San Diego Oscar Goodman, 59, known as "The Big O," the Las Vegas attorney who local papers sometimes dub "The mouthpiece of the mob,"drives his dark Mercedes sports car toward the desert beyond the city limits. He crunches off onto the gravel of a low bluff overlooking open lands and switches off the motor. He sits, waiting.
A short while later, a light-colored rag-top, probably a Chrysler, comes from the other direction and pulls off the road a few yards away. A man gets out in a dark suit like Goodman's, balding as much as Goodman, but younger, thinner, more fit, perhaps 40.
Goodman gets out. They shake hands.
"Rick," says Goodman, "I've been waiting 20 years for this; 20 years to have you apologize to me.... Every day of my life, Rick, all I think about is when you came into my office and you tried to set me up. You tried to frame me. You tried to entrap me. I want you to apologize."
"I tell you what, Oscar," says Rick Baken, one-time FBI undercover agent, "I know some of the same people that you know, and they've told me that's been a thorn in your saddle for 20 years."
"For 20 years; I can't forget about it," says Goodman.
"Well, that's probably one of the best pleasures of life for me," replies Baken. "It's to know that for 20 years, you knew that you actually were caught."
"I was caught? I was caught doing what? Trying to do the right thing?"
"You have never done the right thing," says Baken. "You do what you think is the right thing, but you don't make the rules."
"I don't make the rules? I make my rules."
"That's true. You make your rules."
"And my rules have ruled so far."
The confrontation happened last year and was filmed by a documentary crew making Mob Law, a feature-length profile of Goodman, who is proud to boast a client list that has included Meyer Lansky, Charlie "The Moose" Panarella, Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, and Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, allegedly the Chicago Mob's enforcer in Vegas.
Goodman also has considerable ties to San Diego. He has a condominium in the Shores high above Coronado with a sweeping view of the ocean. He's a hero to downtown's legion of defense attorneys, some of whom he has befriended and mentored as they built their careers defending alleged drug smugglers, hit men, bookies, and topless- joint tax cheats. And, of course, he defended Roger Hedgecock in the notorious public corruption case that ultimately toppled Hedgecock from his throne as populist hero and cost the then-liberal mayor his job.
Goodman also unsuccessfully defended San Diego's minor mobster Chris Petti against accusations of trying to help the mob muscle in on the Rincon Indians' gambling plans.
And he says he was "very close" to La Jolla's Allen Glick, when Glick ran the Argent Corporation in Las Vegas, which owned such casinos as the Stardust, the Fremont, and the Hacienda. According to Nicholas Pileggi, in his book Casino, Glick, a 31-year-old San Diego real estate dealer in 1974, suddenly became the second-biggest casino operator in Las Vegas history.
"Allen Glick had been chosen as a mob front because he was thought to be squeaky clean," wrote Pileggi.
Glick, who answered to mob killer Tony Spilotro , had links to San Diego's Tamara Rand, who was shot five times in the head in the kitchen of her house in Mission Hills in November 1975, shortly after a business disagreement with Glick. "Glick had been quietly fighting Rand's claims that she was a partner in the Stardust [Glick's casino] for years," Pileggi wrote, "but her mobster-style murder pushed an obscure financial-page dispute onto the front page."
As for Hedgecock, his first trial for public corruption ended in February 1985 with a hung jury after one juror refused to vote for conviction. The defense had been run by Mike Pancer, a rising young San Diego criminal defense lawyer who was a friend of Goodman.
As Don Bauder wrote in his 1985 book, Captain Money and the Golden Girl, Hedgecock recruited Oscar Goodman for the retrial. Goodman had done legal work for J. David Dominelli, Bauder reported. Dominelli was the La Jolla swindler whose spectacular downfall helped trigger Hedgecock's indictment.
"[Goodman's] firm had been J. David's landlord," according to Bauder. "Goodman said he would represent the mayor for a minimal fee. It was altruistic, Goodman explained: He owned a condominium in San Diego and believed Hedgecock was the right man for the mayor's job.
"Goodman's presence caused the no-growth and pro-growth constituencies to think, at least for a moment, the same thought. They wondered jointly if Goodman would be a new power in San Diego real estate -- and they marveled at the irony that Roger Hedgecock, the outspoken no-growther, had served as the catalyst in Goodman's rise."
Goodman doesn't have fond memories of the case. "I came in and represented Roger as vigorously as I knew how and got my face in the judge's face, and there was an awful lot of acrimony there, unfortunately. The judge didn't like me. I didn't care for him. He didn't like Roger. Roger didn't care for him. And the whole thing got [screwed up] in the jury room where there were all sorts of improprieties taking place -- drinking, sexual activities, instructions outside the presence of the lawyers -- and the jury came back with a 'guilty,' but it didn't mean anything because the court of appeal upset it. They said the jury was a runaway jury, acting improperly, and reversed it."
Rather than face a third trial, Hedgecock pled guilty to one felony conspiracy charge, agreed to pay a $5000 fine, and served three years' probation. In January 1991, a judge, following the terms of Hedgecock's plea bargain, reduced the felony conviction to a misdemeanor and dismissed the case. Under the deal, Hedgecock is forever required to disclose his record if he runs for office, seeks local or state licenses, or applies for a concession to sell state lottery tickets. He later paid a $30,000 civil fine to settle state corruption charges.
"I don't consider that a loss, because with a level playing field, and a level-playing jury, [it would have been] no problem," says Goodman. "But with what happened in there, it was an aberration, and it was a shame because Roger spent a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of agonizing moments, and he wasn't afforded justice as far as I'm concerned."
Of course, that didn't even put a wrinkle in Goodman's career. When Mike Tyson bit off part of Evander Holyfield's ear, who could make him look the underdog? Iron Mike rang Oscar. And Oscar's defense of the indefensible rang across the networks.
"It's a joke," said Goodman. "The whole sport of boxing is designed to have one guy batter another.... In my opinion that three-inch gash above Tyson's eye was a far more egregious wound than the little piece of ear that was spit out."
Goodman has been profiled on 60 Minutes. He's been given Rolls Royces; he's rich. "I don't have a big head," he told the London Times recently. "I got a big ego. I guess a big-head thinks they're important. But a big ego knows they're important."
It wasn't always so.
"I came from the Jack Kerouac era," he says. "The James Dean era. They were my idols, and I was trying to emulate them. I hitch-hiked across the country with a friend, a little bit on the wild side. Then I went to college [in Philadelphia]. I went to law school and was the worst student in my class. I was at the very bottom. Barely made it through. Didn't enjoy it one bit. Then I sort of blossomed in the last year of law school."
He got to Vegas by a process of elimination -- he was turned down everywhere. "I had written letters to 250 prosecutors' offices around the country. Places like Klamath Falls, Oregon; Omaha, Nebraska; New York. I had two job offers with my very poor law- school record: one in Oregon and one in Las Vegas."
He chose Vegas. When he arrived at age 26 in 1964 with his new wife Carolyn and $85, there were 70,000 people living in Las Vegas. Everybody, he says, knew each other. "Our social environment was the grocery store, where you would bump into the governor, the senators, and mobsters and bartenders and schoolteachers, and that's where you would have your social life."
He was doing small-potato work. But fate stepped in after he helped a local card dealer file for bankruptcy. A major gambler with mob ties needed help when his brother was arrested for stealing a car. "I get a call to go to a fellow's home to pick up something," Goodman said recently. "I'm scared to death. I was a baby. The guy handed me an envelope and said, 'You'd better win this case. There's three dimes in there.' It was $3000. That was the first time I ever heard that term 'dimes.' "
According to Goodman, he was so nervous he vomited in the street on the way to court. He still got an acquittal. But his reputation among mobsters was made in 1970, when he took on 19 federal mob-related wire-fraud cases around the country. He won them all on the grounds that the FBI wiretaps had been incorrectly signed.
"From then on those same fellows who got in trouble over the years, whenever they had a problem, they would call me. People call me a mob lawyer because of that, I guess. Because I represent clients with Italian last names."
* * *
"Lawyers like you have no moral conscience," says ex-agent Baken to Goodman on their videotaped meeting outside Vegas.
"Oh, I have no moral conscience!"
"That's the kind of lawyer you are."
Oscar Goodman feels the same about Baken. The thing that has stuck in his craw for two decades is not so much that Baken's infiltration of the mob has led to the convictions of some of Vegas's more notorious gangsters and Oscar's best clients. It's that Baken befriended perhaps his most special client, Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, and accompanied him -- wired -- to a meeting in Goodman's office.
Attorney-client privilege, Goodman believes, went right out the window. So did the fun of being a lawyer.
"When I first started to practice law, some 32 years ago," Goodman says in the documentary, "and when I got involved with the defense of these high-profile unpopular-type defendants, it was a most pleasant experience coming into the office..... They would sit across the desk from me, and I would be almost like a father-confessor. It was almost like a priest-penitent-type relationship. It was a sanctuary where they could come in, and they could talk to me and relate to me their innermost feelings, and I would in turn tell them advice from my heart, without fear that whatever was said would ever become exposed to the world.
"And then, when Tony Spilotro brought up this FBI agent Baken, and he tried to entrap me, it took all the fun out of it. Now I have to have an attitude that whoever's here is a potential rat, a potential informant, somebody who is going to try to make a case against me. Right now I don't know who I can trust."
The fact is, some of his clients don't have a great reputation. Tony Spilotro (played by Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese's 1995 movie version of Casino) had special ways of dealing with "rats." One of his 22 alleged murders was an informer who is said to have died when Spilotro squeezed his head in a vice so hard his eyes popped out. Yet Goodman's oft-broadcast boast is that Spilotro never spent a day in jail while he was his client, between 1972 and 1983, when he was beaten up and then buried, still alive, in a shallow grave in Indiana.
"As far as I was concerned, he was always a gentleman," says Goodman in his videotaped desert encounter with ex-agent Baken. "I represented him since 1972 until the time that he was murdered, okay? And he was never convicted of anything."
"And that means he's not guilty of anything?"
"In this country it does! A jury's supposed to say [so] and not some cop! He was always nicer than you guys, all right? And I'd rather have a social relationship with him, because I could take his word rather than you guys'..."
Baken's lower lip is shaking in fury. "A guy that killed 22 people is more credible than me Don't you have a moral fiber in your body?"
The setting sun silhouettes the two men. Oscar Goodman starts to walk away towards his car. He turns around, trying to think of a last salvo.
"Drive safely," he says.
* * *
Goodman and his wife Carolyn long ago sealed their relationship with San Diego when they bought an ocean-view condo in the Coronado Shores. The documentary's first shoot took place here. "I love San Diego," he says. "If there's a paradise in the United States, it's San Diego. We steal a day here and there. I wish I could tell you I spend a week there, but it's usually flying down and going back the next day. If we do it three times, four times during the summer, it's a lot."
Goodman says the most important moral issue isn't the gangsters he defends. It's that what he defends is the Constitution itself. "I think the fact that when I represent people that society considers to be very bad, or represent causes that society believes are very, very unjust, that's when I couch my defense in terms of upholding the constitutional safeguards that we have in this country, if successful, good comes out of it rather than evil."
In the documentary, his 87-year-old mom Laura puts it more simply.
"The only defense I have [for what he does] is the one that Oscar taught me: 'Don't you believe in the Constitution? Don't you know that everybody has a right to a trial?' "
"[Oscar's] typical of mob attorneys throughout the country," says Baken on the phone from Washington State, "who go that extra mile and jump into the role as a consigliere as opposed to just an attorney. I think they're motivated at first just for the glamour and then they get addicted to the adrenaline rush of living vicariously through these people and making a pile of money at the same time. He's one of the many that jump over the line."
"I absolutely know it's not true, and almost any other law-enforcement guy you talk to would tell you it's not true," says Goodman's San Diego friend, attorney Mike Pancer. "The only person who's saying that is Rick Baken, and that's because he and some other law enforcement had their noses bent out of shape by Oscar's success in court."
The documentary Mob Law will be released August 25.