Little Big Man

As the bailiff unlocked her handcuffs, Daphne Abdela twisted in her seat to look around the courtroom. Seeing her parents, the 15-year-old brightened and, with a wistful I-hope-you’re-not-really-mad-at-me smile, mouthed, “I love you.”

Charged with the savage stabbing murder of Realtor Michael McMorrow in Central Park, Daphne and teen pal Christopher Vasquez, labeled the baby-faced butchers by the tabloids, have been jailed at the Spofford Juvenile Center since June. Curiosity about this unlikely pair of defendants, the rich wild child and the nerdy altar boy, remains so strong that even their most minor court proceedings provoke attention.

Daphne’s lawyer rose to speak, and a middle-aged woman in the back turned to her more knowledgeable companion and asked in a stage whisper, “Who’s that?” – surprised she didn’t recognize the man defending such a notorious client. “Oh, that’s Ben Brafman,” came the reply. “He’s handled a lot of big-time mob cases. He’s one of the best lawyers in the city.”

Few criminal-defense lawyers have the kind of media-superstar status of a Johnnie Cochran or a Barry Scheck, who log endless airtime on Court TV. But while Brafman, a former Manhattan Assistant D.A., isn’t yet a household name, he’s developed a reputation as the man to have on speed-dial when you’re in really big trouble.

Small wonder that Angelo and Catherine Abdela pray he can save their troubled daughter from a long jail term. Brafman has won acquittals for people whom no one expected to walk. Take James Patino, cleared in 1990 of another murder that shook New York, the slaying of black teenager Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst. Or Vincent Basciano, one of ten men charged in the 1994 Blue Thunder heroin-distribution trial, who got off after Brafman persuaded a jury that his client had actually been bragging about illegal gambling, not drugs, in wiretapped conversations. “I thought we had Ben’s client cold,” admits Roland Riopelle, the assistant U.S. Attorney who tried and lost the case.

“What Ben manages to do is wrap his clients in his own credibility,” says Paul Shechtman, a veteran federal and state prosecutor who recently entered private practice. “Jurors wind up saying that the defendant couldn’t be that bad if Ben’s speaking for him.”

It’s not surprising that Brafman, 49, a man who played bar mitzvahs and the Catskills as a youthful stand-up comic, knows how to charm juries. He’s worked his way into the defense elite through sheer whatever-it-takes drive and relentless self-marketing, using humor as a weapon. The son of Holocaust survivors, Brafman grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and went to Brooklyn College night school and Ohio Northern University Law School. Okay, so it’s not Harvard, but Brafman uses his down-to-earth pedigree to put people at ease. He’ll even joke about his equally down-to-earth stature (he boldly claims five feet six) to score points with juries. “He’s short, and he uses it well,” says criminal-defense lawyer Fred Hafetz, recalling a multi-defendant bid-rigging case he tried with Brafman. “Ben told the jury: ‘The prosecutor wants you to believe this story. I want to be six inches taller. But neither one of us is going to get our wish.’”

His detractors see a darker side, accusing Brafman of using underhanded, albeit legal, courtroom tactics to win, and cynically manipulating the press with carefully orchestrated leaks. It’s fair to say that Perry Mason had a gentler style. But Brafman is effective, even if he doesn’t always play by Marquess of Queensbury rules. So fearsome is his reputation that critics, talking on the phone, sound a lot like Brafman’s Mafia clients fearing a wiretap. “I could trash him,” sniffs one antagonist, “but I’d rather take the high road.”

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.”

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.’”

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.

Little Big Man