Lawyer Pleads For Leona Helmsley’s Acquittal
NEW YORK (AP) _ A former aide to hotel queen Leona Helmsley was unfairly charged in a tax evasion and extortion scheme in an attempt to bring down his boss, a lawyer argued today in closing arguments.
″He was swept up in order to get at Mrs. Helmsley,″ attorney William Brodsky said. ″Frank Turco was a man who was up front″ in the Helmsley organization.
Turco, who was Mrs. Helmsley’s top aide and is now her co-defendant, is also charged with conspiracy to commit extortion. Brodsky discounted the allegation that Turco forced liquor salespeople to make kickbacks to keep accounts at the Helmsley hotels. He called Turco a tough-talking executive who merely negotiated rebates or discounts to get Mrs. Helmsley the best possible price.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James DeVita planned to deliver the government’s rebuttal later today.
Mrs. Helmsley, 69, is accused of evading $1.2 million in federal taxes by charging personal expenses, including renovations at her Connecticut estate, to her businesses.
On Thursday, Mrs. Helmsley’s lawyer spent eight hours dissecting the government’s case against her, then wrapped up his closing argument with an emotional plea for acquittal.
″Please end the suffering, the terrible suffering of Mrs. Helmsley and let her walk out of this courthouse a free woman,″ the attorney, Gerald Feffer, said Thursday.
Mrs. Helmsley cried and appeared shaken after Feffer told the jury it would be a mistake to vote a conviction on any of the 41 counts on which she is charged.
He told the jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan that many of the prosecution witnesses who had worked for her had a motivation to testify against her.
″Mrs. Helmsley had a lot of enemies and these people came here to pay her back,″ Feffer said. ″These people had an agenda and that agenda was to get her.″
Turco and another former aide, Joseph Licari, are charged with assisting in the scheme.
The charges against Mrs. Helmsley include conspiracy to defraud the Internal Revenue Service, tax evasion, filing false returns, mail fraud and conspiracy to commit extortion.
The extortion conspiracy charge carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence upon conviction. The other charges carry three- to five-year sentences.
Feffer, who made Mrs. Helmsley’s harsh personality an issue during the trial, told the jurors to disregard the stories of her wrath.
″If in fact she mistreated people, I beg you ladies and gentlemen to leave that decision to a higher authority,″ he said.
The defense attorney also brushed aside testimony from Mrs. Helmsley’s former housekeeper, who said Mrs. Helmsley once told her, ″We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.″
He said the statement made no sense because Leona and Harry Helmsley paid $57.8 million in federal taxes in 1983-85, the years covered in the indictment.
″I can see her complaining about all the taxes she did pay. That would be more like Mrs. Helmsley,″ Feffer said.
On Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cathy Seibel said the statement showed Mrs. Helmsley’s ″selfishness, greed and sheer arrogance.″
After Feffer’s argument, Joseph Benfante, Licari’s lawyer, argued his client’s innocence with humor.
He had the entire courtroom laughing as he focused on the tense relationship between Mrs. Helmsley and Licari.
″Joseph Licari was Mr. Helmsley’s Jiminy Cricket, his conscience,″ Benfante said. ″He’d tell Mr. Helmsley she’s spending his money again and she’d go nuts.″
He described Licari as a respected, trusted and honest employee.
″He would not be part of a fraud, even if there was one,″ he said.
U.S. District Judge John Walker Jr. said he expected deliberations to begin late today or Saturday morning.