In Goodman’s entertaining memoir, Being Oscar: From Mob Lawyer to Mayor of Las Vegas--Only in America he shares stories from his 35-year career as a criminal attorney defending mob personalities as well as the following dozen years serving as mayor of Las Vegas.
How did you get started on such a colorful career track?
I come from a very conservative background. My dad was a lawyer in Philadelphia; people had a great deal of respect and admiration for him. My mother was an artist, a woman before her time. They were interesting people and they taught me to be honest and forthright; they never preached. I think the best lesson is to make your children know you love them, make them think they’re smart even if they’re dummies, and make them think they’re handsome even if they’re ugly—it’s confidence-building. I always felt I was number one; nothing ever got in my way. We tried to raise our children that way.
How did you move into criminal law?
I loved criminal law. It was the only course I enjoyed in law school. Most of my colleagues wanted to go into commercial law. When my wife Carolyn and I came to Las Vegas years ago, I worked in the public defender’s office where I won my first six cases and never got a thank you. In my first private case I lost and my client thanked me! Then I got a new trial for a fellow and walked him away from the gas chamber. Then I defended a mobster’s brother and got a “not guilty” verdict and the stars were aligned. I was the opposite of Joe Btfsplk, that guy in the comic strip Li’l Abner, who walked around with a cloud over his head. Wherever I went the sun was shining. I rarely had to put clients on the witness stand. My reputation was sealed in cases where there were huge raids across 26 cities and I won 19 of those cases after discovering signatures on the paperwork were all the same name, but the handwriting didn’t match up. When I defended a federal judge before an impeachment hearing in the U.S. Senate, I was very disappointed because the trial was a mockery. Then I defended a client charged with killing a federal judge in Texas. I’ve run through the Alpha and Omega of cases.
What do you miss about the courtroom?
I put the government on trial in many cases; there was a lot of misconduct on its part. I miss the courtroom, the cross-examination, and the final arguments. But I don’t miss a person across from me being wired. I had to be very circumspect in my life because I was under observation. The government’s intelligence logs (an oxymoron) even had information about when I left town and when I came home.
You defended the infamous mobster Tony Spilotro. What was that like?
He was very respectful and solicitous to me and my staff—even to my family. After Tony was buried in that Midwest cornfield—a notorious affair—there was a void, I’d spent so much time keeping him out of prison. Without his cases to keep me busy, I became bored. I always enjoyed the job and I worked very hard. But after so many years, I finally decided it was no way to spend the rest of my life.
So you ran for mayor of Las Vegas—why?
I didn’t know better. It was a rocky entrance to the political field. I ran, I won, and I didn’t really know how to accomplish the change I wanted to see. A former detractor told me if I were elected, people thought the mob would run city hall. I told him—he was a land developer—I needed a 101 course to redevelop the urban downtown. The city obtained a 61-acre parcel of land and I called it the jewel of the desert. It generated stories on the front page of the Sunday New York Times and in U.S. News & World Report where I was described as the mob lawyer-turned-mayor. Despite the great recession, we finished projects, almost everything I wanted to accomplish. I was mayor for the term limit of 12 years; my wife succeeded me and is currently the mayor. She’s well respected and had run a non-profit, non-sectarian school from which people went on to major universities and are now coming back to enrich the community.
Was being mayor easier than being a defense attorney?
Well there was no paranoia (and paranoia can be real). I kept my door open all the time. We had coffee-with-the-mayor sessions and martinis-with-the-mayor. I never needed high-priced pollsters to tell me what was going on. It was like being a good defense lawyer: look people in the eye and tell them the truth. And neither Carolyn nor I needed the job. You can be a force to contend with when you’re that independent.
Will you write another book?
We’ll see. I have plenty of books in my head and I never run out of stories.