Arthur Aidala: The Nice-Guy Lawyer for America’s Tabloid Villains – The New York Times

The sweet spot of Arthur Aidala’s law practice is a headline-grabbing defendant who is hated by many. Somehow, that doesn’t mean people hate him.
Arthur Aidala, in his Manhattan office, has a client list that includes Harvey Weinstein, Rudy Giuliani and people in the midst of trial by tabloid.Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times
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Even when there are few cameras around, Arthur L. Aidala, 54, is camera-ready, dressed in a light-blue pinstripe suit with a purple pocket square and tie on a sunny June day. He’s a lawyer who welcomes press attention, but on this particular day he was worried about the way it can make a difficult job harder.
He was arguing for bail on behalf of a client whose youthful face had been splashed across cable news screen and newspaper pages. One tabloid headline called her: “Granny Shover.”
Lauren Pazienza, the client, is a 27-year-old woman charged with manslaughter in the killing of Barbara Maier Gustern, an 87-year-old vocal coach, who was pushed on a sidewalk on March 10 on West 28th Street in Manhattan. Ms. Gustern suffered brain injuries and died five days later.
Ms. Pazienza represents the sweet spot of Mr. Aidala’s law practice: a headline-grabbing defendant who is hated by many.
“The only reason bail wasn’t set was because there were three rows of press,” Mr. Aidala told a panel of appellate judges, implying that the trial judge who had revoked the initially-agreed-upon bail amount of $500,000 wanted to look tough. (Ms. Pazienza has pleaded not guilty.)
The day the New York Police Department identified Ms. Pazienza as the suspect, a friend of Mr. Aidala’s asked him if he would talk to her family. They could not afford Mr. Aidala’s $950-per-hour standard rate, but told him that they and Ms. Pazienza’s grandparents would agree to a payment plan that would leverage their combined savings and pensions.
Tabloids have called Ms. Pazienza a “socialite.” To try to persuade the appellate judges to reconsider giving her bail, Mr. Aidala painted a different picture:
Ms. Pazienza’s father digs cesspools for a living, Mr. Aidala told the judges, asserting that the family has little money and that the defendant is not a flight risk.
“You are the only ones who can make sure this is a justice system that doesn’t do an injustice because this is a media case,” he said.
“Media cases” are Mr. Aidala’s specialty: He has emerged as the go-to legal defender of those deemed wretched by media headlines if not also by the facts.
Long before the days of social media shaming, which operates far beyond the bounds of due process, defense lawyers were there, championing the rights of society’s most deplored.
“Arthur cancels ‘cancel culture,’” said Geraldo Rivera, a host and correspondent for Fox News who has been friends with the lawyer for about 20 years. “He has no patience for it, and he ignores it.”
Arguing for the defense in these cases often means both fighting the influence of the press on judges and jurors and leveraging it for his clients’ benefit. Or helping them elude it. The former congressman Anthony Weiner, a close friend and onetime client, noted that Mr. Aidala knows everyone in the New York legal world, including “the people who can let you out of the back door of the courthouse to avoid the press.”
Mr. Aidala, a registered Democrat, may be the only person in New York at the intersection of the Democratic Brooklyn political power establishment and Fox News Nation.
This was on display in May at the Ziegfeld Ballroom in Manhattan, where he emceed a black-tie party for the Friars Club with the same earnest New Yorkese that he deploys for both jurors and listeners of his weekday radio show, “The Arthur Aidala Power Hour,” which airs on AM 970 (WNYM) at 6 p.m.
He is the current “dean” — president — of the club, an institution that was once a watering hole for entertainers including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and became famous for its raunchy roasts of celebrities.
Among the guests at the gala were friends, clients and colleagues of Mr. Aidala’s representing the poles of his network: at least two former New York mayors, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Bill de Blasio, and the current mayor, Eric Adams. Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Weiner were at the same table. Mr. Rivera and the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro were there, too.
For his day job, Mr. Aidala is the managing partner of Aidala, Bertuna & Kamins. The Bertuna is his wife, Marianne Bertuna. The Kamins is Barry Kamins, a retired New York judge. Another partner is a fellow retired judge, John M. Leventhal.
Among the firm’s current clients is Harvey Weinstein, whose defense and postconviction appeal Mr. Aidala helped steer. The appeal was rejected last month by a panel of five New York appellate judges.
Another client is Mr. Giuliani, whom Mr. Aidala and his partners are representing primarily in the matter of the suspension of Mr. Giuliani’s law license after his work for former President Donald J. Trump in the wake of the 2020 election.
And another: Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor, who is a prolific criminal lawyer himself.
Mr. Dershowitz hired Mr. Aidala to defend him in a defamation lawsuit filed by the lawyer David Boies. (Mr. Dershowitz is countersuing Mr. Boies.) Mr. Aidala also represents Mr. Dershowitz in a defamation lawsuit filed against him by Virginia Giuffre, an accuser of Jeffrey Epstein’s. (Mr. Dershowitz is countersuing Ms. Giuffre.)
As a lawyer, Mr. Dershowitz defended a wide variety of high profile clients, including Mr. Trump, in his Senate impeachment trial; Leona Helmsley, on appeal after she had been convicted of federal income-tax fraud; Mike Tyson, in an appeal of a rape conviction; and O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murder charges.
In Mr. Aidala, Mr. Dershowitz sees someone he recognizes.
“Arthur,” he said, “is the new me.”
The appeals court denied Mr. Aidala’s request for bail for Ms. Pazienza. He is now in the pretrial discovery phase, interviewing witnesses and analyzing evidence. “I’m very concerned that all the negative publicity surrounding the case will lead to an unjust disposition,” he said.
Mr. Aidala can be quick to list the boldface names on his client list, but he feels most protective of private people accused of terrible offenses and drawn into the cross hairs of tabloid culture.
Doing the work of criminal defense requires maintaining a nuanced understanding of what innocence and guilt mean. “Most of my clients have done something wrong,” he said last month as he poured Johnnie Walker Blue Label into a whiskey tumbler.
It’s his job to make sure that the police, the prosecutor and the judge have done nothing wrong in the process of building and adjudicating the cases against his clients.
Dressed in a gray window-pane suit, matching yellow tie and pocket square, and wingtip shoes, Mr. Aidala took a sip and sank low into a seat in a corner of the Frank Sinatra Room in his Midtown Manhattan law office, with the Chairman of the Board casting a gaze upon Mr. Aidala from every wall and surface.
Earlier, Mr. Aidala had been in a Brooklyn courtroom, serving as pro bono co-counsel to a man who was released from prison after 24 years, after a judge found there had been prosecutorial misconduct. As he sat in traffic on his way into Manhattan, he received a text message with news that he and his partners had been waiting for since December: “Weinstein affirmed.” It meant the appellate panel denied the appeal that Mr. Aidala, Mr. Kamins, Mr. Leventhal and others — including Mr. Dershowitz, who served as consultant — helped construct before Mr. Kamins delivered oral arguments.
In the months of waiting, it had seemed plausible to his attorneys that Mr. Weinstein’s conviction or sentence could be overturned. So the defeat stung. Mr. Aidala heard the news while he was in his car on the Brooklyn Bridge and said he took a moment to scream one choice expletive. “Sometimes you need that,” he said.
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book on Mr. Weinstein, Ken Auletta reported that Mr. Aidala had so harshly cross-examined one woman who shared details of a friend’s experience with Mr. Weinstein that she left the stand in tears.
“You never want a witness to be revictimized by an attorney,” Mr. Aidala told me, “but you have to extract the evidence that you need on behalf of your client.”
After the Weinstein ruling became public, Mr. Aidala heard from a friend, a well-known cable news host. He texted Mr. Aidala: “Harvey is where he’s supposed to be.” Mr. Aidala replied, “Even if it was true, if he doesn’t get there the right way, then the whole system begins to collapse.”
Defense attorneys, particularly those who charge steep hourly rates, are often seen as amoral bottom feeders, people willing to represent clients whom many consider irredeemable.
That’s what William Rapetti thought of criminal defense lawyers, until 2008 when he was charged with seven counts of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, assault and reckless endangerment after a construction crane that he was working on in Midtown Manhattan collapsed, killing seven people.
The New York Post called him “Killer Crane Rigger.” He felt the judgment of the city upon him. “It’s hard to describe what that feels like,” Mr. Rapetti said.
A judge acquitted Mr. Rapetti on all the charges in 2010. “Arthur did in fact save my life,” Mr. Rapetti said.
Mr. Aidala singles out Mr. Rapetti from many of his clients. It was a great responsibility to represent him, he said, greater than representing people who have done something wrong. The difference? He was factually innocent,” Mr. Aidala said.
When Mr. Aidala was about 10 years old, he asked if he could wear a white suit to his communion. (The nuns said no.)
This was in the late 1970s, the height of “Saturday Night Fever” fever. In the movie, a character played by John Travolta lives out Manhattan disco dreams at night while disappointing his parents by day in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Mr. Aidala’s neighborhood.
Young Arthur grew up the elder of two children in a tightknit Sicilian American family. He and his sister were forbidden to watch the “Godfather” film series or any movies or television shows that reinforced stereotypes of Italians as violent mobsters.
Mr. Aidala’s mother, Mary Ann Piazza Aidala, was a schoolteacher. His father, Louis Aidala, is a lawyer who worked for Frank Hogan, the Manhattan district attorney. Louis Aidala became a defense lawyer, representing clients including Eyad Ismoil, who was convicted of abetting the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and Jennifer Lopez when she was a witness in a 1999 nightclub shooting that involved her boyfriend at the time, the hip-hop artist Sean Combs.
Arthur Aidala and Ms. Bertuna, his wife and law partner, live up the block from his parents with their 5-year-old son and 7-month-old daughter. Ms. Bertuna, 45, was recently named counsel to the Kings County Public Administrator. She began her career as Mr. Aidala’s intern, and they married in 2016, a year after he was divorced. (Mr. Aidala also has a 16-year-old son from his first marriage.)
Mr. Aidala dates his early legal education to watching his father prepare his cases, and to his own involvement in musical theater at Poly Prep in Brooklyn, where he attended high school. Hoping to become a professional actor, he attended the State University of New York at Purchase (alumni include Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci), but realized quickly that he was more interested in political science. After graduating, he enrolled in law school at City University of New York.
He didn’t shelve his dreams of performing, though. He just found a different sort of stage. During closing arguments for a recent murder trial, he theatrically waved an undelivered Mother’s Day card as proof of how tirelessly he, a momma’s boy, had been working, and at one point fell to his knees right in front of the jury box.
“If you want to hold 12 human beings’ attention for hours,” he said, “I don’t think standing at a podium and reading from notes is an effective way.”
From the time Mr. Aidala was 16, his parents sent him each summer to Italy to connect with the family’s roots. After his second year of law school, he attended a study-abroad program in Siena at which Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice, taught for a week. The first night the justice and his wife were there, Mr. Aidala hosted a party in the student villa, cooking dinner for them and his fellow students.
In his office, Mr. Aidala displays Justice Scalia’s photograph along with his other Italian American heroes of jurisprudence, Mario Cuomo and Mr. Aidala’s father.
He also keeps the many letters he received from Justice Scalia, who became a mentor to him. After Mr. Rapetti was acquitted, Justice Scalia sent a note on Supreme Court letterhead. “Congratulations! I remember reading about the crane collapse, and it seemed like the perfect occasion for a scapegoat,” he wrote. “It must feel good to save someone (and his family) from that fate.”
Mr. Aidala said he had long chased the thrill of trying to win the best possible outcomes for clients accused of the most sensational crimes. He represented John Pickett, charged with murder in the 1997 stabbing of his boyfriend, John Stagno. Mr. Aidala compelled the judge (Mr. Leventhal, who would join Mr. Aidala’s firm years later) to allow Mr. Aidala to argue that his client had been abused by his boyfriend and had suffered from what was then known as “battered woman’s syndrome.”
The New York Post called this a “landmark” development. The district attorney’s office changed its plea offer from 22 years to six years, which Mr. Pickett accepted.
In 2009, Mr. Aidala represented Brigitte Harris, whose father died after she cut off his penis with a razor knife. Mr. Aidala argued that Ms. Harris had been sexually abused by her father and snapped when she saw one of her young nieces sitting on his lap. A jury acquitted her of a second-degree murder charge and convicted her of second-degree manslaughter, for which she served five years in jail and prison.
By late 2017, the bubbling Me Too movement would start to keep Mr. Aidala and his law partners busy. Roger Ailes hired him when he was accused of sexual harassment and later fired by Fox News. (“They’re going to put up a bunch of white-shoe marshmallows and I need a street fighter,” Mr. Aidala said Mr. Ailes had told him.) Leslie Moonves, the former chairman of CBS, retained Mr. Aidala for a heartbeat. (“Once it was clear it wasn’t going to be a criminal case, he didn’t need me.”) And then there was Mr. Weinstein. (Referring to the financier Jeffrey Epstein, who hanged himself in jail, Mr. Aidala said, “The day Epstein died I said, ‘This is going to be terrible for Harvey because all the focus is going to be back on him,’ and I was right.”)
Then there was Lawrence Taylor, the Hall of Fame linebacker for the New York Giants, who was charged in 2010 with rape but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and received a sentence of probation. After a jury in a civil trial found that Mr. Taylor was not liable for damages, he gave Mr. Aidala his National Football League most valuable player trophy from 1986.
“We became great friends,” Mr. Taylor said. “I’m not glad that it happened, but I’m glad that I met him.”
“The Arthur Aidala Power Hour” opens with the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” and an announcer’s introduction: “Your host, making the case for the city he loves, attorney Arthur Aidala.”
Mr. Aidala stands behind his office desk, with an “On Air” neon sign sitting next to his computer, and spends the next hour in extemporaneous chatter with his guests and with his listeners. The other week, he and Mayor Adams spoke for 25 minutes about the economy, guns and what the city is doing to deal with rats. (“I’m a little cranked up because it’s a big ‘get’ to get the mayor,” the host told his listeners beforehand.)
The show helps Mr. Aidala promote his brand and his business. His practice has grown a lot, especially since 2015, when he recruited Mr. Kamins after he retired from the bench and then Mr. Leventhal, who retired in 2020 and happens to be Mr. Kamins’s lifelong best friend. Together, they have brought gravitas and four-figure billable hours to the firm.
Even while representing people who are reviled in what used to be known as the court of public opinion (and now is best described as social media), Mr. Aidala has seemingly managed to avoid collecting enemies.
“He’s the boy next door telling you what something is about,” said Joan Illuzzi, the former assistant district attorney who led the prosecution in the Weinstein case.
“It carries a lot of weight with juries when you’re being yourself, being the same person to a jury as you are to your neighbors as you are to your grandmother,” said Ms. Illuzzi, who retired this year.
“I praise the people who defended Weinstein — they did as good and thorough a job as they possibly could,” she said. “Nobody would speak ill of Arthur. Arthur’s a nice guy.”
Being an effective defense lawyer — doing what even opposing counsel would call a good and thorough job — requires understanding the role clearly. Frank Carone, the mayor’s chief of staff, Mr. Aidala’s close friend and a former criminal defense lawyer himself, sees it as being “a guardian of the Constitution.”
“Our job is to protect the rights of the accused and make sure that they get a robust trial or a robust review of the facts,” Mr. Carone said. “You don’t look at the individual acts. You look at the process.”
Mr. Aidala sees his task as trying to push people beyond groupthink.Even though we may want a person to be in jail,” he said, sipping his Scotch, “we need to live in a society where that person goes to jail based on the rules. It can’t be that the end justifies the means.”
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