Oscar Goodman Opens his Briefcase

From Spilotro to O.J., the former mayor recounts his eventful career as a defense attorney

Photo by Darrin Bush/Las Vegas News Bureau

Photo by Darrin Bush/Las Vegas News Bureau

Before he was the Happiest Mayor on Earth, Oscar Goodman was one of the most famous criminal defense lawyers in the country, with a roster of underworld clients that ranged from Tony Spilotro to Meyer Lansky, the latter being one of the most important men in both organized crime and Las Vegas history (at the risk of sounding redundant). Not to mention, Goodman’s the attorney who scored an acquittal in the seemingly impossible Jimmy Chagra case, where the drug lord was implicated in the 1979 assassination of federal judge John Wood. We caught up with hizzoner to talk about growing up with the law, his brush with O.J. Simpson’s double-murder trial and being held in contempt of court.

Growing up as a son of a prosecutor, was there any doubt you’d go into law? 

Oh, absolutely. I was going to be a coach. I was going to be a rabbi. I was going to be a lot of things, never even thinking of being a lawyer. Then my wife said, “You’d better go to law school.” She made a very compelling argument that, when you’re a rabbi, you have 800 bosses, and I never liked a boss. As a coach, it’s so iffy that you could get a solid profession.

What was the case that led to you representing organized crime figures? 

By accident I became the country’s leading expert on wiretap cases. My wife, we would go out to dinner once a month. We went to the Hacienda. After dinner, she would take $10 and play blackjack. The dealer who dealt her the cards became very friendly with me, and he called me [to handle his] bankruptcy. A couple of weeks after that, a phone call came into the pit at the Hacienda. It was from an organized crime figure from the Northeast whose stepbrother had been arrested on the Dyer Act [a.k.a., the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act]. All they had to prove [to get a federal conviction] was a car was stolen and transported from one state to another. It was the kind of case you don’t win, but I didn’t know any better.

So the organized crime figure calls into the pit at the Hacienda. The guy who answered the phone said, “Hello, what can I do for you?” He says, “Who’s the best criminal lawyer in Las Vegas?” Nothing changes in 50 years in Las Vegas. Instead of saying, “I don’t know,” he goes like this [covers receiver, whispers], “Who’s the best criminal lawyer in Las Vegas?” And the guy who dealt my wife the cards, who I did the bankruptcy for, said, “Call Oscar.” That’s where it all started. I won the case. I could try the case 1,000 times. I would lose it 999 times, but somebody was shining on me.

The first legal wiretap took place down in Miami. They had the public phones wiretapped. A father-son team were calling all over the country for line information—placing bets and accepting bets and the like. One of the fellas providing this information was a bartender at the Golden Nugget. He got picked up on the wiretap.

They had about six, seven, eight defendants. I moved for a severance, because my client was such a small fish in a big pond. The judge would deny it. Every day for about a week and a half, I moved for the severance, because I haven’t heard my client’s name mentioned. Judge finally says, “I’m granting the severance.” [Meyer] Lansky’s lawyer was involved in the case. He says, “Why don’t you help us?” Here I was a young lawyer. It’s a great opportunity for me. Well, all [the other defendants] are found guilty. But the word gets out, this kid from Las Vegas, Goodman, he beat the case. Everybody assumed I was an expert on wiretaps, although my client was severed out. They never tried him again.

There’s the famous footage of Frank Costello storming out of the Kefauver Hearings. Did you ever have to work to keep a lid on any of your clients in court? 

A couple of them. I was involved in the [Nicky] Scarfo case back in Philly, representing Philip Leonetti. They were a pretty hotheaded group of defendants. In the Chagra case, when the principal witness testified, [Chagra] got up and called him a lying motherfucker right in front of the jury.

The most famous wasn’t a trial, but Frank Rosenthal in front of the Gaming Commission. He held a press conference out there. But a guy like Spilotro never said anything.

There’s this image a lot of people have of the tough, defiant wise guy in court, but were they ever scared to go to trial?

I have to believe. I’ve been held in contempt of court and was going to jail. Anybody who isn’t fearful of something like that, they have a screw loose. There’s nothing pleasant about it. But with the exception of maybe one or two clients, they all showed up and went to trial. They figured if they played they would pay. That’s the way it was. They were men about it, to be honest with you.

How did you find yourself in contempt of court? 

I had a client, Natale Richichi—they called him Big Chris. He was supposedly the consiglieri for [John] Gotti. The government subpoenaed me before the grand jury. They wanted to find out who paid my fee and how much it was. I told them to drop dead.

They brought me before the judge, Phil Pro. And I knew what the law was, that my fee was not a confidential communication. But I was making a new argument that it undermined my client’s confidence in me. So I told him I’m not going to do it. The judge said, “You are going to do it, or else I’m holding you in contempt.”

The judge set a date. It seemed like every member of the bar was outside the courthouse with bullhorns saying, “Judge Pro, Let the O Go!” It was pretty dramatic. I get into court and I never showed any fear, but the prosecutor gets up, right before the judge is about to incarcerate me, and says, “You know something judge, jail doesn’t scare Goodman. You’ve got to hit him in his pocketbook.” Judge says, “Well, if that’s what you want, I’m going to fine him $25,000 and $2,500 a day hereafter.” I went [to Orange County] for [another] case, and there was a group of Strike Force attorneys having a convention there. A fella I had known said, “You’re in a lot of trouble. You know, they’re going to go for criminal contempt. You’re not budging. That’s real trouble, because then you lose your ticket [law license] and you go to prison.”

I went back and to Richichi and said, “Chris, I’m going to do whatever you want me to do here, but if they indict me, I won’t be able to represent you anymore.” He told me to give them whatever they want. I turned over the receipt, and because I’m a little smarter than they are, I turned it over in open court. It had “Anonymous” and the amount, but it didn’t do [the prosecutors] any good because I had already deposited it.

When I was under this contempt I had been retained to represent a fella up in Boston. I was in my room in the hotel with my wife when I got a phone call from somebody representing themselves as O.J. [Simpson’s] agent. They wanted to send me $25,000 to retain me to represent him. We’re watching TV, and we’re seeing the white [Bronco] as the phone call was actually made. I told him, “I can’t even think of getting involved, because I’ve got a big problem. I may go to jail on contempt.” That’s when they went to Robert Shapiro.

Do you ever think about “what if”? 

It would have been a great case. My friends in Los Angeles always said there was no way Simpson could lose. When they moved it out of [Brentwood] into downtown [Los Angeles], the case was over for all intents and purposes. I have no idea, to be honest. I don’t know if I would have been smart enough to come up with “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” It would have been a nice case, though.

What was your strategy to get a jury on your side? 

It’s like anything else. It’s why I was a halfway successful politician. I think jurors know when you’re trying to fool them. Jurors are very smart. Putting the 12 parts together and coming up with justice is a fascinating phenomenon.

I always was very honest. I rarely let my client take the witness stand. I felt I could do better in the closing argument than he could under cross-examination. Basically, I tried all my cases the same way: I put the government on trial. If [the jurors] were offended enough by the government’s misconduct, then I would win the case. If they weren’t, I would not be so successful.

What was more satisfying: getting a win in court or settling without shots fired? 

I didn’t have any settlements to speak of. A guy like Spilotro, they offered lethal injection or the electric chair. Neither of them would have been satisfactory. All my clients were like that. I was the lawyer of last resort.

What did you feel like when you walked into the courtroom? 

I felt great. A lot of lawyers always have other lawyers with them. I’d say 99 percent of my cases where I was representing a single defendant I was always by myself. In the Chagra case, it was almost David and Goliath. The courtroom was just filled with DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] agents, IRS agents, FBI agents, local cops, paralegals, lawyers. It was like 1,000 people against poor David sitting there. It’s an awesome feeling. You have a person’s life in your hands. It’s like Spilotro said: “You know, this United States v. Anthony Spilotro, that doesn’t seem fair.” I always liked to represent the underdog. It’s why I can’t win a bet.

Do you miss the law? 

I miss certain aspects, but I have a son who practices, and I have another son who’s a [justice of the peace]. Just as my father and myself would have been oil and water, even though there’s a great deal of love and affection between us, same thing.

What advice do you give to law students? 

If you don’t love going to work every single day, go do something else. It’s a great profession. It’s a profession a little bit different than any other in the sense that a doctor has a closed door and speaks a language not every layperson understands. A lawyer, at least a trial lawyer—and I wouldn’t want to be any other kind of lawyer—can’t be a phony. The jury speaks the same language that I speak, and they’d be able to see it in a New York second. You have to have a way about you. And my way was to attack the opposition.

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