Thomas P. Puccio, lawyer who won Abscam convictions and defended von Bulow, dies at 67

Thomas P. Puccio — who as a Justice Department prosecutor led the Abscam political corruption probe in the late 1970s that ended with the convictions of seven U.S. lawmakers and, later as a trial lawyer, represented the rich and famous charged with rape and murder — died March 12 at a hospital in New Haven, Conn.

He was 67 and had complications from leukemia, his wife, Kathryn Puccio, said.

Turning to private practice in the early 1980s, Mr. Puccio garnered a reputation as New York’s go-to lawyer for unseemly cases. In the courtroom, his piranha-like aggressiveness earned him countless victories. He was so self-confident that he once proclaimed: “I could indict a ham sandwich.”

In 1985, he used a parade of medical experts to win an acquittal for the socialite Claus von Bulow, who had previously been convicted of attempting to murder his wife, heiress Martha “Sunny” von Bulow.

Mr. Puccio later represented Alex Kelly, the scion of a wealthy Connecticut family who — after being charged twice with rape — fled the country and spent eight years on the slopes of the Alps as a ski bum.

In that case in 1996, Mr. Puccio directly attacked the credibility of Kelly’s female accuser and her family, saying they seemed to enjoy the fame the case had brought them, arriving for proceedings “totally coiffed and dressed to kill.” Eventually, Kelly was convicted of both rape charges but acquitted of a kidnapping charge.

“In a courtroom, [Mr. Puccio] is incredibly calculating and coldblooded, and I say this not in a derogatory way,” Edward R. Korman, a federal judge, told the New York Times in 1996.

Mr. Puccio rose to prominence in the late 1970s when he ensnared seven U.S. congressmen in a sting operation — Abscam — involving an oil-rich Arab sheik, briefcases of cash and parties aboard a motor yacht moored off the Florida coast.

From 1976 to 1982, Mr. Puccio served as chief of a Justice Department organized crime strike force in New York, where ruses such as Abscam were considered routine.

Mr. Puccio oversaw the operation, which began as an effort to recover two 17th-century paintings — a Rubens and a Gerard ter Borch — stolen from a Manhattan apartment building and missing for 13 years.

In a scheme Mr. Puccio helped devise, an FBI agent posed as an Arab sheik interested in buying the paintings. The artworks were easily recovered.

Building on the character’s success, Mr. Puccio and his team decided to use the sheik again and added a back story.

The fake sheik’s company, Abdul Enterprises Ltd. — hence, Abscam — sought to invest in U.S. businesses, including a titanium mine, real estate deals and gambling rackets.

Initially, Mr. Puccio said, the operation did not target politicians. But Angelo J. Errichetti, mayor of Camden, N.J., introduced undercover agents to U.S. Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D-N.J.) and other U.S. lawmakers: Rep. Raymond Lederer (D-Pa.), Rep. Michael J. Myers (D-Pa.) and Rep. Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.).

Rep. John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.), Rep. John W. Jenrette Jr. (D-S.C.) and Rep. Richard Kelly (R-Fla.) came in later.

The undercover agents held furtive meetings with the lawmakers at a New Jersey Playboy Club, at a home in Northwest Washington and aboard a yacht in Florida.

Mr. Puccio’s team recorded the politicians on surveillance video accepting about $400,000 in bribes in exchange for political favors.

Once in court, Mr. Puccio handled the cases against Myers and Williams. Myers was the first House member in 100 years to be expelled from office.

Williams, who was convicted on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy, became only the fourth U.S. senator to be convicted while serving on Capitol Hill. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Thomas Philip Puccio was born Sept. 12, 1944, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was an English graduate from Fordham University in New York. He joined the U.S. attorney’s office in New York after graduating from Fordham Law School in 1969.

After he left the Justice Department in 1982, he entered private practice, eventually joining the New York law firm Stroock and Stroock. He told The Washington Post in 1985 that he found life as a private lawyer to be much easier.

“I used to practice law,” Mr. Puccio said. “Now I practice lunch.”

His marriage to Carol Ziegler ended in divorce.

In 1995, Mr. Puccio was giving a driving lesson to their 16-year-old son, Matthew, when their Mercedes-Benz skidded out of control and plunged into an icy yacht basin. Mr. Puccio was propelled from the car and swam to safety. The boy, trapped inside the car, drowned.

Mr. Puccio is survived by his wife of 19 years, the former Kathryn Hansen, a onetime model for Noxzema shave cream, of Weston, Conn.

Mr. Puccio said he had no regrets about ending the careers of the seven congressmen through Abscam.

“It exposed corruption in Congress at a level at which it has never been exposed before,” he told the New York Times in 1982. “I believe it has made it more difficult for people in Congress and public life to engage in bribery and corruption, because of fear that they may be dealing with an undercover agent.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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