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December 19, 2014

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Goodman: In defense of himself and his clients

From the case files of criminal defense attorney Oscar Goodman you'll read tales of innocent men framed, death-row appeals and the occasional pro bono fight on behalf of a 12-year-old boy maimed by malpractice.

Then there's his "Wall of Rogues" (his name for it): photos and articles featuring reputed members of La Cosa Nostra, troubled sports stars and well-heeled celebrities -- clients who have brought Goodman both his tony lifestyle and national media attention.

Although the likes of the late Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, LaToya Jackson and Mike Tyson may have brought him fame and fortune, Goodman said he wants to make Las Vegas his No. 1 client.

But will enough voters opt for a mayor with a reputation that brings back memories of an old Las Vegas whose sordid past that some want to shake?

"I say in my ads that 'I don't need this job, I want this job'," Goodman, 59, said recently while seated behind the semi-circular wooden desk in his marble-floored law office. "That's true. I have a very comfortable life and I don't need to change it.

"Being mayor is going to be the most challenging and monumental job of my career."

Tougher, he says, than his most difficult legal battle: winning acquittal six years ago for a Carson City oral surgeon charged with molesting female patients.

Goodman calls the next five years the "make or break point" for Las Vegas.

California's Proposition 5 -- which legalized Indian gaming -- the city's aging infrastructure and crime are among Goodman's top concerns.

"I'm going to be a real activist, know everybody's name in City Hall and bring in a whole new kind of attitude," Goodman said. "I think these people are ready for me."

One city department head, who witnessed Goodman's recent pressing of the flesh on all 10 floors of City Hall, agreed.

"Everybody loved him," the source said. "He's Oscar and this is Las Vegas."

Goodman was born and raised in Philadelphia and earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He credits his parents for his work ethic and values.

His mother gained fame as an artist, and at 80, teaches blind students to sculpt. Goodman's father earned prominence as a prosecutor and taught his son to fight for the oppressed and value the Constitution.

Goodman held the Constitution aloft when he announced his candidacy for mayor two months ago, and prints his campaign material over the backdrop of "We the People, of the United States..."

If elected, Goodman said he will make certain rights inalienable -- among them a guarantee to homeowners that the zoning in their neighborhoods won't change at the whim of a developer.

He claims he will also guarantee every citizen a voice in government by appointing, for example, ombudsmen to field the concerns of senior citizens, gays and other groups that Goodman claims have lost a say.

"It'll be a rainbow coalition in City Hall," Goodman said.

Goodman said he and his wife, Carolyn, moved to Las Vegas in 1964 at the suggestion of a Las Vegas police officer he met while clerking at the Philadelphia district attorney's office. They arrived with $87 between them.

After being admitted to the Nevada bar in 1965, Goodman worked as a deputy district attorney for Clark County, briefly entered private practice and then served in the state public defender's office.

While a deputy public defender, Goodman worked under Richard Bryan, who later became Nevada's attorney general, governor and U.S. senator.

In 1970, Goodman successfully defended a client in a government wiretap case involving a reputed bookmaking operation in 19 cities. His defense crippled a federal campaign against bookmaking and earned him a host of clients who resisted government investigations.

During the 1970s, Goodman represented Spilotro, who was the reputed Chicago mob boss in Las Vegas, and other reputed mob figures such as Frank Rosenthal, Meyer Lansky and Nick Civella.

In 1984, he got skimming charges dropped against Lanksy because of that financial wizard's failing health. And he kept Spilotro -- the model for Joe Pesci's character in "Casino" -- out of jail during a spate of murder and racketeering charges.

Goodman won acquittal for reputed Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo and eight associates in a death-penalty case. Scarfo, eight associates and Goodman partied at the Four Seasons hotel to celebrate. When the $21,000 bill arrived, no one but Goodman could pay. The attorney later received a Rolls-Royce from Scarfo in repayment.

The federal government, however, immediately impounded the car because of its reported connection to another crime. Goodman fought and lost. He appealed and won, but the luxury car had been exposed to the elements in a New Jersey lot and had lost its former value. After shipping it to California to have it refurbished, the feds impounded it again.

"I've probably spent $140,000 on that car," Goodman jokes. He still does not have the Rolls.

"If I'd have been a podiatrist -- and I mean no offense to podiatrists -- nobody would care about my career," Goodman said. "About 5 percent of my cases involve people whose last names ended in vowels and who were targeted by the government and needed representation."

Goodman is quick to share a story about any of his infamous clients and readily laughs off his "so-so" performance playing himself in Martin Scorsese's "Casino."

"My life has been public, no secrets," Goodman said.

When Goodman filed for office, two young men in his entourage -- wearing what appeared to be electronic monitoring bracelets used for house arrestees -- sported shirts urging "Vote Early, Vote Often."

One person in the crowd of supporters gathered that day at the city clerk's office asked: "Oscar do you have a clean $100 bill?" As Goodman reached into his pocket, nodding yes, a voice from the back of the crowd chirped, "It better be clean, we just pressed 'em last night."

Goodman's name recognition and populist approach has vaulted him into the lead in the field of nine vying for mayor in the Tuesday primary.

City Councilman Arnie Adamsen, who trails by about eight points in some polls, is airing television ads highlighting Goodman's notorious clients.

Developer Mark Fine, who is even farther behind in some polls, has publicly questioned Goodman's motivations for running.

"He'll say whatever he needs to say to get himself elected," Fine said.

Even before it happened, Goodman said he knew his opponents would use a tape of one of his appearances on KVBC Channel 3's "Closing Arguments" in which Goodman once presented a case for the legalization of prostitution and described himself as the "worst mayor" Las Vegas could have.

"But I honestly believe the voters will see through that," Goodman said. "I signed the Pledge of Fair Campaign Practices -- which is an interesting document -- and I will live up to that.

That voluntary pledge is offered to all candidates when they pay their filing fee at the city clerk's office. By signing it, the candidate promises not to run a campaign based on smear tactics and mudslinging.

"I am going to take the high road," he added. "If the others don't, I think the voters and the public will call into question their ethics."

In his own campaign ads, Goodman has focused on his family, his law practice and his reputation as a defender of rights.

A past-president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Goodman was once hailed by that group as "Liberty's last champion" for taking on and winning difficult cases involving a diverse collection of clients. Yet such clients have repeatedly incurred the wrath of local and federal law enforcement agencies, causing Goodman to feel the same heat.

In 1979, for example, a federal judge ordered Goodman to produce financial records showing how clients with suspected mob ties paid him.

In 1996, a federal appeals court upheld a contempt order and a $50,000 fine against Goodman for initially refusing to disclose information on fees from client Natale Richichi, reputedly a high-ranking member of New York's Gambino crime family.

The subject of the British film documentary "Mob Law," Goodman said he now wants to advocate for a new downtrodden client: the city.

"I am going to be a bully-pulpit mayor," Goodman said. "I am going to be a tough cookie."

At one candidates' forum he told a crowd of real estate developers that he would try to bring a National Football League team to the city. He said he would support any private-sector efforts to build a stadium for such a purpose.

Goodman said he wants to work with UNLV officials to ensure that the university's programs are of the quality sought by businesses that are considering Las Vegas.

"Convince me," is what he said he will say to UNLV.

He waxes nostalgic about the 1960s and '70s when Las Vegas was free of traffic congestion and "that dark cloud forever changing color that hangs over the valley."

Goodman advocates truck-only lanes to reduce traffic congestion for the average motorist. And, he said, he will present his best arguments to stop the proposed permanent storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of the city.

"Mayors do stop things," he said.

In one of his campaign commercials highlighting his courtroom adversaries, former Organized Crime Strike Force chief Richard Crane, former FBI agent Burk Smith and former U.S. Attorney Lamond Mills each offer endorsements.

"They know I would never cross the line," Goodman said. "I have always acted like Caesar's wife. If I slipped one time, that would've been it."

Although best known for his reputation as a mob attorney, Goodman has represented former Nevada Supreme Court Justice Al Gunderson, convicted federal Judge Harry Claiborne, former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, sports gambler Billy Walters, Las Vegas show producer Jeff Kutash and country-western singer Tracy Lawrence.

Autographed boxing gloves in his office bear the signatures of Tyson, Frans Botha, Oliver McCall and Henry Akinwande -- all of whom Goodman has represented.

In 1991, the flamboyant attorney hosted a bash at the Desert Inn hotel-casino celebrating 25 years of practicing law in Las Vegas. More than 700 invited guests feted his accomplishment, including actor Tony Curtis, former Sands hotel-casino President Henri Lewin and Nevada Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno.

Former heavyweight boxing champ Larry Holmes, the UNLV Rebels basketball team and CBS' "60 Minutes" reporter Mike Wallace -- who interviewed Goodman for a 1986 piece on criminal defense lawyers -- all sent videotaped greetings to the party.

Rosenthal and reputed mob associate Joey Cusumano were on the guest list, but were barred from attending because of to their inclusion in the Nevada Black Book, which bans those listed from entering any casino statewide.

Goodman most recently represented Sandy Murphy, the girlfriend of the late gaming executive Ted Binion. Murphy is reportedly the focus of a grand jury investigation into Binion's September death that has been ruled a homicide.

However, Goodman said he's now devoting 100 percent of his time to the city and has passed all clients on to his law partners.

Walking through the downtown offices of Goodman, Chesnoff and Keach recently, Goodman's temporary departure from the day-to-day practice wasn't apparent.

A clerk bumping into Goodman in the hallway asked for a specific case. Goodman responded with the citation and added, "It was a scathing opinion."

From another office, an attorney puts his caller on hold and yells a question to Goodman about the status of an appeal. "Affirmed," Goodman says, stopping to glance at some new campaign shirts before turning his attention to the next question.

"I get up at 4 in the morning and work all day long," Goodman said. "I've always done my own preparation for trials and I'll work tirelessly for the city."

That preparation on city issues was not apparent when the campaign began and Goodman stumbled through several answers about specific projects during one candidates' forum.

In the past several weeks, however, Goodman has emerged as the audience favorite at most forums, drawing the most laughs, applause and handshakes afterward.

Goodman said he has talked to enough senior citizens to believe their voices are not properly heard. Sun City Summerlin residents are now reportedly in his camp, swayed by his ardent door-to-door campaigning and promised representation.

But Goodman admits he will need to learn to delegate if elected. The city charter establishes a strong city manager government, with the mayor just one of five equal voices on the council.

"I'm going to have to be able to have confidence in those around me," Goodman said of city staff, and then turning his thoughts to the council, he added, "I'm told the magic number is three (votes).

"Representing the tough clients I have over the years, I have to be a little smart," he added. "You get down to a point in every case that you have to negotiate. I don't see anybody down there (at City Hall) that I can't get along with very well."

Goodman said that, if elected, he will serve as mayor for four years and then "go do something else fun."

But if he's mayor, Goodman promises to keep the city his top priority, but isn't committed to quitting his practice for good.

"Until I have the mayorship completely under control, if ever, Las Vegas will be my primary client," Goodman said. "I haven't missed the law practice one bit."

Carolyn Goodman, who founded the Meadows School -- a private K-12 school in the city's northwest -- has been married to Goodman for 37 years. She is now devoting her civic efforts to helping run the campaign.

When Goodman initially floated the idea of a mayoral bid at a family meeting, his four children immediately nixed it. "They didn't want me to get hurt," Goodman said. "But Carolyn told me if I was going to do it, I'd better win and be the best mayor there ever was.

"Right now it's like all the voters are your jurors," Goodman said.

SUN REPORTER Steve Kanigher contributed to this story.

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