By George Anastasia
Don Manno sat in Seasons 52, a posh restaurant at the Cherry Hill Mall one day this week, eating a piece of salmon and talking about the future.
But the past, the immediate past, kept intruding into his conversation.
It was one week exactly from the day a jury in U.S. District Court in Camden had given him his life back. Manno was calm, relaxed and philosophical about the experience. He had beaten federal prosecutors in a grueling six-month trial in which his freedom and future as an attorney were on the line.
It shouldn't have come to that, the veteran defense attorney said.
"I think the federal prosecutors thought they were going to teach us all a lesson about how to practice law," Manno said. "I don't need them to tell me how to be a lawyer. I did nothing wrong. If a jury had questioned what I did then I might think differently. But federal prosecutors aren't going to tell me how to be a lawyer."
That was as close as Manno, 68, came to displaying any of the anger and bitterness that lingers from the FirstPlus Financial fraud case in which he was ensnarled. For the most part, he was sanguine, profusely thanking and praising his wife Rita and his grown daughters Kimberley and Rebecca for helping him through an ordeal that, he says, will make him a better lawyer.
"I think I always had the ability to relate to my clients, to understand intellectually what they were going through," he said. "But now I think I have an emotional understanding. When you get a knock on your door at six in the morning and they take you away in handcuffs, you have a different understanding of the process."
"The humiliation factor alone can be overwhelming," he said.
The indictment came down in November 2011. For the better part of three years it has been the focus of his life. For the past six months -- the trial started in January -- it dominated. Manno's decision to represent himself added another layer of pressure and tension to the situation. But he says now it was the right move.
Earlier this week, for the first time this year, he was in court representing someone other than himself.
"I had a client with a case in municipal court in Camden" said Manno, himself a former federal prosecutor whose criminal practice has revolved primarily around Superior and Federal Court matters. "I was happy to be there," he added with a laugh.
Given the alternative, that was understandable.
"I'm 68 years old," he said. "If I had been convicted and gotten, say, 15 years, that would have been a life sentence."
Instead, he walked out of court a free man after a jury acquitted him and two other attorney co-defendants, finding them not guilty of all the charges they faced and essentially rejecting the government's contention that they were part of a massive fraud conspiracy orchestrated by mobster Nicodemo S. Scarfo and his business partner Salvatore Pelullo.
Scarfo, 49, the son of jailed Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, was convicted of all 25 counts he faced. Pelullo, 47, was convicted of the 24 counts lodged against him. Brothers John and William Maxwell were also found guilty. John Maxwell was the CEO of FirstPlus. His brother, an attorney, was hired as special counsel at $100,000-a-month.
All were part of what the government said was the systematic looting of FirstPlus, a troubled Texas-based mortgage company, of more than $12 million. Most of the money went to support the lavish lifestyles of Scarfo and Pelullo.
Manno, who for years was the younger Scarfo's criminal defense attorney, said he couldn't feel sorry for his former client or for Pelullo who clearly emerged in both the prosecution's case and in the defense arguments Manno used at trial as the man pulling the strings in the fraud.
"It was about greed," Manno said, "about wanting a lot of money fast and not working for it. It was like Cory Leshner (a former Pelullo associate who testified for the prosecution) said. It wasn't about growing the company. It was about getting cash to Sal Pelullo as fast as possible."
Scarfo, Manno believes, "was blinded by the vast amounts of fast money for no work." He said Scarfo had rejected his warnings about the nature of the business transactions Pelullo was instituting, particularly a bank fraud built around a phony mortgage application filed by Scarfo's wife Lisa.
Lisa Murray Scarfo pleaded guilty prior to the start of the trial. She is awaiting sentencing. So is John Parisi, Scarfo's cousin. Both were sucked into the scam, Manno believes, because of the greed and the indifference of Pelullo and Scarfo.
"It's sad," Manno said, "the tragedy that is the Scarfo family."
It's easy and there's some justification for pointing to the elder mob boss, Little Nicky, and fixing blame. But there was more to it than that, Manno said.
"The tragedy that he (the younger Scarfo) brought to other people is overwhelming," said Manno. "He is his father's son. To a very real extent, he suffered because of his name (a point made again and again by the defense), but he brought a lot of this on himself. He's not a pure victim here."
Manno clearly sees himself as one of the people Scarfo dragged into the FirstPlus quagmire. He argued during the trial that he knew very little about what was going on inside the company and that advice he offered to both Pelullo and Scarfo as an attorney was ignored. Often, he told the jury, they lied to him.
Manno used one of the government's own tapes to effectively make that point. An FBI wiretap recorded a conversation between him and Pelullo in which Manno sounded both shocked and dismayed over a plan to lie about Lisa Murray Scarfo's income and employment on a mortgage application for a $715,000 home she and Scarfo were buying outside of Atlantic City.
The mortgage was arranged in part through a FirstPlus subsidiary. Scarfo's name never appeared on any application.
"Are you fuckin' crazy?" Manno is heard asking Pelullo on the tape.
In another phone call, which Manno said the FBI had not recorded, he and Scarfo got into it over the same issue and, Manno said, he warned Scarfo that he was potentially committing bank fraud.
"Let me worry about that," he said Scarfo told him.
Scarfo in fact may have the next 30 years to do just that. He and Pelullo, each with two prior federal convictions, will likely face sentencing guidelines in the 30-year to life range when they appear before Judge Robert Kugler for sentencing in October.
Manno says he hopes to have his law practice up and running full speed by that point.
"My fees are going to be a little bit higher," he said only half joking, adding that he had worked for nearly a year without any income. His only client was himself.
His decision to represent himself, he said, was the right one. No one else, he believes, could have presented his case to the jury. It was personal. And despite the vindication that came with the jury foreman declaring "not guilty" to each of the five counts he faced, Manno still carries the scars of the experience.
"I was disappointed in the government," he said. "I think the case they put on was intellectually dishonest. I was really troubled by some of the mischaracterizations that were used to justify the charges."
There was no way, Manno said, that he or lawyers David Adler or Gary McCarthy should have been indicted. And the jury verdicts exonerating them, while allowing Manno and the others to say, "See. I told you so," doesn't take the sting out of what they had to go through.
Adler handled many SEC filings for FirstPlus, filings that were based on false information provided by Pelullo. McCarthy was involved in setting up business transactions that again were part of Pelullo's fraud scheme, according to the government's case.
"You know the prosecution tries to hide behind the fiction that the grand jury indicted us," Manno said. "You know that's bullshit. The prosecution gets the indictment it wants. The grand jury is just a rubber stamp. The government said they had a obligation to try the case. Bullshit. The government has an obligation to be right."
While he didn't agree with every defense argument, Manno said he did subscribe to the overarching defense contention that the prosecution had taken a white collar fraud case and tried to make it an organized crime prosecution in order to sell it to the jury.
"The only criminal organization was the one Pelullo and Scarfo had set up," he said. "There was no mob in this."
He also said he thought that another reason he, Adler and McCarthy were charged was because Scarfo, Pelullo and the Maxwell brothers were offering a defense that said in part they had depended on the advice of their lawyers for everything they did within the company.
Again, Manno said, the prosecutors and investigators had an obligation to base the charges on facts and evidence, not on prosecution strategies. Defense attorneys defend, he said, using any and every legitimate legal tactic. But the prosecution, when the system is working the way it should, has to focus on finding the truth.
If the prosecution does that, then the system works, regardless of the verdict.
This time, Manno believes, the system worked despite the prosecution.
Over dessert, a small pecan pie custard and a cappuccino, Manno again returned to his family and what they had done for him.
He estimated that he had presented his opening and closing dozens of times in his family room to his wife, daughters and sons-in-law.
There was a large screen for his power point presentation. There were questions and questions and more questions. Each session, he believes, made him a better defense attorney for his client. Each session made the story he wanted to tell to the jury clearer, simpler and more easily understood.
"I was just the mouthpiece," he said. "They're the ones that made it work."
" 'What are you trying to say?' they would ask me. 'What's the point? Talk to the jury like they're people, not other lawyers.' "
It was all good advice. The results speak for themselves. He has his life back. And, he believes, he's an even better lawyer because of it. He wonders if the prosecutors in the case could say the same.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@Bigtrial.net