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Maximum offense
With the Plunder Dome trial about to begin, Richard M. Egbert will play no small role in influencing whether Buddy Cianci is remembered as a visionary or a criminal
BY IAN DONNIS

Photo by Richard McCaffrey

A small plaque with a Latin inscription, a gift from a client charged in a large bank fraud case in western Massachusetts, seems inconspicuous among the many nautically themed paintings in Richard M. Egbert's office on the eighteenth floor of a building in Boston's financial district. But unlike the demure surroundings, the phrase -- which translates to, "Act like a Sicilian and think like a Jew" -- bluntly cuts to the combination of aggression and shrewd intelligence for which Egbert is known. "After he was acquitted, he sent me that, apparently as what he thought of me," the defense lawyer notes dryly. "Sometimes I'm not sure how to take it, but I think it was meant as a compliment."

Known as one of the best practitioners of his kind in the Northeast, Egbert shuns the limelight embraced by many lawyers in his $525-per-hour bracket. As someone who came of age during the protests of the late '60s, his work is informed by a fierce desire to help accused individuals counterbalance the power and potential excesses of government.

With jury selection in the federal racketeering trial of Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. slated to start Wednesday, April 17, the 55-year-old defense lawyer will be a major player in determining whether the mercurial mayor is remembered as either the architect or master criminal of the widely celebrated Providence Renaissance. A sufficient number of convictions of Cianci, who faces trial with three codefendants in a 29-count indictment, would leave him disgraced and spell the end of his storied political career. An outcome perceived as a victory for the mayor, on the other hand, would give him the last laugh and all but guarantee his return for a final, valedictory term in City Hall.

Egbert has repeatedly returned to Rhode Island over the years, representing such figures as former governor Edward DiPrete, the late North Providence Mayor Sal Mancini, mobster Frank "Bobo" Marrapese, and former state Supreme Court chief justice Joseph Bevilacqua. He had been hired by the City of Providence to fight a $20 million wrongful death-civil rights claim filed on behalf of Leisa Young, the mother of Cornel Young Jr., the black Providence police officer who was fatally shot by two colleagues in January 2000. Egbert also represented Cianci in a civil suit by Christopher Ise, a city planner who alleges that he paid a $5000 bribe to get his job.

Dogged by camera crews in the weeks after his indictment, Cianci has regained his irrepressible bearing in recent months, notching up his sense of jaunty ubiquity by signing up a Soviet sub as a Port of Providence attraction and registering the domain names of WHJJ talk show host John DePetro, political columnist M. Charles Bakst, and Providence Journal publisher Howard Sutton. During a February hearing, when Chief US District Court Judge Ernest C. Torres asked Cianci how the jury should be instructed if Egbert has to briefly leave the courtroom because of a potential conflict, Cianci memorably cracked, "I would tell them the mayor's not guilty."

Such insouciance will have less purchase, of course, with the start of the federal court trial, which is expected to last at least two months. And if proven, the allegations -- that Cianci and his codefendants, former chief of staff Frank Corrente, Richard E. Autiello, a body shop owner and tow operator, and Edward Voccola, a convicted felon who owns property leased to the Providence School Department, enriched themselves by $1.5 million through extortion and by exchanging benefits for bribes -- would strip much of the shine from Providence's enhanced reputation.

Cianci, who has maintained his innocence from the outset, has also steadily dismissed talk of a possible plea bargain in the case. "I feel confident," the mayor says. "I always said I was confident. There's nothing to plead to, there's nothing to negotiate. I'm not guilty. If you're going to plea bargain, you don't get Richard Egbert as your lawyer."

Although federal prosecutors cited his potential conflicts in unsuccessfully attempting to remove Egbert from the case, his respected skills as a relentless digger and ferocious cross-examiner of government witnesses certainly don't make him the most desirable of opponents.

"He is the single finest trial lawyer I've ever seen," says Joseph J. Balliro Sr., a Boston lawyer who was successfully defended by Egbert about 12 years ago in a case involving allegations of federal tax violations. "He's got a tremendous amount of natural ability that he implements with a great deal of hard work. He's the most exacting, prepared lawyer I've ever met and he gets fiercely involved in his client's case. Like a pit bull, he doesn't let go. He keeps shaking until he gets what he wants. He's a terror in the courtroom, in a very professional way."

The DiPrete defense is a case in point. Although DiPrete, who pleaded guilty in 1998 to 18 counts of bribery, racketeering, and extortion, is hardly a sympathetic figure, Egbert helped to unearth evidence of prosecutorial misconduct -- a development that led to the throwing out of the state's initial case, and, in the end, a relatively light one-year sentence for the disgraced former governor.

When it comes to the Plunder Dome trial, Egbert will certainty focus a significant share of his scrutiny on prosecution witnesses, particularly David C. Ead, former vice chairman of the Providence Tax Board, who pleaded guilty to extorting bribes in exchange for property tax reductions, and his contention that most of the case against Cianci is weak. "I expect to see Richard put the government's case to shame, to expose the deals they've got, and to expose their [witnesses'] past lies and motives," says Tracy Miner, an acquaintance who serves as president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

In keeping with his low-key public profile, Egbert declines to cite a few of his most satisfying victories, saying, "I don't believe I have the right to take a client and use them for my self-aggrandizement, and I'm not sure I would define victory the way that you would." He hastens to add, however, "I am very proud and happy of the kinds of things, like in the DiPrete case, where we not just turned up the information we turned up, but used it to expose a government out of control, a prosecutorial staff out of control. And really am I proud of that? Yeah, I'm so proud that the public got a chance to see how dangerous it is when, as in this case, the judge found prosecutors were willfully and deliberately withholding evidence that held the fate of other human beings."

THE CONSTRUCTION of a new skyscraper, a reflection of Boston's ongoing real estate boom, partially obscures the southeastern view from Egbert's office, but he can still look in the direction of Mattapan, once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, where he spent his early childhood before moving with his family to the suburb of Newton. Although he would go on to become one of the foremost criminal-defense lawyers in the region, Egbert didn't deliberately set his sights on the legal profession at an early age. "It just seemed to be what I wanted to do. I didn't have any high-minded thoughts about it at the time," he says. "As I got into it, I just came to realize that there is no better stuff to do than to represent people whom the government is accusing of a crime."

Egbert's parents, Manny, a garment worker, and Annette, a housewife, traced their roots to Austria, and he was raised on relatives' stories of how the Nazis came to power and the resulting genocide of millions of Jews and others. Such stories were still fresh in his mind when Egbert's tenure as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the late '60s coincided with swelling protests of the Vietnam War and the duplicity of the Nixon administration. The nexus was instrumental, he says, in fostering a sense that the government needed to have people who were going to stand up to it.

In talking about himself, Egbert is prone to speaking in generalities. But pressed about the events that shaped his outlook, he says, "The day that I saw my best friend's head split open by a baton when he was demonstrating peacefully against the war is a memory that I won't forget. That was the government out of control on its own citizens, not a foreign policy decision about whether or not they should or should not be in Vietnam. That was the stuff that I only thought you would see in watching a movie about someplace else." (The friend received stitches and recovered.)

Considering this, perhaps it's not surprising that Egbert calls criminal-defense "the best part of the practice of law, where you get a chance to affect peoples' lives and not worry about money and those kinds of fights, and you get to stand between the government a bit and people." Sounding not unlike a libertarian, he says, "I think we have too many rules. I think the government is an extremely powerful organization that ought to take particular precautions in not abusing that power. If I can be of help in curbing that in some way, I like it."

Although Ebert is best known for defending a high profile mix of public officials and reputed mobsters, he's represented a gamut of other clients, including a New York woman who was arrested in 2000 and charged with assault for participating in the so-called Paddleboro fetish party in Attleboro, Massachusetts; Lars Bildman, an executive who ultimately pleaded guilty to simple tax evasion after being accused of defrauding Astra USA, a Swiss-owned drug company of more than $1 million in personal expenses; and Stephen Fagan, a former Massachusetts man who pleaded guilty to kidnapping his two daughters in a custody dispute and raising them in Florida with the belief that their mother was dead.

Egbert, who has two grown daughters and a young son, lives with his wife in Milton, just south of Boston. Although revered by admirers, he's self-effacing in discussing his prowess at investigation and cross-examination.

"It's an old adage, but it's true," he says. "I never considered myself particularly well-spoken or intellectual, so I always thought I had to work a little harder than the next guy. And the only way I know how to do it is to prepare and prepare hard, so there's virtually nothing in a case that I don't know. A cross-examination, it seems to me, requires preparation in all aspects, investigation -- so that you know things that others don't, and listening. A lot of lawyers don't listen when they get an answer; I like to listen to the answer, so the next question comes from the answer, not from some prepared list of questions. It's really just digging in, putting in the hours, and getting ready for it."

Unlike cases in state court, federal prosecutions are highly selective, resulting in a high degree of convictions, either by plea bargain or verdict. But as Bruce A. Green, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Fordham University School of Law in New York, told the Phoenix last year, the conviction rate is lower in public corruption cases for a variety of reasons, including better legal representation, defendants who enjoy higher regard, and a greater amount of circumstantial evidence or testimony by people with questionable motives. Thomas Connell, spokesman for the US attorney's office, which is responsible for the prosecution of Cianci, declined a request for comment.

The credulity that jurors often place in law enforcement could also be tested by the widely publicized problems in recent years of the FBI. Some of the most serious problems have taken place in Boston, where rogue agents entered into a chilling partnership with James "Whitey" Bulger and other Irish mobsters. Asked about the confidence placed in federal prosecutors and law enforcement, Egbert says, "Look, Efram Zimbalist Jr. was our FBI agent-in-charge when most people got a sense of what the FBI was about," he says, referring to the actor who played an inspector on The FBI, a television show that aired from 1965-74. "We've obviously come to learn that there are no Efram Zimbalist Juniors."

EGBERT'S PENCHANT for going on the offensive was demonstrated in the days after Cianci's April 2001 indictment when he accused W. Dennis Aiken, the lead FBI agent in the Plunder Dome case, of menacing one of the mayor's aides on a city street. The move, combined with the revelation that lead prosecutor Richard W. Rose screened part of an evidentiary videotape for his sister and two friends, helped to deflect attention from the allegations against the mayor. A gag order imposed by Torres last May has quieted subsequent talk outside of the courtroom.

In a court document, however, Egbert characterized much of the prosecution case as weak, adding that charges that Cianci extorted a free lifetime membership from the University Club are, "the only allegations for which the government purports to have any evidence not subject to obvious and palpable doubt." But in a setback for the defense, Torres decided not to sever the University Club counts, ruling that, "All [the] charges basically alleged that Mayor Cianci used the power and authority of office to obtain something of value from others."

Prosecutors sought to have Egbert removed from the case based on potential conflicts with such individuals as Ronald H. Glantz, a former city solicitor who did prison time after an '80s conviction for perjury, extortion, and obstruction of justice, who might be called a rebuttal witness. But after Cianci agreed in February to yield his right to have Egbert cross-examine Glantz, Torres approved Egbert's representation of the mayor.

Cianci's prosecution is built around the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, which has come into use in a variety of cases after proving effective in helping the FBI and federal prosecutors to decimate organized crime groups. Asked about RICO, Egbert says, "I think it's a lousy statute because it creates these kind of kitchen-sink indictments that permits prosecutors -- and I'm specifically not talking about this case, you understand that -- to take and just throw all kinds of disparate, unconnected allegations against the wall and see what sticks, in the hopes that if you can send enough smoke up the chimney that somehow the fire engine will arrive." (Egbert's disclaimer notwithstanding, his comments echoed a statement made during a court hearing by John Tarantino, the lawyer for Artin Coloian, Cianci's chief of staff, that the indictment represents "a closet full of skeletons and a stable full of dead and beaten horses.")

In any case, observers expect Egbert to present a highly skilled defense of Cianci. Defense lawyer Peter DiBiase, who worked with Egbert on Mancini case, says he has a very unusual combination of talents. "Some lawyers are very good with the intellectual part of understanding the legal theory and case law, and less good at the courtroom presentation," DiBiase says. "Richard is tremendous with the courtroom presentation, particularly cross-examination and his ability to do the part of trial preparation."

Lawyer J. Richard Ratcliffe, who had worked as a prosecutor on the DiPrete case, cites Egbert's practice of putting everything he can learn about a cooperating prosecution witness in a notebook. Egbert demonstrated his technique for the Rhode Island Bar Association, starting by pulling more obvious information and then more obscure details from the notebook. "By the end of the cross-examination, if you've done a good job, the witness should be agreeing with you every time you go to the notebook," says Ratcliffe.

When the question comes back to matters of public trust and the government, Egbert expresses less concern about the FBI's CARNIVORE program, which is designed to track e-mail, than the threat to civil liberties posed by the war on terrorism.

"The Internet, things like that, those are natural progressions of society that by trial and error we'll deal with. But terrorism is one which we can all rally around and be horrified by, but we have to step back also it seems to me," he says. "We've got to keep the government from going too far, because you never get those rights back. It never happens, never happens. They never come back. When you give one up, after all these years -- we've written in the Constitution, the Revolution, we worked so hard to get them -- you give them up once and they're gone. And you give them up to people or individuals that are not capable . . . -- because no one is capable of not abusing their power."

The last observation echoes the reality of human behavior throughout history. But when it comes to the allegations surrounding Plunder Dome, it remains to be determined to which side -- Buddy Cianci or the federal government -- the truism is best applied.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

Issue Date: April 12 - 18, 2002