NEW YORK — The first things you notice when you walk into the Midtown law office on 40th Street and Madison Avenue are the press clippings, which hang all over the walls. There’s the young lawyer in the picture frame, talking to Diane Sawyer on “Good Morning America.” And there he is again, not a hair out of place, in his profile from the New York Law Journal, which is framed next to his desk. And there’s his face on a placard containing a New York Post editorial from July 2005, in which he predicted the Martha Stewart verdict would be overturned on appeal.
Meet Joseph Tacopina, 40, defense attorney to the damned, dispossessed and notorious. Part legal eagle, part public relations guy, part crisis manager — if his name doesn’t at least ring a bell, you apparently haven’t been reading the tabloids.
He’s the guy representing 19-year-old Diana Bianchi in a sexual harassment case against Christie Brinkley’s husband, Peter Cook, with whom she had an affair. He’s also working on behalf of Jared Paul Stern, the former New York Post reporter under investigation for trying to blackmail billionaire Ron Burkle. Then there is former police commissioner Bernie Kerik, whom he recently got off with a slap on the wrist, and before that, Kerik’s ex-mistress, publishing magnate Judith Regan.
“Basically, she had a dispute with her divorce attorney,” Tacopina says. “She busted into his office and he tried to press a burglary complaint against her for trespassing. But Judith is Judith. She wanted her files, so she was getting her files.”
And last, but certainly not least, he serves as counsel for Joran van der Sloot, the 19-year-old prime suspect in the Natalee Holloway disappearance in Aruba. “That’s a case where I did my own investigation,” he says, “because I’ll be damned if I was going to go out there and represent a Scott Peterson type, where I’m saying he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it, and the evidence is clear he did it.”
(The civil case against van der Sloot in New York was tossed out shortly after this interview. As for Kerik, he may the subject of a new probe.)
Not a bad run for a kid who, as he tells it, grew up “lower middle class” in Flatbush and Sheepshead Bay. “I was the only Italian kid in Yeshiva,” Tacopina says. “The schools were so bad and my mother was a bulldog, so she got me in.”
After that, he attended Poly Prep, and went from there to Skidmore on a hockey scholarship. “I had what today would be called ADD,” he says. “I wasn’t a horrible student but I certainly had issues.” After reading “Fatal Vision” by Joe McGinniss, he decided to apply to law school and wound up at the University of Bridgeport, where he scored internships with legendary trial lawyers Bruce Cutler, Jimmy LaRosa and Gerry Shargel, with whom he still works frequently as a co-counsel. “I wrote them letters, almost stalking them. I told them I would make photocopies, get coffee, anything. I just wanted to be there,” Tacopina says.
In 1991, he got his license and went to work as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, where he stayed until 1994, when he went into private practice.
His first big break came working as co-counsel on the “Morgue Boys” case, doing battle on behalf of one of three police officers charged with stealing cash and drugs from Brooklyn residents. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but the three police officers were acquitted in the retrial.
After that, Tacopina got a lot of work helping out cops. He defended one of the officers in the Abner Louima torture abuse case, and got him off, and won a case involving an officer from Rikers who was charged with stealing a Salvador Dali painting from the prison. “He was acquitted even though the prosecution had a tape of him talking about how he had destroyed the painting,” Tacopina says.
Does he feel bad about getting people off who are guilty? “Not for a nanosecond,” says the married father of five. “There are only two kinds of cases I won’t take. I won’t take a pedophile I believe to be guilty and I won’t take a terrorist.”
So what’s up with the sketch of him in court, with Michael Jackson, whose manager Tacopina represented in last year’s sexual molestation case?
“I was very comfortable that Michael was wrongly accused,” he says. “That family was making a money play. Michael was naive and he was taken advantage of.”
Tacopina got an awful lot of face time on television as a result of all these cases. “I’m not apologetic about that,” he says. “If you’re not press-savvy in a high-profile case, you’re behind the eight ball.”
His good looks help — plus the fact that he’s something of a fashion junkie. Today, he’s wearing a custom-made suit from L&S Tailors on the Upper East Side. “They work for the Bulgari family,” he says proudly. The rest (“down to my underwear”) comes from Italy.
Says Murray Richman, a mentor and well-known mob lawyer: “Joe is the whole package. He makes a good presentation in and out of the courtroom. Normally, I’m not of the opinion that a lawyer should be a p.r. person, but he makes it work phenomenally.”
And because he’s so earnest, it doesn’t quite come off as slick. In his case on behalf of van der Sloot, Tacopina clocked 32 appearances on Fox News and MSNBC alone between March and June. He gave access to reporters, feeding them tips that led to other suspects, and providing them with exclusive interviews with witnesses who could back up van der Sloot’s story. “I asked Joe for an interview with Joran’s mother,” says Fox News’ Kimberly Guilfoyle. “I was down to Aruba within a day.”
Tacopina also knew when to play hardball. At one point, he even went on Greta van Susteren to announce he would be filing lawsuits against people who made slanderous statements about his client. “It’s time that people are going to be held accountable,” he told van Susteren. “I’ve had it with people going on national TV or in print media and calling him a rapist, or a predator, or even a murderer … It sickens me.”
The irony was delicious. The lawyer who built his client base by becoming a talking head was suddenly threatening to sue his on-air combatants for making unsubstantiated claims on shows where nothing much happens besides people making unsubstantiated claims.
Sometimes Tacopina’s eagerness for attention seems to get the better of him. His willingness to work on behalf of Diana Bianchi and Jared Paul Stern have earned him widespread criticism from his fellow members of the bar.
Said defense attorney Ed Hayes: “I’m not sure Bianchi’s worth the effort. Peter Cook gave her $1,500 a month, got her a car, bought her gifts. That sounds like a mistress to me.”
And another veteran defense attorney, speaking on the condition of anonymity, argued that the decision to conduct an interview with Fox and the New York Post was a p.r. move that came at the expense of Bianchi’s already damaged reputation. “If you have an 18-year-old girl in a case like this,” the lawyer says, “you cover her with a blanket, put her on a plane to Oregon, and put her 100 miles from the nearest reporter. It raised real questions about his judgment, and it made her look like a gold-digger.”
Naturally, Tacopina disagrees. “I think she came off really well,” he says. “And here’s the point: She was getting hurt to begin with.”
He picks up a stack of newspapers containing Bianchi’s pictures. “She wound up on the front page of the New York Post and the Daily News for two days before she decided to speak out. She spoke out once for 20 minutes, and that was it. Now she’s gone, returned to relative obscurity. This girl turned down $450,000 to sell her story to the supermarket tabloids.”
Of course, with myriad book, TV and movie offers reportedly coming in, why should Bianchi bother to sell out so quickly?
“I turn down cases and press appearances every day,” Tacopina says. “I could be in the newspaper every single day if I wanted to. I’m doing this because I believe in the client, I believe in the system, I believe that everyone is entitled to a vigorous and ferocious representation. And I’m going to give it to them!”