Thomas P. Puccio, age 67, died of complications from leukemia on March 11, 2012.
Tom Puccio was late for everything. And everyone. His tardiness infuriated many, until the magical results he produced made them forget he was ever late.
When investigating a case, Tom would ask witnesses amateurish questions in unabashed Brooklyn tones, suggesting he knew little about the facts. It was pure pretense, gamesmanship. He was perhaps the most accomplished prosecutor in American history. In Abscam, he convicted four U.S. Congressmen in back-to-back trials, and then a U.S. Senator, often against considerable odds. And yet his Abscam accomplishments were only a small part of what he did to dredge the sewers of crime and corruption with almost Javert-like intensity.
As prosecutors in the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s office, we once travelled to (neutral-turf) Montreal to interview a lawyer from Italy for a corruption case. The lawyer was afraid Tom might have him arrested had he landed at Kennedy. (He was right). We dined that evening with a Canadian Mountie with whom Tom had worked in prosecuting Canadian drug kingpin Salvatore Cotroni in New York. Tom was received as a hero at the restaurant by hundreds of Canadian law enforcement folks there for a retirement dinner. I was dumbfounded. Cotroni had been the biggest drug prosecution in Canada’s history, and just one Puccio mega prosecution that remains unmentioned now in the shadows of Abscam. Others include the first conviction in history of an FBI agent; the principal suspects in the “French Connection” narcotics thefts; and the biggest heroin dealers of the ’60s and ’70s; and the many Mafiosi and labor racketeers prosecuted under his leadership of the Eastern District’s Organized Crime Strike Force.
Yet there was always controversy. Alan Dershowitz once predicted that every Abscam defendant would be acquitted because of entrapment. Many others were offended by the Abscam technique, even though the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit tersely said: “All they [the Congressmen] had to do was say ‘No.’” The bar raised questions. So did the Senate, whose own Harrison Williams was convicted. Tom had by then become quotable, declaring “The Senate investigating Abscam would be like the National Commission (of Organized Crime bosses) investigating Carlo Gambino.” Fearless!
In his defense work, into which he strode seamlessly, his client list was staggering. Vitas Gerulaitis. Marc Rich. Claus von Bulow. Jay McLaughlin. Stanley Friedman. John Mulheren. Not to mention the myriad of high-profile targets and lesser lights whose cases he “killed” before they saw daylight (those folks don’t typically show up at their lawyer’s funeral.)
Von Bulow, his first criminal defense trial, was an extraordinary victory. Every juror seated acknowledged during voir dire knowing that von Bulow had already been convicted of twice trying to kill his wife, (only to win the appeal on a technicality). Imagine still winning with that hand! The von Bulow victory showed live rounds in Tom’s litigating arsenal. And all his adversaries knew it. Indeed, in litigating, his combative style was often difficult if not excruciating for his adversaries—some of us could sure tell some stories! And he would often amazingly meet the prosecution’s case with quite a different one offered for his client. But it was his icy-veined unflappability in the heat of battle that made his opponents most fearful.
Tom’s often exasperating litigation manner also carried over to plea negotiations. Once, we represented a father, mother and son on a large fraud indictment. (A brother was represented by a separate lawyer.) The father denied his guilt, telling us to cut a deal (“Protect my family!”) The prosecutors made a fair offer: “The old man pleads guilty. And either the mother or son pleads guilty. You choose. We’ll cut the other loose.” The parents agreed, cutting the son loose since the mother would likely not go to jail anyway.
I called the prosecutor the next day and told him to draft the papers. When they arrived, Tom proposed another meeting. On the way (of course, Tom was late), I asked the reason for the meeting. He smirked. After the customary formalities at the meeting, Tom said: “The deal’s no good. Do you really want to go to trial over this woman? Cut her loose too, and we’ll take the father’s plea Monday.” I was embarrassed. How could he have done that: bargaining them down, and then trying to bargain them down again, when we had told the prosecutors that we’d recommend the earlier deal to our clients, who actually accepted? Albeit white-knuckled, they yielded and I finally realized what Tom knew all along: the mother and son were simply there for prosecutor leverage. The prosecutors had no clothes! Now whom would you prefer as your strategist, Descartes or Machiavelli?
The tough judge sentenced our client to 50 weekends in jail. His less-guilty brother, represented by the other lawyer, got a full year. His lawyer later bitterly complained to me that we got the overall result “only because Puccio was his lawyer.” I replied: “So, maybe your client should have retained Puccio, too.”
Tom was a loner, both in government and private practice. It was almost as if he practiced in the Batcave, but without Robin. Few can do that. And he was sometimes short on knowing or really caring about the nuances of the law. His close friend, Judge Edward R. Korman, and I would affectionately, but privately, call him “Brandeis” —although the iconic justice would not have been so pleased by the comparison.
For Tom, it was about using the law, not “making” it. And it wasn’t about posturing the supposed importance of what he was advocating (as either prosecutor or defense lawyer), or even right or wrong, as so many do. Only winning—the law profession’s Vince Lombardi! But, most of all, Tom had an ingenious ability to craft “deals” that no one else could. He could fashion “rough justice” by looking squarely in his adversary’s eye and intuitively detecting what was looking back. Stripping away the traditional encumbrances to controversy resolution was his genius.
Tom was private in the extreme when diagnosed with leukemia last year. He demanded that the few of us in whom he confided obey the code of omerta. It was why his death came as a shock to so many he knew well. Throughout his ordeal, he never complained about the impending fate that he surely realized. He was, as always, a gladiator, and this, another battle he intended to win—no potential adverse case result had ever been a fait accompli to him before. Health, though, isn’t like a jury. One’s skills of persuasion are powerless to convince it to vote for your side. Maybe for Tom the cynic, God, whose role he would never acknowledge or even mention, had already rigged the jury against him.
In the end, for this one trial, Tom Puccio wasn’t late at all. For his final appointment, Tom was way too early.
Joel Cohen, a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, was a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s office under Thomas Puccio, and was his colleague at the defense bar.