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"When someone starts winning unwinnable cases, you notice."
June 6, 2011 1:29 PM   Subscribe

The Baddest Lawyer in the History of New Jersey (and that's saying something.)

Paul Bergrin, "advocate to killers, whorehouse proprietors, bum-check-passing beauty queens, Lil’ Kim, and a thousand forgotten street hoodlums" is now in jail and awaiting trial for allegedly setting up witnesses to be murdered before they could testify against his clients, operating a real-estate scam that defrauded lenders of over $1 million, and running a high-volume drug dealership.

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posted by zarq (29 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
The 43-page indictment is available on Scribd.

Authorities say there was a mantra at the Law Office of Paul W. Bergrin: "No witness, no case."
posted by zarq at 1:32 PM on June 6, 2011


Wow, that's like the Sweeny Todd of law practices.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:34 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I posted links to some older articles by the author of this piece, Marc Jacobson, back in January.
posted by zarq at 1:34 PM on June 6, 2011


The piece on Jason Itzler he refers to is The $2,000 an-Hour Woman.
posted by djb at 1:46 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Huh. Honestly, I feel like I should be outraged or something, but I'm mostly just impressed. He's like the lawyer from breaking bad.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:48 PM on June 6, 2011


The sad thing is it seems like the only reason he is even facing charges for any of it is the fact that he has been continually pissing off the Feds since the 80s.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:07 PM on June 6, 2011


I clicked on this link expecting to find a story about amro.
posted by essexjan at 2:24 PM on June 6, 2011


I want to see a character like this guy show up in The Good Wife, preferably played by Ian McShane.
posted by mstokes650 at 2:26 PM on June 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I want to see this made into a movie
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 2:29 PM on June 6, 2011


All joking aside, he was on top of everything else a former federal prosecutor?!

This guy has likely ruined and even ended more lives than the most prolific serial killers you'll ever hear of. Let's not rush to idolize his Goodfellas "charm", or cast the biopic, before we're pumping his evil, sociopathic heart full of a lethal cocktail.
posted by hincandenza at 2:34 PM on June 6, 2011


Wow, he's like Maury Levy, if Maury Levy had abs of steel.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:35 PM on June 6, 2011


Let's not rush to idolize his Goodfellas "charm", or cast the biopic, before we're pumping his evil, sociopathic heart full of a lethal cocktail.

hincandenza, I can be fascinated by a guy without "idolizing" anything about him. This guy's a spectacular monster, sure; but what more can you say about that? Is the thread just supposed to be a roll-call of everyone reporting in to say "Christ what an asshole"? Obviously he's a villain; but he's a great villain, a complicated, interesting person. He'd make for some really good TV.
posted by mstokes650 at 2:53 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


The cancer, if cancer there was, has not been mentioned since. “He was the best-looking terminal-cancer patient you ever saw,” said one colleague. “One day a friend of mine saw him running through the courthouse parking lot, and Paul turns around, yells ‘Remission!’ and keeps going.”

punk as fuck.
posted by rog at 2:59 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bergrin had taken control of one of Manhattan’s ritziest escort services and started bringing a steady stream of cops, lawyers, and even a prison official to the brothel’s Worth Street headquarters, where the samples were free.

Sounds like a TV special to me. If Bergrin hasn't done it in real life, at least he'll have the opportunity in the TV version to record lots of high profile folk and take them down with him.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 3:09 PM on June 6, 2011


Martin Scorsese, I think we have your next project lined up.
posted by mosk at 3:21 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Respect.
posted by Capt. Renault at 4:00 PM on June 6, 2011


What a badass. I liked his particular concern for accused war criminals, that's a nice touch.
posted by BigSky at 4:43 PM on June 6, 2011


In 1987, he joined the U.S. Attorney's office in Newark. Two year later, Bergrin infuriated his fellow federal prosecutors by testifying on behalf of an investigator from the Essex County Prosecutors Office who was charged by the U.S. Attorney's office with extorting a cocaine dealer.

The investigator was convicted, despite Bergrin's testimony that he "had a reputation for truth, veracity and integrity." Bergrin resigned from the U.S. Attorney's office the following year, claiming his superiors had ostracized him.


Well that explains a lot of this, maybe. Although I don't think a large ego with a revenge fantasy on its own would be the engine for all his behavior. It takes a real special kind of sociopath to take put all this together.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:06 PM on June 6, 2011


I dunno if I'd call him a sociopath; the mark of a sociopath is a lack of empathy. In a way, he reminds me a bit of Jill Lepore's recent piece on Darrow --- endless passion, endless sympathy, for the side of the case you're arguing, for the guy that's standing in front of you. And beneath and beside that well of sympathy, a calculator, a part of you which can see when it's time to switch sides. Some politicians have this, too....the better, more fondly remembered ones, for the most part. The legends.

There's narcissism, sure, but also, I think, an overwhelming need to believe in yourself as a good person. There's glimmers of it in Madoff, too; there was another New Yorker piece recently, on the owner of the Mets, whom Madoff screwed, and yet the quotes he got from Madoff....there's a sort of reminiscent glimmer, he talks about how alike they were, good family men....

The part no one can believe about the Madoff thing is that no one else knew, that no one else was in on it with him. But you listen to him and you can kind of see how it would go....telling someone else, recruiting someone else to help him, would require admitting to yourself that you were screwing people, that you were doing it on purpose. But if you just stand there and keep juggling, faster and faster, you can tell yourself that something might come along that'll let you fix it all, and no one need ever know....part of you knows this is a lie (the calculator). But it's a lie that allows you took look yourself in the mirror, if you don't meet your own eyes...think of it that way and it can even explain that far away smile he wore when he was being hounded in the streets of New York.

I can see how there'd be a similar juggling with Bergrin, too. You've got someone who knows people, instinctively knows how to appeal to them, how to move them, get them on his side, and at the same time longs for their approval. Someone who loves to think of himself as on the side of the underdog, who knows the system's corrupt and thinks himself justified in playing it against itself. Maybe the first time you don't say it so explicitly, maybe you just hint, maybe you even tell yourself that you're just doing what any lawyer would do, ought to do, explaining the nature of the case in a way the client can understand --- "this witness is the most important part of the prosecution's case; the circumstantial evidence isn't enough to get conviction, but if the jury believes her we're sunk." The calculator knows what you said and what it means: Another tick under W for Paul Bergrin. But you don't have to know, you don't have to really think about it, and when you hear the news you know it's luck for you but you don't blame yourself, kid like that could have got shot for a hundred reasons...and maybe next time it gets a little easier, maybe next time you even say, a little joke, tough jokes for tough men...."you know I had a case similar to your once, same thing, one key witness. I thought we were fucked and then the little motherfucker got shot a week before trial, my guy did nine months on the gun charge and was home in time to buy me Christmas dinner..." And you laugh and then you prep him like you would anyone else, try and find out some useful facts for the cross, but it's been said....
posted by Diablevert at 6:42 PM on June 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


The problem I have with the Madoff comparison is that Bergrin's story isn't exactly one of a man who just let things get beyond his control. The temptation for someone in charge of a lot of money to be deceitful about the numbers, sure. Bergrin is heavily engaged in human trafficking, drugs and murder. Are these things that are difficult to resist engaging in, as a defense attorney? I'm really not buying the narrative that he got caught up in the game or whatever - Madoff watched his house of cards fall apart; Bergrin set the deck on fire.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:02 PM on June 6, 2011


Bergrin is heavily engaged in human trafficking, drugs and murder. Are these things that are difficult to resist engaging in, as a defense attorney? I'm really not buying the narrative that he got caught up in the game or whatever - Madoff watched his house of cards fall apart; Bergrin set the deck on fire.

Well, first, to be clear, this is all just spitballing, pure speculation. I don't know the guy and could be wildly wrong. i just it fascinating to try and figure out whether there's a coherent set of traits that would explain such behavior.

But to return to your point, I don't think I agree. When you say, "set the deck on fire," it implies a moment of decision, of will: I am now going to break the law, destroy my life. But I don't think the first moment has to feel like that. The bridge-burning moment that the author puts forward --- his appearing as a character witness for a corrupt prosecutor --- wasn't illegal; some people might even find it commendable. Maybe the guy had something on him; maybe Bergrin was just worried he did. But posit for a moment that he's not lying about his motives, there: he knows the guy, he's a friend, he thinks he's getting strung up for the same stuff everyone does and gets away with, so he goes to bat for him. It suggests someone who believes that personal loyalty is more important than professional ethics.

Deserved or not, he certainly leveraged that perception of himself into street credibility. Is it difficult for most defense lawyer to resist becoming pimps? No. But a guy like him, defending the clientele he defends, has certainly got to, at a minimum, turn a blind eye to much, walk along in grey areas. Look at his quote about the Marine accused of war crimes -- he sees a guy like that and a low-level gang leader as moral equivalents. How long do you have to walk in that world before somebody offers to pay you in trade and you accept? What's the real difference between being paid by money somebody earned selling drugs and being paid with drugs themselves? The war on drugs being a farce, of course, and besides you know a guy who will take it off you quick and for a decent price....

I mean, to be clear, it's not like I think the guy was a saint to start with, that anyone would have done what he did in the same circs. It definitely takes a certain sort of bastard. But not, crucially, one that thinks of themselves as a bastard. But I feel like there's a cluster of things there: Being the kind of person who's really good at reading people and manipulating them, so good that you don't notice for quite some time when your sense of what "everyone" does starts to drift pretty far from what everyone actually does....wanting that approval, wanting to be seen as good, to be liked....and to be convinced that if you just have the time you can still pull it out, with talent and charm and luck, as you always have before. Madoff's crime took place in entirely different circumstances, but I definitely see the latter two traits in effect and shouldn't wonder if the first was in place as well (Doesn't everyone massage the numbers to make the returns look better? ) Ponzi himself seemed to start out thinking his scam was a sensible business plan, seemed still half to believe it even as he spent weeks shifting money from Peter to pay Paul. Bergrin's crimes were darker, shadier. But so was his millieu. The mechanism seems to me similar...
posted by Diablevert at 7:54 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


When you say, "set the deck on fire," it implies a moment of decision, of will: I am now going to break the law, destroy my life.

Ah, to clarify, what I mean is the degree of initiative involved in the temptation for a financier to get loose with other peoples' money, versus the temptation for a defense attorney to do the sorts of things Bergrin supposedly did, regardless of whether it was a sudden decision or a more gradual moral corruption.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:27 PM on June 6, 2011


And of course, there was the whorehouse deal. Bergrin had taken control of one of Manhattan’s ritziest escort services and started bringing a steady stream of cops, lawyers, and even a prison official to the brothel’s Worth Street headquarters, where the samples were free.

I pulled jury duty a couple of years ago now in New York, during my last semester of law school. The victim in the crime had been a prostitute in NY Confidential. After Bergrin restarted NY Confidential, the victim in my case then went from merely being a prostitute to also doing the books (since she was in accounting school.) Needless to say, as both a prostitute and an accountant, she was the perfect state's witness the second time the ring was busted.

Having retired from prostitution after being busted a second time, the poor girl was dating a former client of hers, who was completely nuts. And this is how she got in front of the jury I was on- not as a witness against Bergrin, but against her boyfriend.

Here's the case, and the life lesson I learned from it, in a nutshell: if your girlfriend is state's witness against someone like Paul Bergrin; and you've got 25,000 rounds and a dozen or so illegal assault rifles in your apartment; and 20+ illegal clips, military-grade bulletproof helmet and vest, and another assault rifle in your car all the time; and you like to shoot animals for fun; you probably shouldn't threaten to kill your girlfriend while driving her to the DA's office for a meeting with the DA. Because it turns out that what the DA does in that case is arranges to have every book within arm's reach thrown at you to protect his precious weapon against Bergrin.

No doubt that this guy was guilty; I'm glad I helped put him away for many, many, many years. But it was clear from the way the case was constructed that he was mostly there because he'd threatened someone who was helping put Bergrin away. A girl who charged $25 a trick and wasn't state's witness wouldn't have gotten the Manhattan DAs to jump through the hoops they did to put this guy away and protect their witness.

(The long version of the trial adds the KGB, a literally Irish cop, 150 missing text messages... it's a long story. Maybe some other mefi thread some other day.)
posted by louie at 9:35 PM on June 6, 2011 [7 favorites]


The expression the devil's advocate was coined for a reason.
posted by Meatafoecure at 3:21 AM on June 7, 2011


An amazing read -shades of David Kleinfeld in "Carlito's Way".
posted by ob at 8:12 AM on June 7, 2011


When you say, "set the deck on fire," it implies a moment of decision, of will: I am now going to break the law, destroy my life. But I don't think the first moment has to feel like that.

I think the big difference between Madoff and Bergrin, at least if you believe Madoff's story that it switched from a legitimate fund to a Ponzi scheme, is that once Madoff started to cook the books, he was screwed. There was no possible way for him to get out of it, he was either going to have to admit it himself, wait for the whole thing to crash, or die before either of those happened. Madoff had to live a lie in order to continue on at that point, but there was really no alternative. For Bergrin, there is no plausible explanation for him to have, for example, taken over a prostitution ring, other than that he felt like doing it. And even if you take on the "street" mentality that gang activities are justified and that the criminal court system is a sham, there is no excuse for actively advocating the assassination of innocent witnesses. I don't know if Madoff is deep down a good guy who ended up screwing over a lot of people, but it's at least plausible, whereas I can't think of a way Bergrin could have done what he is accused of without actively doing terrible things because he felt like it.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:35 AM on June 7, 2011


Yeah, fuck all this "certain amount of respect/admiration/anti-hero" bullshit.

Cold-blooded murder, human trafficking, and not only making an already unfair and rigged system more unfair and rigged, but showing gang members and other kids in trouble that there's only one way to be successful regardless of whether you wear colors or show up for work in a suit with a briefcase? That's a slow, continuous, unforgivable murder of a community that's already struggling to fight some mighty battles every day. I often work with young gang members in Newark, trying with the help of art-making to allow them to imagine other ways of living than the worlds they now feel trapped in. Stories like this make me feel utterly hopeless, and to be perfectly honest, send me into a murderous rage myself.
posted by stagewhisper at 2:30 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


Sounds like you're gonna need a lawyer.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 3:32 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


If Lord of Crime fits anyone, it's this dude. Compared to anyone else claiming or being awarded the title, he's playing and winning on another level plus at least matching his supposed peers in felonies (up until recently, that is).
posted by BigSky at 10:19 PM on June 7, 2011


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