Counsel for defense, candidate for mayor

Lawyer who represented Lansky, other mob figures leads the field in Las Vegas


LAS VEGAS -- The establishment in the "new" Las Vegas loves to talk about the explosion in family entertainment, the number of churches per capita ("Highest in the nation!") and the joys of living in suburbs that reach ever farther into the desert.

Oscar B. Goodman loves to talk about the old days, when he busted up dozens of government attacks on reputed mobsters and kept Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro out of jail despite suspicions that the feared Mafia enforcer had committed nearly two dozen murders.

Now, the renowned criminal defense lawyer says with a smile: "I want to make Las Vegas my No. 1 client."

Goodman, purported mouthpiece for the mob, is running for mayor.

Goodman's mercurial candidacy has both the 59-year-old attorney and America's fastest-growing city struggling to reconcile new images with old ones.

Frenetically skipping about the town he adopted 34 years ago, Goodman is the avuncular synagogue president, family man and civil rights defender.

But back in his plush, marble-floored office, he remains a snarling critic of "evil" FBI agents, who he says have tried to hurt his clients -- charming men who merely "had disagreements with the government."

Even his opponents put Goodman at or near the top of a field of nine candidates in the Tuesday primary vying to make an expected June runoff. Just a week into the campaign, he demonstrated his seriousness by becoming the first candidate to launch TV ads. With a profile most of his opponents lack, he is being heckled like the headliner.

How, Goodman's critics ask, can Sin City shed its corrupt image with Meyer Lansky's one-time attorney running the show?

The Las Vegas Review-Journal has pronounced: "Anybody but Oscar, mob mouthpiece wrong guy for mayor."

Looking forward to the election, one top tourism promoter sighed: "The last thing we need in the first week of June is screaming headlines across the country: `Mob lawyer is mayor of Las Vegas.' "

Goodman retorts that the city power structure's real fear is that it can't control him.

"They are afraid of me because I must be anti-establishment," he said in an interview. "I am never going to do anything to embarrass Las Vegas."

The door to the mayor's office was thrown wide open when incumbent Jan Jones unexpectedly decided not to seek a third term and another top contender dropped out because of a heart condition.

That leaves three-term City Councilman Arnie Adamsen and Mark Fine, developer of two of the area's largest housing tracts, as the best known and best financed of the candidates, along with Goodman.

The gregarious Goodman delivers his message in the flat staccato of "a tough little punk from Philadelphia," an Ivy League lawyer as comfortable with drug dealers and street hoods as he is with casino executives.

Even as he aspires to be a civic leader, he cannot resist adopting the manner of his more notorious clients. When a reporter presses him about a campaign misstep, the heavy eyelids lower and his voice grows husky: "What are you going to write? Am I gonna have to whack you?"

Goodman arrived in Las Vegas in 1964 with his wife, Carolyn, and "$87 in our pockets." His first break came when a Canadian pornographer and gambler delivered $3,000 cash in an envelope, asking for help defending his brother from a charge of transporting a stolen vehicle.

The client insisted: "You better not lose."

He later got Mafia financial genius Meyer Lansky dropped from a casino cash-skimming trial because of Lansky's failing health.

He kept the notorious Spilotro -- the model for the character depicted by Joe Pesci in the movie "Casino," in which Goodman played himself -- out of jail, even as authorities leveled multiple charges of murder and racketeering. (Spilotro was later beaten and buried, probably still alive, in an Indiana cornfield.)

In recent years, his clients have become more diverse, including entertainer LaToya Jackson and boxer Mike Tyson.

Despite years of intense scrutiny by federal authorities, Goodman has never been charged with a crime. Friends say the "mob law" caricature does not do Goodman's career, or life, justice.

They note that he has devoted much of his practice to the poor and dispossessed, often pro bono. Late last year, he won release from prison for a cancer-ridden woman who had murdered her abusive husband.

His wife, whom he calls "Saint Carolyn," founded and operates a respected private school. His four children all have graduate degrees from top universities.

But Goodman's enduring reputation will trouble Las Vegans who want to distance themselves from the city's past, said Michael Bowers, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"The corporations that have taken over the hotels and gaming operations certainly want people to believe there is no mob influence," Bowers said.

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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