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Newsmaker: Hot prosecutor switching to the defense

Monday, August 28, 2000

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Frank Gigliotti's day of judgment had come, and just after the disgraced former state legislator was sentenced to prison for extorting bribes, he turned to the prosecutor who had dogged him and proffered his hand.

 
  Tom Farrell

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Farrell gripped Gigliotti's thick-fingered mitt and spoke quietly, out of earshot of reporters in the gallery.

"Frank, from everything I've been told, you're a loving father and grandfather," Farrell said that morning in June. "I hope your family carries you through this."

Words of compassion from a federal prosecutor? Imagine that.

Farrell, 38, is hardly the flinty-eyed image of a man after convictions. A Yalie from Brooklyn, N.Y., with glasses and a runner's build, he has a penchant for philosophy -- his college major -- an obvious nice-guy streak and the kind of devotion to his children, ages 4 and 6, that has him plastering their crayon artwork on his office walls.

Now he's returning to his roots as a defense attorney. A former federal public defender, Farrell is leaving the U.S. attorney's office in Pittsburgh for a job at Thiemann & Kaufman, where he'll start Sept. 18.

At the law firm, begun just six months ago, he'll join two other lawyers who used to put bad guys away for a living. They are former U.S. Attorney Fred Thiemann and one of Thiemann's former assistants, Steve Kaufman, who was once Farrell's boss as head of the white-collar crimes section.

Thiemann and Kaufman hired Farrell as a prosecutor, and now they're taking him on again as they build their practice defending corporations that are under government scrutiny and people accused of fraud.

Farrell will be defending the kind of people he has spent the last five years prosecuting. That means he'll be squaring off against his soon-to-be-former colleagues.

"I know all their weaknesses," he said with a grin.

Although some prosecutors joke about jumping to the "dark side," Farrell has no trouble with the idea of switching gears. Many prosecutors do it, usually for money but also because they see the adversarial system as critical to American justice.

Cash isn't the only motivation in Farrell's case, because like many assistant U.S. attorneys, he already gets paid more than $100,000 a year.

"I think it's commendable when attorneys defend miserable, detested clients," Farrell said. "They are entitled to a vigorous defense. These are human beings. Let's at least put the system through its paces."

 
    Tom Farrell

Date of birth: Oct. 6, 1961

Place of birth: Brooklyn, N.Y.

In the news: Farrell prosecuted former state Rep. Frank Gigliotti, who is now serving 46 months in prison. Farrell will leave the U.S. attorney's office next month for private practice, where he will defend those accused of white-collar crimes.

Quote: "People are complicated. Even those who commit the most horrible crimes have a good side."

Education: Bachelor's degree from Yale University; law degree from New York University.

Family: Married with two children, ages 6 and 4.

 
 

Besides, it's the law, nothing personal.

Farrell said he often ended up liking the characters he was trying to put in prison, Gigliotti included. He was known for injecting a touch of color into his legal briefings to humanize cases. For example, he made sure that Gigliotti's feelings toward his constituents, which the former legislator expressed succinctly with the phrase "[expletive] the people" in FBI transcripts, made it into the public record.

Farrell said he'll bring the same aggressive approach to defense work that he did to the U.S. attorney's office, where he was respected for his thoroughness and his literary skills.

"He has a great command of the language," said Bob Cessar, an assistant U.S. attorney. "He's one of the best writers in the office."

Farrell's father was a professor at Brooklyn Law School, and a brother is an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn. Another brother is a New York City policeman.

Farrell came to Pittsburgh in 1986 to work as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond. He returned to New York City to work as a public defender for five years, a time when he helped a triple-murderer appeal his death sentence. Then he moved back to Pittsburgh to take a job with the Cohen & Grigsby law firm. In 1995, he joined the U.S. attorney's office.

Over the years he's handled many cases involving corruption and fraud. Gigliotti got the most ink, but many other prosecutions have been just as satisfying.

A sampling:

In United States vs. Samir Sain, Sain, a native of India and a Fayette County businessman, defrauded the Army of $597,000. In 1987, his company, Advanced Environmental Consultants Inc., contracted to build and operate an industrial waste-water treatment plant at an Army base in Utah.

After the work began, Sain told the military that he needed to change the carbon in the tanks monthly because the waste water was dirtier than he had anticipated. The Army modified the contract to cover his extra costs.

During a 3 1/2-week trial, Farrell demonstrated that Sain billed the Army for more expenses than he could justify.

Under cross-examination by Farrell, Sain also admitted that he had lied on his application for the contract, stating that he was a U.S. citizen when he was an illegal alien at the time that he applied and when he signed the contract. He also admitted that he had lied by telling government officials that he had a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Pittsburgh.

"It was a very complicated case and he was very savvy," Farrell said. "Not to pat myself on the back, but I did a great cross-examination."

In United States vs. Sami Masri and Sean Hitchman, the defendants were responsible for one of the most spectacular thefts in Western Pennsylvania history.

Masri, a Jordanian national, masterminded the taking of $1.19 million from Mellon Bank automated teller machines with the help of Hitchman, a Mellon employee who was responsible for filling the machines with cash.

After Masri was arrested, he claimed he had burned $420,000 in the fireplace of his Oakland apartment.

The government eventually recovered $770,000 of the stolen money. Farrell never bought Masri's story about burning the rest of the cash.

"My guess," he said, laughing, "is that he buried it in Schenley Park, where he used to go sunbathing."



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