(Corrects client represented by lawyer in 16th paragraph. For more Strauss-Kahn news, visit EXT2 )
May 26 (Bloomberg) -- Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s criminal defense is in good hands, if a convicted racketeer is to be believed.
When attorney Benjamin Brafman won the acquittal of rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs on gun and bribery charges in 2001, he got praise from another client, Carmine Agnello, the former son-in- law of convicted Gambino crime boss John J. Gotti.
“Ben Brafman: Congratulations on the acquittal in People v. Combs,” Agnello said in an ad in the New York Law Journal after Combs was cleared of all charges stemming from a shooting in a Manhattan nightclub. Agnello, who hired Brafman to defend him on unrelated federal racketeering charges, later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Brafman, 62, now defending Strauss-Kahn against charges of sexually assaulting and attempting to rape a Manhattan hotel maid, has spent much of the past 30 years representing high- profile defendants in cases that make headlines. His client list has included pop star Michael Jackson, Gambino crime family underboss Salvatore “Sammy Bull” Gravano, Genovese crime boss Vincent “Chin” Gigante, former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress and rapper Jay-Z.
‘Trifecta of Media’
“I could not think of a better case for Ben to be in,” said Mark Geragos, who with Brafman defended Jackson against child-molestation charges. “When I first read the story and heard it was in New York, I thought it was right up his alley.”
Geragos said he learned the New York lawyer had been retained by Strauss-Kahn minutes after sending him an e-mail saying he would be perfect for the case. Geragos said the two have remained friends since they were first introduced by the late civil rights and defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran,
“For a case like this you have the trifecta of media, politics and scandal and he’s extremely adept at all three,” Geragos said of Brafman. “He’s a guy who understands the needs of the media, both in terms of the story itself and getting your client’s side out.”
Brafman’s fans include former prosecutors who have battled him in the courtroom.
“He’s as smart and tough as they come. A real fighter,” said Alan Vinegrad, the former U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, who prosecuted a client of Brafman’s in the 1990s, a rabbinical student charged with helping a rabbi kidnap a teenage boy.
Brafman is a good fit for the Strauss-Kahn case because he can both try cases and work out plea deals, former prosecutors said.
Benton Campbell, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn from 2007 to 2010, said Brafman is a formidable advocate when negotiating on behalf of a client.
“Ben has absolute credibility and when he talks to you and tells you about the case and can point out its shortcomings,” Campbell said, “that’s something you’re going to listen to.”
“As a result, the conversations are much more direct, productive and effective,” said Campbell, now a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP in New York
Brafman, a native New Yorker who grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, also connects with juries, said Nelson Boxer, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
“To me, that’s what distinguishes him from the others who have the personality and fire in the courtroom,” said Boxer, now a partner at Alston Bird LLP. “He’s a very effective advocate, strong on the law and really smart. Not everybody has all three.”
Murray Richman, a New York lawyer who represented Combs’s co-defendant, Jamal “Shyne” Barrow, said Brafman will bring an intensity to defending Strauss-Kahn.
“He knows what it takes to put a case together,” said Richman, who has known Brafman for more than 30 years. “He really is also a product of the state court system and knows the lay of the land. He’s on top of the heap.”
While three prosecution witnesses testified seeing Combs with a gun during his trial, Brafman honed in during cross- examination on the inconsistencies in their stories. He also highlighted their motives to lie, citing the multimillion-dollar lawsuits they filed against his client.
Richman also said Brafman will find and exploit any weakness in the people’s case.
“This is a 62-year-old man with a young woman, there are defensible issues here, and it’s much too early to say what will or won’t occur,” Richman said.
Brafman said yesterday in a statement that he continues to believe “Mr. Strauss-Kahn will be fully exonerated.” Brafman declined to comment for this story.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Brafman put himself through Brooklyn College by waiting tables at resorts in the Catskills, doing stand-up comedy when he wasn’t busing tables, he has said. He obtained a law degree from Ohio Northern University and obtained a master of laws degree from New York University School of Law.
After law school, Brafman worked at the criminal defense firm run by former New York City Police Commissioner Robert McGuire and was then hired by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office, where he worked from 1976 to 1979 in the rackets bureau.
In a courthouse where sharp elbows wear $100 suits, Brafman favors tailored Polo Ralph Lauren pinstriped suits and a Jacob & Co. watch given him by a former client. During Combs’s trial, Brafman’s store of choice was Robert Talbott on Madison Avenue.
“Don’t you want to ask me about my tie? That’s T-A-L-B-O- T-T” Brafman quipped during the Combs trial, growing impatient with reporters’ daily queries about what Combs and Cochran were wearing to court.
In the elevator after a contentious hearing in the rabbi case in Brooklyn, Brafman looked upward and sighed, “Oy, I should have listened to my mother and gone to medical school.”
A former boss remembers Brafman as an eager prosecutor willing to take the worst cases.
“Back then Ben was exactly like he is today, except I don’t think he got his suits at Paul Stuart like he does now,” said Austin Campriello, who was Brafman’s bureau chief at the District Attorney’s office in the 1970s. “I could give him any type of case and he never said no.”
“He was very people savvy, he had a keen sense of human beings and was completely unafraid in court,” Campriello said. “A lot of people think of him as only a trial lawyer, but he’s also very adept at working out plea deals. And he’s also pretty well liked by the bench and by his colleagues.”
Campriello said Brafman cares about his clients, which juries sense.
“Most people can see through phonies,” he said. “If he goes to trial, the jury is going to like him, they’re going to think he’s funny and telling them a straight story. And that’s why he wins.”
Brafman and his wife Lynda, a librarian, have two children and 12 grandchildren and live on New York’s Long Island.
One of his earliest headline-grabbing victories came in 1990, when he defended James Patino, accused in the racially motivated killing of Yusuf Hawkins, a black 16-year-old, in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. Of the seven youths originally charged with Hawkins’ murder, Patino was one of three defendants acquitted of all charges.
He represented Gravano, the underboss of the Gambino Organized Crime Family, until Gravano agreed to cooperate in 1991.
In 1998, Brafman defended Peter Gatien, the then-owner of two New York City nightclubs charged by the U.S. with authorizing and financing drug dealing at his clubs. Gatien was the only one of 30 people charged in the case to win acquittal.
That trial proved to have some bruising moments. Eric Friedberg, a prosecutor in the case, said in court papers that Brafman was making “improper,” “inflammatory” and “scurrilous” statements which could taint the jury and damage the credibility of their witnesses. U.S. District Judge Frederic Block, who presided over the case, imposed a gag order on Brafman and the prosecution.
During the Gatien case, Brafman’s relentless cross- examination elicited tears from a prosecution witness, Michael Caruso.
Zachary Carter, the former Brooklyn U.S. Attorney whose office prosecuted Gatien, didn’t return a call seeking comment. Friedberg, who now operates the security firm Stroz Friedberg LLC, which is managing Strauss-Kahn’s house arrest, declined to comment about Brafman or the Gatien case. Morgenthau, whose office prosecuted Combs, declined to comment.
One client, Mehdi Gabayzadeh, the former chief executive of American Tissue Inc., fired Brafman after he suggested pleading guilty. Gabayzadeh was convicted of fraud and conspiracy and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Gabayzadeh sued Brafman from his Fort Dix, New Jersey, prison cell, claiming Brafman fraudulently overbilled him after getting paid more than $1 million in fees. He called Brafman “ruthlessly self-serving.”
U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty dismissed the case on May 11, saying it was without merit. Brafman declined to comment when Crotty issued the ruling.
Richman said that Brafman, an Orthodox Jew, remains grounded regardless of his success.
“I remember when we finished Puffy’s trial very late, it was 9:30 on a Friday night,” Richman said. “Everyone was celebrating, but you know what Ben did? He walked all the way to a synagogue to pray.”
The case is People v. Strauss-Kahn, 2526/11, Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County (Manhattan).
--With assistance from Bob Van Voris and Karen Freifeld in New York. Editors: Andrew Dunn, Mary Romano
To contact the reporter on this story: Patricia Hurtado in New York at email@example.com
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