Cutler stages unusual defense Mob consigliere's attorney got plenty of training on the big stage when he was acting as Gotti's lawyer

Posted: April 20, 2001

While John Gotti, the onetime boss of all bosses, was lying in a federal prison hospital yesterday suffering from head and neck cancer, his former lawyer, Bruce Cutler, was defending the consigliere of the Philadelphia crime family, George Borgesi.

Like a Shakespearean actor evoking great emotion on stage, Cutler, in several theatrical moves, asked former Philadelphia mob boss Ralph Natale a series of questions about two documents during cross-examination, which ended yesterday.

It was a curious defense.

On the one hand, he didn't ask questions about Borgesi and the crimes that Natale has claimed the consigliere committed, nor did he challenge the other evidence of photos, video or tape-recordings.

On the other, Cutler was going after the big picture - the very existence of a criminal enterprise, and whether Natale, in fact, was a real La Cosa Nostra boss.

If the defense can prove that Natale was a boss only in his own mind, the defense team believes its clients cannot be charged with crimes in a racketeering enterprise.

Cutler pointed out that Natale was "carrying the mantle of La Cosa Nostra" for the government, and that the government needed him as much as he needed the government.

In describing Natale's Dec. 5, 1999, parole hearing for special reconsideration, Cutler noted that two assistant U.S. attorneys, the FBI supervisor of the organized crime division and the FBI case agent, attended.

Hearing examiner Pat Denton was ready to impose stiffer penalties for parole violations than the 16 months Natale had received only four months earlier after reading a transcript in which he admitted being the mob boss. But she didn't.

The government went to bat for him, by showing up and sending a Dec. 8, 1999, letter, saying: "Mr. Natale is the first boss of the La Cosa Nostra family to cooperate."

His "uniqueness," Cutler read from the letter "shall make him a target for the rest of his life."

Through questions, Cutler noted that Natale could turn himself into a mob boss at will and leave the LCN, both violations of Mafia rules.

Cutler read Natale's statement to Denton: "I considered myself boss from the day I came home from Allenwood Low," a federal prison in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Natale admitted he felt that way long before his Mafia initiation.

Cutler read Denton's reply: "Now, when did you consider yourself not the boss anymore? Are you still the boss?"

Natale: "I guess not because I'm here."

Denton: "So you consider yourself not the boss when you started cooperating?"

Natale: "Yes."

Cutler asked Natale when he no longer was the boss.

"When I pleaded guilty to all those charges," Natale said of his hearing last May 5. "I was no longer the devil I was."

Natale had admitted earlier that he had committed no crimes on behalf of La Cosa Nostra during his imprisonment from 1979 through 1990. Yesterday, Cutler asked the question again.

"I pleaded guilty to every crime I ever did in front of [U.S. District] Judge [Joseph E.] Irenas whether it was for La Cosa Nostra or not," Natale said.

"You never differentiated," Cutler bellowed, "between whether it was something you did yourself, because every crime to which you pleaded guilty in front of Judge Irenas had the mantle of La Cosa Nostra."

Defense attorneys had accused Natale of lying about his age, as documents listed three birthdates. Yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Gross presented Natale's birth certificate showing he was born on March 6, 1935. He is 66. *

Send e-mail to caparek@phillynews.com

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