From our March 2005 issue: To people accused of doing bad things—embezzling millions, bribing judges, putting a bullet in someone’s head—Ed Genson may be the go-to lawyer in town. For years the Mob had him on speed dial. And pols in trouble (including Larry Warner, Governor Ryan’s friend and codefendant) regularly sign up with him. He’s cunning, funny, sometimes outrageous—a master of the cross examination. But what matters most to his clients: He’ll do (almost) anything to win.
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Genson has certainly grown rich off the inexhaustible supply of political corruption in town. The driver's-licenses-for-bribes probe, for example, is in its eighth year. Genson has defended most of the key players-arguing that they did nothing wrong-from the Melrose Park driver's license station manager, Mary Ann Mastrodomenico, in the early days, to Ryan's helpful inspector general, Dean Bauer, the cover-upper who has already served his year and a day. More recently, Genson handled the defense of Scott Fawell, the mastermind schemer who was convicted last year and sentenced to six and a half years.
Now Fawell has flipped and agreed to testify for the prosecution, but don't expect Genson to encourage his client, Larry Warner, to settle. Genson hates to settle. When a client lawyers up with Eddie, it usually means he's going to fight to the proverbial death. "I'm rotten at getting deals," Genson says. "I don't like begging. I don't like negotiating. I like saying, ‘Let's go!'"
Genson is particularly eager to get going on the Ryan-Warner trial, having worked an estimated 5,000 hours on the case over the past four years. But Ryan has chosen Dan Webb to represent him, and Webb is in the midst of a tobacco trial in Washington, D.C., that promises to keep him busy for months. Genson says Webb might be the best lawyer in the country, but there is something unsatisfying about giving Webb top billing in this trial. Genson has been slogging it out with Safe Roads prosecutors from the start; it's as if he had earned a certain ownership of the defense proceedings. He has already had to fight to stay on the case (in fact, that's what he had to do in his court appearance following the R. Kelly hearing). Prosecutors say that Genson essentially knows too much because of his prior representation of Fawell, who is expected to testify for the first six weeks of the trial as the government's chief witness. It isn't the first time prosecutors have tried to get Genson disqualified from Safe Roads cases, given the number of clients he's had who were charged in the investigation. So far, though, he has survived every challenge.
Still, the hearing about his staying on the Ryan-Warner case was anything but routine. For one thing, tensions flashed between Genson and his Safe Roads nemesis, federal prosecutor Patrick Collins. When Genson complained about the time it had taken to prepare his case, Collins snapped, "There's a very easy solution: Don't take so many clients."
Later in the hearing, Collins was moved by a Genson argument to tell him, "One thing I admire about you-you're sincere in your disingenuousness."
"It's true," Genson replied. "I am sincere."
Then Genson accused the prosecutors of being disingenuous. "The fact is, they object to me," he argued to U.S. District Court judge Rebecca Pallmeyer. When Collins suggested that the other lawyers in Genson's firm should be kept out of the case, too, so Genson couldn't provide behind-the-scenes help preparing for Fawell's testimony, Genson exclaimed, "I'm extremely insulted!"
Pallmeyer kept Genson and his firm on the case, but the parties agreed that another lawyer would cross-examine Fawell. All for the best, Genson told the court. "[Fawell's] my friend," he said, "and when he gets on that witness stand, I'll be lucky not to cry."
Later, I asked Genson how he felt about seeing Fawell turn state's evidence (reportedly in exchange for getting his fiancée a lighter sentence for her role in various schemes she took part in when she worked for him). "He could've done it a long time ago," Genson said, after carefully considering the question. "I wouldn't have had to waste four months of my life. I wouldn't have had to waste all that time, and blow out my back, and go through the pain I went through." He paused a couple of beats before adding, "I like Fawell, that's my problem. It's hard for me to say something negative about him."
In some ways, Genson's defense of Warner may resemble his defense of Fawell: namely, that prosecutors have changed the rules of the game by turning political favors into criminal acts without announcing that the old ways are no longer acceptable. It's a defense he's been using for years.
When the mobbed-up power brokers of the old First Ward were tried in the early 1990s, Genson told a jury, "This case does not involve fixes. It's about old men brought up in a different system. It involves favors that are clearly political, but not against the law. That's all politics is-favors. This, ladies and gentlemen, is old-time politics."
I asked Genson how he could really believe that.
"The laws governing federal prosecution are so nebulous, they're so general, that what is a crime to one United States attorney is not a crime to another," he said. "And what this [U.S. attorney] is doing is taking a political favor and elevating it to a crime. And nobody knew that was a crime. Now, Fawell took a little bit of leeway-a little, but not much. And every one of the things he was indicted for-political people getting state jobs, people on state jobs doing political things while they're on state jobs-this is not a new thing. The fact is, he did what everyone else did."
I reminded Genson that the way things have always worked includes a steady pattern of indictments for business-as-usual.
"No!" he bellowed. "No! Because nobody's ever been indicted for that! Nobody's ever been indicted for doing that in Illinois. Oh, yeah, political corruption trials where people take money-I mean, all you gotta do to know that's illegal is to read the Ten Commandments! But if you sit in your state office and make a bunch of phone calls to the ward committeemen to get their vote, that's been done forever!"
At a very young age, Ed Genson found his place in the world. His father, a Russian Jew who raised his family in Lawndale, was a bail bondsman. As a boy of seven or eight, Eddie would tag along while his father made his rounds of the Cook County criminal courthouse, home to a gritty bonanza of Chicago characters with names such as Short Pencil Romanoff, Fat Charlie Cohen, Skinny McDonald, and Benny the Jew. Eddie was enthralled. "It was like the Guys and Dolls of Chicago," he recalls. He would sell coffee and sweet rolls to the prisoners in lockup, and then wander through the courthouse looking for interesting cases-and interesting lawyers-to watch. He devoured old lawbooks and trial transcripts that his father, who was also a precinct captain, collected from his lawyer pals. He had an early sense of identity. "From the beginning, I wanted to be me," Genson says. "I just always wanted to be what I am."
After high school (Marshall, class of '62), Genson majored in political science at Northwestern University; then he attended law school there. The first lawbook he cracked detailed a police brutality case involving two Chicago police officers. He says he realized, "Those guys have been coming to my house since I was six!" They knew his father. (While in law school, Genson also met and married his wife, Susan. They live in Deerfield and have three children and five grandchildren.)