The judge was a little late getting to his 13th-floor courtroom in lower Manhattan, so Stanley L. Cohen, the controversial criminal defense lawyer from Avenue D, took a seat outside, resplendent in an impeccably tailored pinstriped suit. His graying ponytail was pulled back in a discreet bun.
Cohen, known for taking “pariah cases” like those espoused by the late civil liberties icon William Kunstler, was not at 500 Pearl Street to represent his own unpopular clients, who have included squatters, hackers, a political leader of Hamas, and accused terrorists such as Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden who was arraigned last year across the street in another federal building on charges of conspiring to kill Americans.
Instead, the 63-year-old lefty lawyer was awaiting the first of pre-trial hearings in a six-count federal indictment handed up by a grand jury last month for his alleged failure to report to the IRS some $3 million in income ($500,000 a year for his legal work) from 2006 to 2010.
Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, also charged him with hatching a scheme to hide his income and defraud the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance by requiring clients to pay in cash — with some of the moneys allegedly stashed in a bank deposit box — and having them wire money to pay his personal credit card bills. The first five counts for failing to file individual tax returns carry a penalty of one year jail time each. The last count, on wire fraud, could put Cohen, who has residences in both Manhattan and upstate Jeffersonville, in prison for up to 20 years.
“It’s all crap,” Cohen said when first contacted by B+B last month at his East Village loft while his dog George barked frenetically in the background. He called the last count in his indictment “bizarre” and said it was part of a “desperate attempt” by the government to punish him for defending clients accused of terrorism. He was charged in a federal indictment on similar tax charges two years ago in Syracuse.
This morning before 10 a.m., the lawyer turned defendant was more relaxed.”This matter with the IRS has been going on for years,” Cohen said. Asked why he appeared so calm, he replied, “I have several sayings: ‘We live, we fight, we die’ and ‘Up the rebels.'” He claimed that the 103-year-old mother of a mentor had dispensed practical wisdom that he remembered: “She said, ‘There are are only two things you need to get through the day: Breathe in and breathe out.'”
Randy Daar, Cohen’s San Francisco attorney, beckoned for him to enter the courtroom. When U.S. District Judge Paul Englemayer finally showed, the subject turned to dates for the next hearing. It was noted that Cohen was due in court before U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan next month to represent Abu Gaith (after Kaplan unsuccessfully tried to remove him because of the tax charges). Daar said that trial is expected to last six weeks. A date of May 30 was set for Cohen’s next pre-trial conference. His trial date has not yet been set.
This morning’s hearing ended within 30 minutes. Assistant U.S. attorney Stanley Okula declined comment to B+B but acknowledged that the prosecution had to go through voluminous documents for discovery before trial.
Daar hesitated when asked how he would characterize the case against Cohen, then chose his words carefully. “I’d say the timing of this has raised concerns in relation to the terrorism trial on which my client is about to embark,” he said. Did he expect the tax cases against Cohen to be combined? “Anything is possible,” Daar said.