Feature Articles

May 2013


From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas - Only in America

By Oscar Goodman with George Anastasia
Weinstein Books, 274 pages, $26

By George Anastasia

     They called him the "mob's mouthpiece"

     He loved it.

     He saw it as a badge of honor. In fact, it captured who he was in so many ways.

     Oscar Goodman spent more than 30 years defending some of the most notorious mobsters in America. His list of clients included Tony Spilotro and Lefty Rosenthal (the real life characters who were fictionalized by Pesce and DeNiro in Casino), Nick Civella, the Mafia boss of Kansas City, Vinny Ferrara out of Boston and, however briefly, Meyer Lansky.

     Now he's written a book - Being Oscar - in which he talks about all that and more, much more. Oscar Goodman was happy being the mouthpiece for the mob because it put him center stage in the criminal court system that he loved.

     Never shy and seldom at a loss for words, he thrived in that arena. He was energized by the attention. He couldn't wait to be quoted in the media. He got an adrenaline rush from the high stakes that came with a big case. Life was literally on the line.

     Most of all, he loved doing battle in a courtroom. It was, he told me again and again, what the Constitution and Bills of Rights were all about. Everyone is entitled to legal representation, he said. That sometimes gets lost in the headlines that scream of RICO indictments and undercover investigations. His clients, he said emphatically, were no different than any other American. He was proud to be their attorney. As such, he said he spent his career dealing with people who bent the rules and played fast and loose with the truth in an attempt to get their way. Those people, he said, worked for the federal government.

     I spent nearly a year working with Oscar on his book. His story is a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at both the criminal justice system and the American political system. He effectively stopped his criminal practice after being elected mayor of Las Vegas, a city he loved, in 1999. He served two more terms - a total of 12 years - before stepping down. By law he could not seek a fourth term. His wife Carolyn ran instead. She is now the mayor of what Oscar happily refers to as the greatest city in America.

     "Sin City," some might call it. Oscar says so what.

     Blunt, charismatic and opinionated, he can and will talk about any subject. Among other things, he argues in his book that both drugs and prostitution should be legalized. He also takes on the professional spots leagues, especially the NFL, over their hypocritical stand on sports betting.

     Oscar is a degenerate sports gambler. He loves the action. He also loves his martinis. And his wife. And his four grown children. And his adopted city. He came to Vegas in 1964 from Philadelphia and never looked back, although he did spend considerable time in the city of his birth in the late 1980s, representing a city councilman and then a mob underboss in a series of racketeering and corruption cases.

     Some wins. Some losses.

     Oscar's biggest disappointment? His mob client, Scarfo family underboss Philip "Crazy Phil" Leonetti, became a government informant after he was convicted. Oscar makes clear he had nothing to do with working out that deal.

     "I don't represent rats," he said succinctly.

     In the book Oscar writes that he was shocked by the move. Not only did he believe Leonetti had a chance to have his racketeering conviction overturned on appeal, but more important, he said, Leonetti had turned on his family. And by that he didn't mean his crime family. Mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, the lead defendant in the case, was Leonetti's uncle

     Oscar describes Leonetti's defection this way:

     "Leonetti got forty-five years, which shocked me. I really thought the evidence against him was weak. Despite all the tapes and all the informant testimony, there wasn't much hard evidence linking him to the crimes. He never said very much to anyone. They called him 'Crazy Phil,' a nickname he hated, and the government alleged he was involved in ten murders, but I didn't see him as a violent gangster and I don't think the prosecution had proven its case. He just seemed like a decent, stand-up guy who was close to his uncle.

     "Even during the trials, he never said much, although I still can remember him whispering to me whenever one of those informants was testifying. I had never heard the expression before, but he called each one of them 'lying motherless motherfuckers.'

     "I guess it was a Philadelphia thing.

     "But so was cooperating. The Philadelphia mob has spawned more cooperating witnesses than any other crime family in America. Some people jokingly refer to them as the South Philadelphia Boys Choir.

     "Leonetti, to my amazement, joined the group shortly after he was sentenced. He turned rat and became a government witness in cases up and down the East Coast. He was the reason, many in law enforcement circles say, that Salvatore 'Sammy the Bull' Gravano turned. Leonetti was ready to testify about Gravano's involvement in a mob murder in Philadelphia.

     "I couldn't believe it when I heard that Philip had flipped. I really thought we had a chance on appeal to overturn his convictions. But I was informed that he was replacing me with another attorney, one who worked out his cooperating agreement. I couldn't believe that a guy with his reputation, a guy I had thought was like Tony Spilotro, would become a rat. I couldn't believe he was such a weakling. The first time he faced any kind of adversity, he turned on his family. And I don't mean crime family. He turned on his own uncle, his mother's brother, the man who had raised him after his father left. As far as I was concerned, the government made a deal with the devil."

     Oscar makes clear throughout the book that he doesn't agree with or condone the violence and criminality that are so much a part of the mob. But he draws a distinction between the acts and the individuals. And he also recognizes that while he, like most law abiding citizens, doesn't live by the same code as a Mafioso, a man who does has to be respected on those terms.

     Throughout his career defending gangsters, Oscar said he heard the voice of his wife Carolyn and a piece of advice she gave him early on: "Don't become you client."

     He never did, although the FBI and Strike Force attorneys tried time and again to jackpot him, to implicate him in the actions of those he was representing.

     The feds were, he says, reprehensible´┐Żand unsuccessful.

     Law enforcement missed the point that Oscar makes again and again in his book. When he was representing Spilotro or Rosenthal or Civella, or a drug dealer or a federal judge charged with corruption, he was defending the Constitution. That's what this country is all about, he said, and that was the way he approached his job. There could be no higher calling.

     Mob mouthpiece indeed.

     Did he like some of his clients? Absolutely.

     They might have been portrayed in RICO indictments as thugs and degenerates, but Oscar dealt with them on a different level. He was their lawyer, their representative.

     "I don't want to glamorize organized crime figures," he writes in Being Oscar. "The criminal underworld can be a dark, uncaring and inhumane place. Some of my clients lived and did their business there. I know that. But when I could, I tried to look at them from a different perspective.

     "One, under the law they were entitled to legal representation and I was going to give them that. Two, and this not everyone might agree with, they lived by a certain code, a certain morality that you and I might not be a part of. But I think you have to respect the fact that they had a code."

     He backs that up with a classic story about Vinny "The Animal" Ferrara, a Boston mobster who was indicted in 1990 in a racketeering case that included several murders.

     The story of how Oscar handled the case - the prosecution won, but the case was later overturned because of clear prosecutorial misconduct - and how he dealt with Ferrara and co-defendant J.R. Russo is classic Goodman.

     Oscar tells the story in detail in his book, but there is one anecdote that captures the relationship between lawyer and client perfectly. Ferrara and his co-defendants had been picked up on an FBI tape conducting a mob making ceremony.

     The feds had gotten a tip from an informant and had hidden bugs in a home in Medford, Massachusetts. It was the first time a secret initiation ceremony had ever been recorded.

     After the ceremony is completed, Ferrara is heard on the tape telling an associate that "Only the ghost knows what really took place here today." The FBI loved it.

     Here's Oscar writing about the part of the story:

     "The making ceremony tape was a classic. The FBI must have had an orgasm when they made it. I can just imagine the looks on the agents' faces while they were sitting in a van down the street listening in. The ceremony had taken place in the house of the aunt of a Boston mobster´┐ŻThere's a gun and a knife and a holy card that the proposed mob member had to hold in his hand while it was set on fire. While it was burning in his cupped hands, he had to swear allegiance to the family, promising to burn like the holy card in hell if he betrayed the family's trust. He's then told that he had to come whenever he was called, even if he was at his own mother's death bed. This new family he was joining, this crime family, came before everything else.

     "Pre-trial I had a discussion with Vinny and J.R. about that tape. I said we could probably try to work around it, but the thing that will hurt us the most if the tape is played for a jury is that line about leaving your mother's death bed. Jurors are going to find that repulsive and they won't understand it.

     "Vinny looked at J.R. and said, 'Next time, let's leave that part out.'"

     Being Oscar puts you in the middle of all that. The story is rich in detail and full of behind-the-scenes accounts of what goes on before, during and after major trials and investigations.

     When Lefty Rosenthal's car was blown out outside Tony Roma's restaurant in Las Vegas - a scene captured perfectly in the movie - Oscar was the first guy Rosenthal called. Oscar was there as they carried an angry and vengeance seeking Rosenthal - his eyebrows singed, his face black with soot - away on a ambulance gurney.

     When Spilotro was tried for conspiracy in Vegas and for murder in Chicago, Oscar was by his side. And when the tough-talking wiseguy's body was found buried in a field in Indiana, Oscar got one of the first calls.

     There's also Nick Civella and the famous mob skimming of the city's gambling palaces and Oscar's humorous account of the erudite mob boss's culinary delights.

     No one knows mob better than Oscar Goodman. Told through the prism of Las Vegas, Oscar's story is a unique and singular look at an American criminal institution. Oscar writes that he spent his entire career as a defense attorney dealing with good guys and bad guys. From his perspective, he says, it was often hard to tell the difference.

     The only thing I'm certain of after spending nearly a year working on this book is that Oscar Goodman is truly a man of honor, in the noblest and best sense of that term.

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