A long, private battle between Simon & Schuster and author Michael Gambino became public last week when the publisher added the author's agent, Joel Gotler, to a suit claiming fraud and seeking to recoup a $500,000 advance as well as punitive damages.

The book at the center of the suit, The Honored Society, is a novel about a hit man's rise and fall in the mob, signed up by Pocket Books editor George Lucas in May 2001 and released in November. Gambino, who also goes by the name Michael Pellegrino, had told the publisher he was the illegitimate grandson of mob boss Carlo Gambino and claimed he had served more than a decade in prison for mob-related crimes. But soon after publication, the publisher became concerned about the author's true identity (particularly because it had been using some of his claims to market the book), and in February, the house sued him for fraud.

After the suit was filed, insiders at S&S said, the house had hoped to reach a resolution quietly, but after several failed attempts, felt it had no choice but to take the unusual step of suing the defunct Artists Management Group for which Gotler had worked. "The relevant fact from our perspective is that the agency presented the author to us as a person who could provide an inside view from his lineage and extensive personal experience of a criminal enterprise," said S&S spokesperson Adam Rothberg. A spokesperson for Gotler declined to comment on pending legislation.

According to S&S, when the house asked Pellegrino for proof of his time served, the author could not provide it. (The New York Times reported that the only concrete evidence it found pertains to a 19-month sentence in Nevada, which, according to a Pellegrino lawyer, stemmed from misappropriating a rental deposit.)

Another discrepancy involves the author's name. S&S officials say that when the proposal came in, they were under the impression the author's name was Michael Gambino. Only later did it become evident that he may also go by Pellegrino. The officials say that the author had told them that Gambino was his real name and that Pellegrino was the name he used to avoid anti-mob discrimination. But now they're not so sure.

Pellegrino's representatives, however, maintain that as far as the author knows, he is indeed the illegitimate grandson of Carlo Gambino. They also say that his biographical details are nowhere near as important as the story itself, and that the contract did not stipulate the author's credentials as a condition for payment. To bolster their claims, lawyers for Pellegrino and Gotler are likely to rely on the fact that the book was presented to the publisher, and then sold to the public, as a novel. They will also find themselves in the unusual position of trying to prove Pellegrino's innocence by showing he was a criminal.

Pellegrino is also countersuing Pocket, claiming it did not pay him the final $100,000 of his advance. A lawyer for Pellegrino did not return a call by press time.

The time line for this case has been as tortured as it has been secret. It's unclear at what point red flags went up at S&S. Even after concerns were raised, the publisher acted in stages, first suing Pellegrino, then notifying bookstores of the situation (though the book continued to be available in a number of outlets) and then, last week, suing Gotler. The book has now been pulled from most shelves.

Like similar instances involving authorial misrepresentation, the case underscores the degree to which publishers rely on the agent and author in establishing an author's credentials.

S&S Editors Laid Off

In other S&S news, the reorganization of the publisher's paperback and hardback imprints (News, Aug. 12) resulted in a few layoffs. The publisher confirmed that several editors were let go, mostly paperback editors whose responsibilities have been assumed by hardcover editors. Among those on the list are Nicole Diamond, Lisa Considine and Jake Klisivitch.