I’ve never met anybody that I haven’t been able to find some good in when they sit across the desk from me asking me to help them,” declares Las Vegas defense attorney Oscar Goodman. “All my clients are my friends.”
His client Anthony Spilotro, for instance, a Mafia boss found in a shallow Indiana grave last June, was, according to Goodman, “a kind, gentle, sensitive, thoughtful, considerate human being.” The most famous of Spilotro’s suspected 22 murders supposedly involved putting a man’s head in a vise and squeezing until his eyes popped out. Other notables among Goodman’s clientele have included mobster Meyer Lansky and drug dealer Jimmy Chagra, for whom Goodman won an acquittal on charges that he had murdered a federal judge. Chagra’s wife and brother were convicted of conspiracy to murder.
Goodman’s rosy view of human nature, as well as his legal skills, will be tested this month, when he goes before the U.S. Senate for the first impeachment trial in half a century. His client this time is Nevada’s imprisoned federal judge, Harry Claiborne. Claiborne, 69, was initially charged with accepting bribes but—defended by Goodman—was convicted only of tax evasion two years ago. Since then, he has refused to give up his judgeship, or its $78,000-a-year salary, even though he’s serving time at a federal facility at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. Federal judges can be removed from office only by a vote of the Senate, and Goodman hopes to convince the Senators that Claiborne is being “persecuted” for his frequent criticism of the Justice Department’s gambling investigations. (Claiborne, himself a premier Nevada defense attorney before his elevation to the bench, counted Las Vegas casino operators among his clients and friends.)
It would appear that Goodman’s task is all but impossible. The House of Representatives voted 406 to 0 in July to impeach Claiborne, sending his case to the Senate for trial. Claiborne “is more than an embarrassment,” observed Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-NY). “He is a disgrace, an affront to the judicial office he was appointed to serve.”
The unflappable Goodman concedes nothing. “Claiborne’s acts were completely nonjudicially related,” he notes, “and I’m going to have evidence to the effect that he was a heck of a judge.” Even the suggestion that Claiborne might forego his salary at least until he’s back on the street strikes Goodman as outrageous. “Why should he give up something to which he is rightfully entitled just to assuage the public feeling that a man in prison shouldn’t be drawing his salary?”
As is perhaps necessary in his line of work, Goodman has cultivated an indifference to what the public feels one way or the other. Tagged by the press as the “mob’s attorney,” he insists the epithet is a compliment to his legal skills. “If there was a ‘mob’ “—and he denies that there is—”I would consider it an honor to be thought of as an attorney for such a group because they would be able to afford the best representation available.”
Federal investigators have probed his relationship to his alleged organized-crime clients but have never charged him with criminal activity. He expects he’ll always be under the authorities’ scrutiny. “I have certain defined enemies out there,” he says, “and if I were ever anything less than Caesar’s wife, beyond reproach, I think I would be nailed quicker than wall-board. I like to think my life-style is working hard at the office and going home to my family.”
That life-style has come a long way since Goodman, now 47, arrived in Las Vegas as a young law school graduate with $87 in his pocket two decades ago. Now he shares his elegant downtown offices with four associates. He, his wife, Carolyn, and their four teenage children live on one of the city’s best streets with some of the best neighbors (comedian Shecky Green, hotel owner Steve Wynn). One of his former law partners, Richard Bryan, is Governor of Nevada.
Despite his success and its rewards, Goodman has kept his street-fighting attorney’s perspective. “When you’re in the trenches as I am, no matter how high profile my clients are, it’s still the trenches,” he says. “The whole world is against my clients, and I’m the one between the world and them. You have to find good in that person you’re representing.” Sometimes that’s a tall order, but Oscar Goodman is up to the task.