The Goodfather

“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, but of course he wasn’t thinking of the “black-collar bar,” the fraternity of lawyers whose job it’s been (until very recently) to defend mafiosi, or those accused of being mafiosi. Al Krieger, for example, who, while unfortunately resembling Nosferatu, is often cited as the Dean of the BCB: After years of success saving “literary” felons like Gay Talese’s Joe Bonanno, Krieger saw how the wind was blowing – massive, crippling use by federal prosecutors of the Draconian rico Act, which stints constitutional restraint and virtually guarantees convictions – and abruptly moved to Miami. There he “reintegrated” his client base, coming north only in 1992 for a moment of lèse-majesté, losing the last, unwinnable John Gotti case (the boss got life without parole). Or there is James LaRossa, who looks like the movie poster for Gore Vidal’s Caligula, defender of Big Paul Castellano, the Gambino-family godfather whose 1985 murder precipitated Gotti into the headlines. But LaRossa has always had “other strings to my bow,” as he’ll remind anyone, and is now semi-retired and representing corporate wise guys. Or Frank Ragano, a human stack of mushroom pizzas who defines the term mob lawyer and was for years the official mouthpiece for Florida’s racket boss, Santo Trafficante, New Orleans Cosa Nostra man Carlos Marcello, and Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa; after an IRS probe, Ragano got religion and teamed with Notre Dame law professor Robert Blakey (co-author of rico) and Bobby Kennedy hagiographer Jack Newfield to root out evil wherever it reared its head. Finally, there is Bruce Cutler, one BCB member who has changed, too, during these tough times, but slowly, and reluctantly.

When he reappeared in the public eye after nine months of legal suspension, a $7,500 fine, and a period of house arrest during which he’d had to wear an electronic ankle bracelet (he’d broken Judge I. Leo Glasser’s gag rule in the last John Gotti trial, from which he’d been disqualified for being what Glasser called a “house counsel” to the Gambinos), Cutler seemed chastened, pale, less the “bella figura” who’d won three bellicose, high-profile Gotti cases between 1986 and 1990. He’d sat quietly in U.S. District Court judge Barrington Parker’s White Plains courtroom last March while his old Gotti co-defender, Gerry Shargel, argued for bail on a 60-count racketeering indictment against Gotti’s son, John Jr. After the hearing (which Junior lost; he remains in custody while awaiting trial next January), Cutler mildly told reporters that he couldn’t discuss the case without violating Rule 7, which regulates lawyers’ comments on pending court matters: “You can say I’m the same Bruce, but instead of hollering to the press, I’m gonna do it strictly in the well… .”

A significant change, since Cutler’s effectiveness has always turned on a sort of populist, Clarence Darrow/Method-actor style, in which the idea was to shift emphasis away from the charges against his client and attack something – e.g., the prosecution, big government, big business: all the forces that have come to oppress the “common man” in the juror pool since, say, the advent of Reagan Republicanism. In the past, Cutler had gradually escalated his bravura, utilizing press conferences, cross-examinations, and summations for maximum impact during his P.R. wars with the Feds. During the second John Gotti trial (1987), for example, he’d ranted that the indictment itself was “a rancid stew” made with “bad meat and bad potatoes” that “belongs in the garbage,” then slam-dunked the seven-pound document into a courtroom trash can (the image was so powerful that Miami Vice wrote it into a script). During Gotti’s third trial (1990), Cutler’s oratory won encomiums from Jimmy Breslin, not exactly a lib-symp (though, the Feds later learned, a witness had been intimidated, thus ensuring Gotti’s acquittal). When it became clear that the government was determined to win the fourth Gotti trial by any means, including removing Cutler and Shargel from the defense, and had launched what amounted to a spec-ops team to help them do so (FBI agent Bruce Mouw’s fifteen-man, $75 million C-16 squad), Cutler raised the rhetoric ante: He called Judge Glasser “His Majesty!,” referred to the prosecutors as “McCarthyites,” and characterized the government’s “persecution” of Gotti as a “sick … demented … conspiracy,” warning the public that it would be “John Gotti today, you tomorrow.” When Glasser put the gag order in place, ostensibly to prevent the case’s being tried in the press, but then, unaccountably, and before the trial started, unsealed FBI surveillance tapes (on which Gotti is heard saying self-incriminating things like “Tell him I, personally – John Gotti – will sever his motherfucking head off!”), Cutler dropped discretion like an old sock. “Glasser is like the Jews the Nazis used to lead the death-camp inmates into the gas chamber,” he told a reporter. The judge held him in contempt on March 5, 1992.

By then, Cutler’s opponents – chiefly former Eastern District prosecutors Andrew Maloney and John Gleeson, and the former head of Brooklyn’s Organized Crime Strike Force, Ed McDonald – had labeled him “a Mafia groupie” who’d “crossed the line” and become so familiar with Gambino operations that he could have been called as a material witness himself. (He never was, but the rationale conveniently justified Glasser’s “house counsel” disqualification, and Gotti lost his lawyer’s emotive power in his last legal battle; Cutler definitively lost his P.R. war with the Feds.)

“I hurt myself saying what I did about Glasser,” Cutler mused a few weeks ago, reddening slightly. “I’ve been up before him since I got my stripes back on June 12, 1997, and I haveta say the guy’s been very solicitous.” He was bouncing his son Michael in his arms in the foyer of Mary Queen of Heaven Church on Avenue M in deepest Flatlands, waiting for Father Eugene Stoklie to organize the twenty-odd families gathered to have their kids christened.

Cutler was wearing a double-breasted De Lisi suit of 9-mm. gray, one of dozens he’d outgrown during his forced period of inactivity, but now weight-lifting and StairMaster sessions had brought him down to 210 pounds, and his whole Gotti-era, size-46 wardrobe – “part of my identity, really” – was available to him again.

Those who know Bruce best – attorney and buddy Eddie Hayes (Tom Wolfe’s prototype for the defense lawyer character in Bonfire of the Vanities); attorney George Santangelo, Cutler’s co-counsel in a recent narcotics case; high-school friend and Mercedes salesman Mike DiRaimondo – feel that he’s mellowed and matured because of his recent troubles, which include the deaths of both his parents in 1994 and 1995; a breakup with his longtime girlfriend Shonna Valeska; and financial retrenchment that caused him to give up both his two-bedroom bachelor pad near Lincoln Center and his impressive, all-lower-Gotham-view law office (“You could see Giuliani giving the Fascist salute on St. Andrew’s Plaza when he ran the Southern District!”).

“But Bruce is an action guy, and we sometimes fight about what direction his populism should take now,” Hayes laughed at a reception for Michael Cutler held at Taormina, a Sicilian restaurant on Mulberry Street where Gotti himself used to eat.

Management had arranged a table for twenty for Cutler and festooned it with silvery ribbons and mauve balloons, like a hot-weather New Year’s Eve fête. Many of the guests were relatives of Rosetta Mazzone, Michael’s mother, who had opted not to marry Cutler but had insisted on a Catholic upbringing for her son. The Gotti family had discreetly phoned in their congratulations to Bruce, and the restaurant had offered to cover the tab, but Cutler just winked and wrote a check.

“I still go to see John,” he told me after proudly strutting up and down with Michael, accepting the plaudits of old waiters and young patrolmen who’d stopped in to wet their whistles (“Beat cops love me,” he’d confided), “but now that Gotti’s appeals are exhausted, I can’t go as much.”

The “Junior” trial, literally the last great Mafia case of the century, which the government will represent as the final flattening of the old Carlo Gambino organization, will put Cutler back into the headlines, a place he clearly needs to be; he’s already survived a challenge by prosecutors to disqualify him again on the serviceable “house counsel” charge, Judge Parker ruling that the government’s petitions were “without merit.” “And I’ve gotta say,” said Cutler, “I don’t think any of that was Carol Sipperly’s or Marjorie Miller’s the assistant U.S. Attorneys on the case doing. It hadda come from higher up. Both women are fine lawyers, and there’s no personal animosity there.”

Cutler, who’d gotten some sun in the Otisville Penitentiary exercise yard conferring with his narcotics client, was looking more benignly pugnacious by the minute. He flashed his trademark smile, his teeth like great white Chiclets: “What would John Gotti say if he heard me speaking in such an ‘accommodating’ way?” He checked out Hayes and DiRaimondo. “John’s always been a gambler. I think he’d probably tell me to bet ‘em like I read ‘em.”

The Goodfather