s Rabbi Hain, who wants to discuss the legal problems of a member of the congregation. Brafman has lately taken on a series of cases representing Orthodox Jews accused of unorthodox business practices, like Rabbi Elimelech Naiman, charged with embezzling money from the Council of Jewish Organizations of Borough Park and paying off Assemblyman Dov Hikind. “As Ben has gotten more successful, in our religious circle everyone wants something from him,” says Shevy Cooperberg, his sister, a real-estate lawyer with three children, who lives nearby. “People call him, day or night, who are in trouble.”

Brafman’s home is a busy gathering place for friends and family. His widowed father spends weekends there, and his daughter, Jennifer; her husband, Mordecai Lent; and their baby, Max, stop by daily. Brafman brings work home but doesn’t talk about it much with his family. “He won’t let me watch Law and Order,” Lynda says, “because he sees that world all day.”

That world. Perhaps because a defense lawyer’s job is to spin perceptions, Brafman finds something nice to say about everyone he represents. “I’ve come to like Daphne Abdela quite a bit,” he says. “I think she has many redeeming qualities as a person. I hope to be able to salvage her from this horrible mess.” Of course, it doesn’t help her situation that Brafman was unable to suppress her confession to the police, in which she admitted urging Vasquez to keep stabbing Michael McMorrow (“Gut him . . . he’ll sink”). But one prosecutor thinks he could produce another courtroom miracle. “Ben is very good at pulling heartstrings. He’s got a good shot with her.”

But first up is Peter Gatien, accused not of personally selling drugs and pocketing cash but rather of indirectly encouraging drug sales as a way of boosting business and excitement at his nightclub. The jury will be pondering Gatien’s state of mind and to what extent he bears responsibility for the heavy action at his clubs. Even if he’s acquitted, the impresario faces another Brafman-defended trial on charges of income-tax evasion.

“The reality of life is that preparing a defense is very expensive,” says Gatien, whose legal fees are already punishing, with cases of this magnitude typically running more than $1 million. “There have been times I’ve been flat-out busted, and Ben has been very accommodating, which means a lot when you’re in trouble.”

And trouble, after all, is Ben Brafman’s business.


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