For Mark J. Mahoney, defending a client takes on the intensity of a Shakespearean drama. There’s sound and fury, tension and pathos.
His legal maneuverings may be unorthodox, but they get the jury’s attention. And the jury was transfixed during the Adelphia corporate fraud trial of 2004, where Mahoney successfully defended the cable company’s former assistant treasurer, Michael Mulcahey. His client was the only one to be acquitted. Adelphia founder John Rigas and his son, Timothy, received 15- and 20-year sentences, respectively, for looting millions from the cable television company, and concealing $2.3 billion in debt from stockholders; another son, Michael, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and avoided prison.
Unlike the high-powered New York City attorneys who represented the other defendants, Mahoney, of the Buffalo firm Harrington & Mahoney, had neither polish nor flash. What he lacked in big-city style, however, he made up for in passion and a sincere belief in his cause.
To Mahoney, that’s just part of being a good lawyer: “Lawyers have to have logos—you think about the logic of the case; ethos—you’ve got to believe that what you’re doing is right; and pathos—you’ve got to have emotion.”
The other piece is a willingness to take risks, such as wrangling with a hostile witness long after other attorneys would have given up. “Going to the mat is a style I’m used to,” he says.
Donald Gilliland, who covered the trial for The Potter Leader-Enterprise, remembers Mahoney getting a prime prosecution witness to reverse himself. “[Mahoney] would not let go,” Gilliland recalls. “The judge was ready to kill him. Everybody I talked to in Buffalo said the judges just hate him. He’s very passionate about what he does. He’s a fighter.”
He’s also a tireless advocate for his clients. Mulcahey attests to that. “Mark was right there with me,” Mulcahey says. “He was as interested in the outcome as I was, and when you’re facing jail time, you’re pretty interested in the outcome. He worked long, long hours and made me work long, long hours with him.”
Mahoney sees his role as that of the Greek Paraclete, who stands between the crowd and its victim. “Virtually everything I do is trying to prevent one person from being victimized,” he says. “Everything has to do with fighting against the mob.”
In the Adelphia case, the mob was the government. With the Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals fresh in the public consciousness, government prosecutors had to prove they were tough on corporate crime. Mahoney had to prove Mulcahey was just a guy doing his job when he was swept into the precipitous downfall of the company.
Three decades earlier, Mahoney’s own father was just doing his job when he, too, was indicted. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Mahoney.
In 1975, Mahoney was a year out of law school—the State University of New York Law School at Buffalo. His father, James J. Mahoney, had recently been named vice president in charge of operations at the Norwich Pharmacal Company in Norwich, where the younger Mahoney grew up. The indictment followed the discovery that one of the company’s sterile products was contaminated with mold. James Mahoney was acquitted, but the experience changed both father and son.
By then, Mark Mahoney’s socially conscious views had already solidified. At the University of Notre Dame, the former Boy Scout and Eagle Scout learned about the pacifist tradition of the Catholic Church. “I was working on my own beliefs and values [and] dealing with how the world saw the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.” Embracing the idea of Christian nonviolence, he registered as a conscientious objector; his role models were lawyers William Kunstler and Gerald Lefcourt, who were working for social justice. “I admired what [the movement lawyers] were doing: mastering the system to try to advance or protect the anti-war agenda.”
This did not sit well with his father, a highly decorated World War II pilot. “My father was ‘my country, right or wrong.’ He was very upset when I was a conscientious objector and was kicked out of school.” Because of the indictment, however, “he came to appreciate what I did. He began to understand that you can’t unquestionably have faith in your government.”
As for his own growth, Mahoney had certainly been aware of the way the law affected disadvantaged people, but it had not occurred to him that a white-collar worker like his father could be chosen as a scapegoat. Society uses scapegoats as a way to achieve stability, he says. “It’s a symbolic thing. You persuade the community that you’re doing something about what makes them afraid. You find somebody to blame.”
Corporations create scapegoats when the company’s survival is threatened, says Mahoney, who assisted with his father’s case and made sure his father secured outside counsel. “Corporate officers are surrounded by lawyers who don’t represent them,” he notes. “The company is being investigated, and the lawyers want to throw somebody to the wolves.”
The indictment was a good thing for Mahoney’s relationship with his father, who died in 1998. And Mahoney was better able to counsel other corporate officers who, he says, “find in an instant that everything they worked for is threatened to be taken away.”
At the Adelphia trial, Mahoney opened his arguments with a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, specifically Brutus’ speech to Cassius about there being “a tide in the affairs of men.” Caesar, Mahoney points out, was murdered as a scapegoat; the Rigases and Mulcahey were also scapegoats in a post-Enron era. The tide was clearly against them.
Mahoney worked that idea in several different ways throughout the trial. “It became a very emotional theme,” he says. “The trial finished with me being very emotional. The audience was in tears, the lawyers were in tears.” He admits he took a risk. “You can’t do that in every case. You make a decision to go over the top and totally commit to some theme, some idea. It’s a huge hurdle—a long, dark night of the soul when you prepare for that and get ready to execute it.”
Gilliland says the jurors related to Mahoney. “Clearly, he wasn’t like the other attorneys. He didn’t have the polish and the flash. He was just working damn hard for his client. He was so clearly passionate about the case and involved with his client. Mark believes what he says. He’s genuine, and that comes through. He’s one of the most genuine souls I’ve ever met.”
But from a reporter’s perspective, his cross-examinations were almost impossible to follow, says Gilliland, whose newspaper is located just two blocks from Adelphia’s former headquarters in Coudersport, Pa. “The other attorneys literally had a script in front of them. Their questions were very orderly, very well spoken; the logic of the questions was immediately evident. Mark didn’t have a script. The logic of his questions sometimes was nonexistent. You didn’t know where the hell he was going.” Knowing they were in for a convoluted cross-examination, the reporters put down their notebooks when Mahoney began his questioning, Gilliland says. “The jurors,” on the other hand, “would sit up at attention.”
It’s true that Mahoney sometimes acted like an absent-minded professor, but he always came through in the end, says Mulcahey, who first heard about him from a cousin who went to school with Mahoney in Norwich. When the news broke about Adelphia, “my cousin called and said, ‘I know this really smart guy up in Buffalo who you may want to consider as a defense attorney.’”
Lawyer and client not only worked closely together, they lived together in Manhattan during the duration of the trial, which lasted from the last week in February 2004 to the second week of July. To shake off the tension, Mulcahey headed to a local fitness center while Mahoney went running or biking every morning in Central Park.
Mulcahey was the only one of the four defendants who took the stand. “I was nervous, but Mark was pretty encouraging. He basically told me I had to do it. I figured it was a bad time to stop taking his advice.”
He vividly recalls the emotion Mahoney displayed during his summation. “I think he was far superior to anyone else in his closing argument.”
Mahoney’s fellow defense attorneys, Peter Fleming Jr. (who represented John Rigas) and Paul R. Grand (Timothy’s attorney), agree that his summation was outstanding. “It was as good as I’ve heard,” says Fleming, of Curtis New York. “It was superb.”
Grand, of Morvillo Abramowitz, particularly liked the part where Mahoney “very emotionally accused the prosecutors of being cowards,” he says. “It impressed all of us. Obviously, it impressed the jury.”
Whether it’s “going around the mulberry bush” in cross-examination or delivering an emotional five-hour summation, you can only stick your neck out like that if you believe in what you’re doing, Mahoney says. “The jury has to see you as a window to the case. They have to trust you.” That’s the Mahoney style.
At 58, Mahoney leads a full life with family and career. He and Sharon M. Linstedt, a staff reporter for The Buffalo News, have been married for 21 years; their daughters Maggie and Kitty are 18 and 13, respectively. From his office window in the 1920s-era Statler Towers building in downtown Buffalo, he can look out in the distance and see Canada across Lake Erie. Closer in, he watches the new federal courthouse going up across the street.
And he’s proud to say that, like his role model Gerald Lefcourt, “I’ve not changed one of my beliefs. I will fight for principle. If I think something is right, I will take the extra 100 hours to do it.”