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January 30, 2020

Note From Elie: No Game Over Moments

Dear Reader, 

The mafia guys called him “Gene the Carpet” — because his first name was Gene, and he ran a carpet store.  (Hey, not every mob nickname is super-creative, or even accurate; yes, Gene worked at a carpet store but no, he was not an actual carpet).  For years, legendary Genovese Family powerhouse Ciro Perrone shook down poor Gene the Carpet, a man best described as, well, a “shnuck” (to borrow from Ray Liotta’s famous Goodfellas closing soliloquy).  But Perrone was no shnuck; he was a “capo” in mob lingo, meaning he was a “made guy” who ran his own crew. In his early 80s at the time — but still somehow tan year-round and always impeccably dressed — Perrone presided quietly but menacingly from his Queens social club while his crew of loyal enforcers collected regular shakedown payments from sad-sack, terrified local merchants like Gene the Carpet.

When our prosecution team first approached Gene the Carpet to enlist his testimony in the case we were building against Perrone, he refused to talk.  Only after we issued him a subpoena and sent out a couple federal agents to ensure his appearance at trial did Gene the Carpet testify — reluctantly.

I still remember Gene the Carpet fighting back tears in the witness room before he took the stand, gasping for breath.  Yes, I paid Perrone a few hundred dollars every week, Gene eventually told the jury. But not because I feared him; I paid because I liked him, respected him, and saw him as a friend.  Taken at face value, that testimony from Gene the Carpet could have tanked our extortion charge against Perrone. If in fact Gene the Carpet paid Perrone not out of fear but rather out of affection, there’s no extortion.  Case closed, right? 

Not so fast.  Because one of the great things about trials is that prosecutors can argue, and jurors can consider, plain old common sense.  And did we have a ball with Gene the Carpet’s testimony in front of the jury. Of course he didn’t pay Perrone hundreds of dollars every week as a friend; do you have any friends who just pay you every week out of love and respect?  Of course Gene the Carpet knew who Perrone was, knew Perrone was a mobster, knew he’d be helpless to defend himself if he crossed Perrone. 

The jury convicted Perrone of extorting Gene the Carpet (and other offenses), despite Gene’s semi-cooked, Perrone-friendly testimony.  The judge astutely noted at Perrone’s sentencing that “it is hard to get witnesses. People are afraid of retaliation against them and their families.” 

I prosecuted more extortion cases than I can remember, and Gene the Carpet was far more the norm than the exception.  Extortion victims almost never admit they felt fear or pressure, precisely because they are afraid of alienating the very person who extorted them in the first place.

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This is why it is so absurd that President Donald Trump and his supporters continually tout Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s public statement that he felt “no pressure” as some game-over moment.  Trump’s legal team has prominently relied on Zelensky’s “no pressure” declaration while defending Trump on the Senate floor, arguing essentially “it can’t be extortion if the victim says he felt no pressure.” 

This defense is utter garbage — and I suspect Trump’s defenders are smart and experienced enough to know it.  Of course Zelensky felt pressure, regardless of his initial public statement. Consider it from his perspective.  Zelensky was the young, newly-elected leader of Ukraine, a fledgling democracy struggling to find its footing while waging war to fend off aggression from its superpower neighbor Russia.  Zelensky desperately needed political and financial support from the United States; nearly 10% of Ukraine’s entire military budget came from American foreign aid.

So during the July 25 phone call when Zelensky told Trump how grateful he was for military support from the United States and Trump responded, “I would like you to do us a favor, though” by investigating the Bidens — might Zelensky have felt some pressure?  Would you have felt some pressure, in his shoes? Any human being would, naturally.

Newly-released evidence shows that Trump fully understood how much pressure Zelensky was under.  In a recording of a 2018 dinner meeting, Trump asked his dining companions — including the now-indicted Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — how long Ukraine would “last in a fight against Russia.”  The responses: “Without us, not very long” and “about 30 minutes.” Yet, months later, Trump demanded a “favor” right after Zelensky raised the topic of military aid.

Zelensky later diplomatically described the box he found himself in as a result of Trump’s demand: “But you have to understand. We’re at war. If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us.”  Now, Zelensky did not and could not have come right out and state the obvious: “Of course I felt pressure. My country’s very survival was potentially on the line.” Because Zelensky, like so many people targeted for a shakedown, plainly feared the consequences of implicating the strong-armer.

So, yes, Zelensky once said he felt “no pressure,” and Trump’s attorneys seem determined to will it into being through sheer repetition.  But you, like any good juror, can and should bring your common sense to bear. And when you do that, this much is clear: Zelensky had no more ability to defy Trump than poor old Gene the Carpet had to fend off Ciro Perrone.

Stay Informed,


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