Shargel representing Joe Halderman, the former CBS News producer who attempted to extort $2 million
from late night talk show host David Letterman, before the New York State Supreme Court in March 2010.
“I’m involved in the defense of collars of every color: white-collar, gray-collar, blue-collar,” Shargel says.
Airlines; Oscar Wyatt Jr., the Texas oil trader who
was charged with trading with Saddam Hussein
in the oil-for-food case; and Joe Halderman, the
former CBS News producer who attempted to
extort $2 million from late night talk show host
David Letterman. “I’m involved in the defense
of collars of every color: white-collar, gray-
collar, blue-collar,” he says. “I represent doctors,
lawyers, politicians, state senators, congressmen.”
But the reason Shargel is invited to those dinner
parties is because of another group of clients.
Most of the New York State Bar Association,
and probably most of New York, know Shargel’s
story: how he represented, for a time, Gambino
crime family boss John Gotti; how he visited him
in Little Italy’s Ravenite Social Club and how the
FBI taped Gotti threatening to kill Shargel; and
how federal Judge I. Leo Glasser called Shargel
and Cutler “house counsel” for the Gambino
family, and had the two removed during a 1990
murder and racketeering trial.
So here he is, explaining it again.
“I think that my interaction with, whether it
be John Gotti or Salvatore Gravano or any other
member of organized crime, was appropriate,”
he says, adding: “If some Mafia gangster decides
to become a government witness and cooperate
with the government, then law enforcement
embraces those people.” He points to a nearby
book, We’re Going to Win This Thing, co-authored
by former FBI agent Lindley DeVecchio.
“DeVecchio makes the argument that in order
to be effective as an FBI agent, you have to get
close with the people who are cooperators, form
relationships. You see that all the time.”
To do its job, the FBI needs to get close to the
mob. To do his job, Shargel needs to get close to
his clients. To Shargel, there’s no difference.
SHARGEL GREW UP IN NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J.
His father owned a paint and wallpaper store and
his mother was a secretary at Rutgers University,
where Shargel graduated from college. He was
the first in his family to do so.
“I can remember the first time I walked into a
courtroom,” Shargel says. “I saw Paul O’Dwyer,
who was also a politician, but a very able criminal
defense lawyer. I even remember the name of the
man he was defending: Ernest Gallishaw. He even
had a nickname: ‘Kid’ Gallishaw. I believe it was a
murder case. I believe O’Dwyer won an acquittal.
But just to see the courtroom mastery. He had
mastered the art. He had wonderful white hair and
an Irish brogue, and I just watched that scene.”
Shargel learned his craft in the Brooklyn
federal and state courtrooms in the summer of
1968. It was a lucky break. Between his second
and third years at Brooklyn Law School, he
interned with the U.S. attorney’s office in the
Eastern District of New York.
“Usually, the courts were, if not closed,
very inactive during the summer months,”
he says. But in ’ 68, there were a backlog of
cases in the Eastern District. “That summer,
every courtroom had a trial. Not only with
the District Court judges from the Eastern
District, but judges were brought in from other
parts of the country. It was just a phenomenal
opportunity to see the best of the best at work.
Henry Singer. Maurice Edelbaum. These were
legendary lawyers of that period.”
In the summer of ’ 68 he met attorney Jim
LaRossa, his future boss and law partner, and
soon after Shargel passed the bar in December
1969 he started taking high-profile cases. His
first, when he was only 2 6 years old, involving
a client accused of extorting Mobil Oil, was
Shargel’s first encounter with organized crime.
His description makes the case sound like a
Monty Python routine.
“There was a strike against Mobil Oil,” Shargel
says. “The company needed to eventually ensure
that the oil got delivered to gas stations and
essentially got through picket lines, and a bunch
of mob tough guys were retained, if you will, by
the Mobil Oil company here in New York. It turned
out Mobil Oil were slow payers.
“I represented someone who called Mobil
Oil and said if he wasn’t paid by a certain time,
they’d have bigger problems than the strike. And
my client was indicted for extortion, and I was
able to show that an hour after they were on the
telephone claiming to have been extorted by my
client, they were reaching for my client to come
back so he could perform his ‘assigned task.’
“It didn’t even go to the jury,” he adds. “The
judge threw it out.”
In 1972, Shargel wrote all the appellate briefs
for John Giglio in Giglio v. United States, “one
of the most important cases in all of criminal
law,” he says, in which the U.S. Supreme Court
determined that the government must turn
over evidence that damages the credibility of its
witnesses. The case has been cited more than
Shortly after he opened his own firm in 1979,
Shargel won his first famous acquittal, that of
Nicholas Barbato, the former Republican leader
of Smithtown, who was charged with bribery in
the Eastern District in 1981.
“When you’re representing someone in a
criminal case, it’s very difficult not to form a very
close relationship with that person,” he says. “You
hear the person is in the struggle of his life, and
you can’t be distant and detached. I came to know
and admire Barbato. I thought he was a decent,