I’ll always be grateful to Paul Bergrin, the New Jersey federal prosecutor turned notorious criminal defense attorney. Thanks to him, I’ll never have to worry about being the most scandalous alumnus of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark.
While working as an assistant U.S. attorney, I wrote a mildly snarky blog about federal judges, pretending to be a woman, until I outed myself in the pages of the New Yorker. That pales in comparison to what Bergrin stands accused of doing, including (but not limited to) the following: operating a real-estate scam, which defrauded lenders of over $1 million; running a high-volume drug dealership, which was apparently big enough to move 120 pounds of uncut cocaine; running an illegal escort service; and, most seriously of all, having witnesses murdered to keep them from testifying against his clients.
It’s hard to believe that Paul Bergrin was once a federal prosecutor. It’s not hard to believe that he is, in the words of New York magazine, “The Baddest Lawyer in the History of Jersey.”
But let’s recall that the charges against Bergrin are just that — charges, which Bergrin disputes. Last week, represented by prominent defense lawyer Lawrence Lustberg, Bergrin appeared in federal court in Newark and pleaded not guilty to all 33 counts in the 139-page indictment. Bergrin’s trial is currently set for October 11 before Judge William J. Martini.
In light of the astounding charges leveled against him, Paul Bergrin has taken on a larger-than-life aura — the man, the myth, the legend. What is he really like?
A New Jersey lawyer wrote to us to with her reflections on Paul Bergrin. Although she had only a brief encounter with him, even that fleeing interaction was revealing. It offers an interesting look at what Bergrin was like before he was (in)famous.
She begins with context and comparisons:
[W]hat I mostly remember about Paul Bergrin was an aura of dangerous mystique — which I’m sure was carefully cultivated. As you know, defense lawyers can be colorful characters, and many of them take pride in their own idiosyncrasies, the idiosyncrasies of their clients, or, in essence, anything that sets them apart or bolsters their secret (and sometimes not-so-secret) view of themselves as cowboys — in a way, outlaws by proxy.
For example, Jerry Ballarotto always wore cowboy boots and often a sported a bolo (and, to answer your unasked question, I believe he was from a Southern jurisdiction known as “Trenton,” not Texas); Phil Sellinger was known for living in a spectacular mini-mansion once occupied by a high-end brothel, complete with “themed” rooms, the descriptions of which grew more salacious with every retelling; one lawyer I knew would often mention the time that a client delivered a high-end sports car as “a show of appreciation”; and any lawyer who had been on a client’s private plane found a way to refer to it constantly, even if it required a less-than-relevant “this one time, at band camp”-style non-sequitur.
Well, to be fair, riding in a client’s private jet is pretty cool. I get excited every time I’m upgraded while flying commercial.
In short, defense lawyers are an egotistical crowd. Studies show that trial lawyers have higher testosterone levels than their office-bound colleagues, and I would guess that criminal defense lawyers are probably outliers even in the high testosterone crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if they pioneered the narcissistic practice of Tweeting pictures of their “bulging” cocks.
Hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Every criminal defendant wants a lawyer with cojones (a la Jose Baez).
It is in this context that I remember Bergrin as a shadowy figure, almost as if that was his shtick. As you know, the USAO in New Jersey has many distinguished alumni (Justice Alito, Secretary Chertoff, David Lat, half of the state’s federal judiciary), as well as many who are less famous but no less notable, and inspire the same level of institutional pride. Amongst these luminaries, Bergrin was a Prince of Darkness of sorts — like the comic book character who, whether by disillusionment, exposure to radiation, or some other corrupting influence, has gone to the dark side. He is the most potent enemy of the superhero: he has seen the Playbook of Virtue, and knows how the good guys tick; he has been virtuous himself, and rejects it as a way of life. He is just like us, but casts doubt on our core values.
Bergrin as fallen hero, as villain? He certainly looks the part. In the words of Mark Jacobson of New York magazine, Bergrin was known for “swank Brioni suits offset by a skeevy pencil-thin mustache.”
Now, on to our tipster’s encounter:
I remember meeting Bergrin at an informal bar gathering somewhere in New Jersey. It was a hard-drinking affair, around the holidays, I think, and the crowd was pretty animated. I went outside to hunt for a cigarette, and he had just pulled up in an ostentatious car. I don’t know whether it was the Bentley that he would drive around Newark, but it was something flashy enough to stand out in a lot filled with outward representations of the average New Jersey lawyer’s midlife crisis.
I recall asking Bergrin for a cigarette, because he looked like someone who would smoke. He also looked like someone who would call a woman a “broad” or a “dame,” and who would touch your elbow while politely holding a door open, before moving his hand to your tit or ass. In fact, because he had the kind of mustache more common to teenage Latino boys who stand on the street corner making kissy noises and yelling, “Heyyyyy, Ma-mi!,” I would always wonder, when I saw him, whether someone had brought their sex offender to the event in lieu of a date.
Anyway, I don’t remember whether Bergrin gave me a cigarette, but I remember him lighting mine with a flourish. I also remember him looking at me as though I was a pork chop, like the hungry character in a cartoon, to whom everything appears as a cut of meat. It didn’t seem like he wanted to undress me; rather, he came across as a guy who wouldn’t bother with a fantasy that didn’t involve coming in your face.
I also remember him talking tough, and non-specifically, about his army days — something having to do with how he WOULD, just that once, light my cigarette with a lighter, but he COULD light it with a fire started some other, more manly way. Something probably learned in jump school, which could be used if you had to bail out of a plane and fight the Cong with your bare hands and the last washer left from the wreckage, or some s**t.
Years later, I heard that he was fighting a mysterious form of cancer. I imagined him fighting it, shirtless and with a bullwhip in hand, and not a black, oily hair out of place.
Former prominent Newark lawyer pleads not guilty to 33 counts including murder-for-hire [Newark Star-Ledger]
The Baddest Lawyer in the History of Jersey [New York Magazine]