Private Investigator Finds Himself Under Public Scrutiny

Days after Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by four police officers in the Bronx, the Congress of Racial Equality had launched an investigation, and Les Levine was working the case.

For the next few days, as tensions in the city rose over the death of the 22-year-old unarmed African immigrant, Mr. Levine was interviewing witnesses on Wheeler Avenue in the Bronx, assessing for his client whether the shooting was motivated by race.

In between, Mr. Levine has been fielding jailhouse calls from mother-son grifters, Sante and Kenneth Kimes (“They never stop talking”), and aiding the defense team of Justin Volpe, lead defendant in the Abner Louima police torture case.

That he is involved in three of the biggest and most provocative cases pending in the city is par for the course for Mr. Levine, a private investigator based in Mineola, L.I. But until the Volpe case, Mr. Levine’s role largely had been behind the scenes–a courtroom participant who watched cases silently from the gallery while the lawyers who hired him took center stage.

That changed Feb. 1, when prosecutors filed a motion requesting an anonymous jury for the upcoming Volpe trial. Their argument: Mr. Levine could not be trusted not to tamper. “Levine has a known track record of using methods of bribery, harassment and deceit in connection with criminal trials in this city,” the motion read. A decision on the motion by Federal District Court in Brooklyn is expected within the month.

A spokesman for the court refused further comment.

The motion has publicized some facts not widely known about Mr. Levine, a thorn in the side of prosecutors in a slew of other high-profile cases, including the Marla Hanson slashing case, the prosecution of club owner Peter Gatien, the rape case against cyberstalker Oliver Jovanovic, and the defense of art heir Alec Wildenstein against menacing charges. He also assisted the defense of Marv Albert.

Prosecutors cited a 1989 case in which Mr. Levine pleaded guilty to bribing an investigator with $200 to learn the whereabouts of a Government informant in the witness protection program. The Manhattan District Attorney charged Mr. Levine, whose client was drug defendant Mark Reiter, with instructing the investigator to pay the $200 to a paralegal working in Special Narcotics Investigations, to find out where Mafia informer Salvatore Corallo had been hidden. The paralegal was an undercover cop.

Sitting in the park outside the New York City Criminal Court building on Centre Street recently, Mr. Levine sounded somewhat Clintonesque in his mea culpa . “The mistake that was made was not a mistake to break the law but was, in fact, a mistake in assuming someone had better judgment than they had,” he said. “I’ve certainly learned to be more skeptical.” He has said that his plea, which allowed him to keep his gun and his investigator’s license, was born of convenience; he is a single father with three boys.

The Louima case prosecutors have also accused Mr. Levine of shady practices while working for Mr. Jovanovic, who was convicted in 1998 of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman he met on the Internet. The affidavit said Mr. Levine used “chicanery” by impersonating a police detective to get an interview with a key witness in the case. “It appears to this Court that the witness is indeed the victim of harassment,” the judge in the Jovanovic case wrote.

Mr. Levine denied it. “The prosecutors are plain, outright lying,” he said. To prove it, he and Mr. Volpe’s attorney, Marvyn Kornberg, submitted to the court on Feb. 12 a transcript of a tape of his encounter with the Jovanovic witness. Mr. Levine alleges the tape shows he had identified himself at the door as a private investigator. (Prosecutors said they had not yet reviewed the transcript.) Mr. Levine said he had no control over whether the witness believed at first that he worked for the police.

The prosecutorial assault had Mr. Levine fuming. “I’m very angry,” he said. “It was a very low and underhanded tactic that had absolutely no merit in fact.”

But to complaints by prosecutors that he and his investigators have used subterfuge to get information, Mr. Levine pleads nolo contendere.

“Using the subterfuge of U.P.S. or Con Ed or 1-800-Flowers to see if the person is there is nothing more than good police work,” Mr. Levine said. “When a police officer does that, he gets a plaque. When the defense does it, it’s a problem.”

Fairness demands that private investigators aiding defendants get to use the same techniques as the police who brand people criminals, said Mr. Levine. “Can you just imagine, if we have to call up, or knock on everyone’s door, to say, ‘I’m a private investigator and I want to talk to you’–before we know that’s the individual.”

Mr. Levine may feel this way because he is the rare investigator who is not a former police officer, though he does hire ex-cops to work for him. His firm includes four other investigators.

In business for 20 years, he no longer lists in the Yellow Pages. Lawyers who want him, find him, then have to ante up $150 or $175 an hour for his work, according to two lawyers. He commutes from his large, tidy Mineola office in a white Jaguar with “LES PI” plates.

Mr. Kornberg and other lawyers have been rallying around Mr. Levine. Benjamin Brafman, who represented Mr. Gatien in his 1998 drug conspiracy case, submitted an affidavit attesting to Mr. Levine’s worthiness. As proof, he claims that Mr. Levine aided the Government in the Gatien prosecution by helping to catch a rogue Government agent looking to sell inside information to the defense. Not only did he turn over an incriminating audio tape, he helped track the agent down after he fled the country.

“I honestly believe that this is an inappropriate attempt to undermine him because he has been involved in a number of high-profile, successful cases where his work has caused the Government substantial grief,” said Mr. Brafman.

Mr. Levine, who is amiable and low-key and who dresses in a brown leather jacket, gray slacks and loafers, knows that he’s not always been on the side of the angels. Some of his clients probably deserved to be in jail. But, he said, “I’m a finder of fact, I’m not judge and jury. I’m not going to be a priest or a rabbi.”

Send Money 2000

Friends, partners, clients, get your checkbooks ready. Al Gore has yet to officially declare for 2000, but the Gore Lawyers Committee dedicated to his election has started organizing.

On Jan. 20, the committee held its first meeting at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Coordinated by Morton (Tim) Fry, that meeting’s attendees also included onetime State Attorney General contender Catherine Abate; Seth Kaplan of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; former New York City corporation counsel Victor Kovner; Robert Todd Lang of Weil, Gotshal & Manges; Kenneth McCallion of Goodkind Labaton Rudoff & Sucharow, and labor lawyer Arthur Schwartz.

A memo sent to Mr. Gore’s headquarters, obtained by N.Y. Law, said the lawyers would like to discuss policy with Mr. Gore, not merely show up at parties. “Almost all of the lawyer-contributors becoming involved do so as much because of substantive concerns as celebrity concerns,” said the letter, signed by 15 attorneys. “[We] ask you … to keep that concern in mind, and regularly address it over the course of the next year by giving this committee, and its members, ‘substance’ and ‘insider tips.’”

The letter noted that Mr. Lang has been surprised at the amount of early work for former Senator Bill Bradley. The Bradley organization said it does not yet have a New York lawyers committee, but Joseph Flom, the Skadden Arps patriarch, has declared himself a Bradley man.

The Republicans have yet to get behind a candidate. Neither George W. Bush nor Elizabeth Dole have an organization. “I think a lot of New York Republicans are waiting to see what the Governor does,” said Bob Smith of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

The New York primary is March 7, 2000.

You can reach N.Y. Law by e-mail at mfleischer@observer.com.