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When Anthony Capozzi was the supervising U.S. attorney for the Fresno office in the ’70s, he sent a man to prison for robbing a bank in Bakersfield. The defendant, in his 40s, had failed a lie detector test and had been identified by five eyewitnesses as the robber captured on bank videos wearing a straw hat, fake mustache and sports coat and carrying a shaving kit. Though somewhat bothered by the fact that the guy seemed sincere about his innocence and that he and his wife read the Bible and prayed through the trial, Capozzi was sure he had his man. That changed four months later when the FBI showed up with photos of a brand-new San Diego robbery. There was the same guy from the Bakersfield photos, and he had the same M.O. — robbing banks using vehicles stolen from car dealership lots under the pretense of test drives. All the while, the man Capozzi had convicted was behind bars. “My heart just dropped,” Capozzi says. “I said, ‘Did we convict the wrong guy?’” Following more talks with federal agents, Capozzi concluded they had indeed, and he got the charges dismissed. He wrote a letter of apology, but by then the convicted man had spent six months in prison. “After that,” Capozzi says, “I was overly cautious with prosecutions. My philosophy is always treat others like you would like to be treated — and be fair.” On Saturday, during ceremonies in Anaheim at the State Bar’s annual meeting, Capozzi — whom everyone calls “Tony” — takes over as the organization’s president for 2003-04. And his close friends say the story about his long-ago willingness to admit he convicted the wrong person — and then set matters straight — makes clear he’s a man of integrity and character who deserves to run the State Bar show. “He cares more about justice than winning,” says Paul Hokokian, a former State Bar governor who rejoins the Board of Governors on Saturday after a three-year absence. “He is the epitome of professionalism and collegiality. “[Lawyers] get a bad rep in the press,” Hokokian, a senior attorney in the Fresno County Department of Child Support Services, says. “But there is nothing negative about Tony. He’s a good guy.” But Capozzi thinks there are lots of good people in the law. And it’s one of his top goals to get that message out. “I’d like to at least start the effort to improve that image,” he says. “There are a few bad apples, but it’s the good lawyers who take care of the bad apples and make sure they are disciplined.” Capozzi says he’s convinced that skeptics could be swayed if they’re shown — through educational seminars and face-to-face meetings — what lawyers do for the public and how they’re involved in community activities at all levels statewide. He would even like to approach Hollywood about revamping its representation of lawyers. “When you look at the various movies, and how we’re treated,” he says, “it’s always a negative thing.” At the same time, the 58-year-old white-collar criminal defense lawyer says he also wants to beef up the Bar’s image in the eyes of its own 191,000 members — a cantankerous crowd that often takes any State Bar action as a personal affront — and the state Legislature. “They say we’re over-bloated, our dues are too high and our staff is paid too much,” Capozzi says. “And on every one of those points, I disagree.” If anyone can turn around both the Bar’s and lawyers’ images, acquaintances say, it’s Capozzi. “There is no better person to head the State Bar,” says Kimberly Gaab, president of the Fresno County Bar Association. “He has an exceptional ability to motivate people and build a consensus.” When Capozzi was president of the Fresno bar in 1999, she says, he was not a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. “He gave everyone the opportunity to express their opinions and their feelings, and let you know that your opinion counted,” says Gaab, who is lead attorney for one of the justices of Fresno’s Fifth District Court of Appeal. “He takes all this information and gives you the best result possible.” Fresno lawyer Brian Tatarian, who has been friends with Capozzi for 15 years, says his openness and honesty could catch those who don’t know him well off guard. “People say he has integrity beyond reproach,” the Tatarian & Margosian partner says. “And if you know Tony, that’s an absolute fact.” A CALMING EFFECt Capozzi grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., in a “very, very poor” family headed up by a father who moved over from Italy in 1923. His dad spoke no English, but wound up marrying a local woman and working as a laborer in a steel mill. Capozzi came along in 1945, the second-youngest of five brothers. Life wasn’t easy, he says, but “we all worked together and it all worked out.” Capozzi’s inspiration for a law career came from his mom’s youngest brother, who was an attorney with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. “I loved the way he dressed and the way he looked,” Capozzi says, “and I loved to hear him talk.” So after graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1967, Capozzi went off to the University of Toledo College of Law. “I’d never been away from home,” he recalls, “and after college I wanted to move on.” It was during a three-year stint as a law clerk to a federal judge in Springfield, Ill., that Capozzi did a tour of California, landing a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Fresno. Six months later, he was named head of the office and never moved away. Since then, Capozzi has become an icon in the community. A solo practitioner, he is well known in the federal courts. He represented Fresno businessman Hagop “Jack” Vartanian for income tax violations and lying on bank loans. He got former state Assembly Speaker Brian Setencich acquitted on charges of bribery and mail fraud. And in a nationally watched environmental case in the mid-’90s, he fought the federal government tooth-and-nail in getting charges dropped against a Taiwanese immigrant farmer accused of killing endangered Tipton kangaroo rats with his tractor. “He has a very calming effect in the courtroom,” says U.S. Magistrate Judge Lawrence O’Neill of Fresno. “He is reasoned. He does not generally ask for things he believes he is not entitled to.” Capozzi made headlines of a different sort earlier in his career. In 1978, he ran for district attorney, losing the general election when his former boss — the man he beat in the primary — endorsed his opponent. Then in 1988, Capozzi ran for mayor of Fresno and was doing well, he says, until his opponent, an incumbent councilwoman, started running ads featuring police officers criticizing Capozzi for being a criminal defense attorney — in code, a man who works to free the bad guys. That was it for Capozzi’s personal political aspirations. “That’s politics,” he says. “And I don’t like that kind of stuff. You have to deal with too many petty things.” That hasn’t, though, kept Capozzi from being actively involved in local and national politics for others. A Democrat, he ran Jimmy Carter’s 1980 presidential campaign in California and coordinated Walter Mondale’s national run in 1984. Photos from those days hang on a wall in his suburban Fresno office. There’s Capozzi shaking hands with Carter, hobnobbing with Mondale and posing, along with his wife, with Jordan’s now-deceased King Hussein at a White House state dinner. Even now — though he won’t talk about it — Capozzi remains influential as an official Central California judge seeker for Gov. Gray Davis. His word carries weight, several say, and he doesn’t care what political stripe someone wears — as long as they’re qualified. “Tony has made it clear he’d be more than willing to advocate for someone who’s a Republican,” says Tatarian. Even Republican California Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter, who hails from Fresno, says Capozzi “has an excellent rapport with people of differing political views. He’s respected by Democrats and Republicans.” As State Bar president, those political connections could go a long way, says Burt Pines, Davis’ judicial appointments secretary. “Tony is well respected in Sacramento,” Pines says. “He’s known as someone who’s thoughtful and credible, a straight talker, a sincere Bar leader who’s generally interested in improving the profession. “Frankly,” Pines continues, “I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about Tony Capozzi. The people who know him respect him and trust him. And I wouldn’t be saying this if he was a political hack.” AN EYE OPENER Capozzi joined the State Bar Board of Governors in 2000 with an ax to grind. “I was a critic,” he says. “I thought the dues were too high. I thought all [the Bar] did was discipline. And I thought [it] only went after people for petty things.” No longer. Given a long leash and a lot of staff help once on the board, Capozzi says he went out and changed a few things — such as having substantive information added to Bar board candidates’ campaign statements, getting canvassing of the votes done in house rather than by a company on Long Island, N.Y., and getting the State Bar classified as a state agency for travel purposes. “We’re saving a tremendous amount of money,” he says, noting that a recent roundtrip airline ticket from Fresno to Oakland on State Bar business cost him only $230, compared with the $670 that would have been charged without state rates. Capozzi says his eyes have been opened. “This staff really does work for the board and the members,” he says. “And when I saw that, I said, ‘This really is a good system.’” Capozzi backed that statement up at a Los Angeles board meeting in late July when a handful of self-styled radical board members spent the better part of two days carping about State Bar staff. Bar executives are overpaid and they’ll never suggest that dues be lowered, one argued. They shouldn’t be allowed to make the final decisions about Web site advertising, another complained. Finally, early on the second day during a meeting of the full board, Capozzi, as president-elect, had heard enough, telling the bellyachers that they didn’t realize the staff’s value. “I came on [the board] with philosophical bents,” he said. “I was very critical of the Bar, but I’ve changed. You’ll see how much work staff does. They aren’t paid enough.” Capozzi’s intervention should delight State Bar Executive Director Judy Johnson and her staff. Having a former critic at the helm could help staff weather the increasingly hostile vibes generated in the past couple of years by a handful of governors. It’s also got to be welcome news that Capozzi — a former president of both the Fresno County bar and the San Joaquin Valley chapter of the Federal Bar Association — doesn’t like meddling with the staff’s day-to-day activities. “We should not micromanage,” he says. “If we do that, we’re losing focus. We are to be a policy board, and we are to set policy.” Vicki Savaria, executive director of the Fresno County Bar Association, confirms that Capozzi will be very hands-off. “Tony is the kind of person who likes to stay on top, know what’s going on, but not micromanage,” she says. “But if there’s a problem, he definitely wants to know so he can fix it.” ON THE ROAD It’s a 104-degree day in late July in Fresno. Capozzi’s wife, Paula, a former public relations executive for Pacific Bell, and his two kids, 21-year-old son Nicco — an actor now attending Fresno State University — and 16-year-old daughter Julia — a champion horse jumper — are relaxing in their air-conditioned home. The six-level house with a view of the San Joaquin Golf Course and, on a clear day, the Sierra Nevada mountains, provides a relaxing retreat from the world that’s about to get even more hectic for Capozzi. If there’s one problem that could plague Capozzi’s presidency, many say, it’s the fact that he’s a solo practitioner. “The workload is tremendous, and that’s going to be one of the burdens,” says Donald Fischbach, a partner at Fresno’s Baker, Manock & Jensen who served as president in 1994-95. “You are on the road a lot. I spent 102 nights in hotel rooms in one year, and I had a firm with 40 lawyers behind me.” Outgoing State Bar President James Herman agrees. “I’m on the road anywhere between three to five days a week,” says Herman, a partner in the 10-lawyer Santa Barbara firm of Reicker, Pfau, Pyle, McRoy & Herman. “And when I’m in my office, I spend a significant amount of my time on the phone on Bar business. I’ve been in about 33 counties this year.” Capozzi says he’s prepared. He’s interviewed for an associate to fill in at his office. He’s put courses he’s taking in international relations at Fresno State University on hiatus. And he doesn’t expect to be doing much golfing or horseback riding for the next year. All Capozzi wants to do is devote his time in office to help lawyers appreciate the State Bar more and see that the public begins to better understand that lawyers play a valuable role in society. He also wants to make sure the State Bar continues to function — and matter — during rough economic and political times without raising dues. Admittedly, that’s not easy. “I’m not the most articulate person,” Capozzi says. “But I have great emotions.” If his friends are correct, that should be enough.

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