A colleague once gushingly described Joe Tacopina as “a Tyrannosaurus Rex in shark’s clothing with the mind of Perry Mason”. Following a controversial case in which he got an NYPD officer off a rape charge, the New York Post preferred “The Devil’s Advocate”. Jimmy Kimmel reckoned him “something born in the ashtray of Rudy Giuliani’s Lincoln Continental” while GQ magazine opted for the more laudatory “best-dressed, smoothest-talking, hardest-working criminal defence attorney going”. Just about every media outlet seems to have wondered aloud if he is “the most hated lawyer in America”.
Among Tacopina’s present titles are former US president Donald Trump’s best chance of staying out of jail, and owner of Italian soccer club SPAL. With one win in their last five, SPAL are second from bottom of Serie B, mired in a relegation battle, with just eight games remaining. It probably won’t have lifted spirits around Ferrara this week to see their boss making faraway headlines in his day job as Trump’s lawyer. Not when speculation around Italy is that the American is seriously considering firing Massimo Oddo as manager, just weeks after he hired him to replace Daniele De Rossi, whose own unimpressive stint in charge lasted just four months.
It’s the type of hectic personnel chaos that once hallmarked the Trump administration in Washington and is yet more evidence the former president and Tacopina might be a match made in legal heaven. A bulldog lawyer, Tacopina has a portrait of Pope John Paul II in his office, cheek by jowl with a framed autographed photograph of mob princess and former client Victoria Gotti. His trademark is making outrageous statements on behalf of beleaguered defendants, often waging warfare in the talk radio and cable news arenas. Who better to represent the bloviator supreme, somebody whose gullible followers will swallow and regurgitate every wrong-headed, quasi-legal soundbite about their cult leader?
Fighting a case about Trump paying hush money to adult film actress Stormy Daniels before the 2016 election, the 56-year-old from Brooklyn brings a history of harnessing celebrity as courtroom strategy. With varying degrees of success, Tacopina has defended Meek Mill (a rapper whose conviction he got overturned), Bernard Kerik (the corrupt NYPD commissioner who went to jail and then sued him), and Alex Rodriguez (the baseball steroids cheat asked him to stop talking so much about his case on the airwaves). Others on his resume include Kimberly Guilfoyle (Fox personality turned girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr), Daniel Snyder (controversial owner of the Washington Commanders), Jay-Z, and Foxy Brown.
This lucrative line of work has made him wealthy enough to indulge his other passion: buying into Italian soccer clubs. The son of a Roman immigrant who ended up running a deli in Sheepshead Bay, Tacopina brought his five kids to an AS Roma game in 2011, struggled to find replica shirts, and was so appalled at how badly the club was run that he subsequently organised a consortium to purchase the outfit. While accounts differ about the extent of his input as vice-president over four years at Stadio Olimpico, he moved on to take a more outsize role in an American takeover of Bologna.
There, he presided over their return to Serie A and, after being carried around the field on the shoulders of celebrating players, vowed he’d only leave the club in a coffin. Shortly after that, he departed in Trumpesque fashion following a dispute with his investing partner. At Venezia, his next stop, the club jumped two divisions in two campaigns, and he boasted of being the only club president in Italian calcio history ever to oversee three promotions in successive seasons.
“He [Trump] likes football a bit, even if golf is his main passion,” said Tacopina of his most famous client’s interest in his other life. “He’s not an avid football fan but he understands and likes it as a sport. We’ve hadssd some discussions about SPAL, he knows I’m in Italian football., He called me last year when I was at the stadium. He called me right after we scored a goal. We scored like four goals all year, so God forbid I enjoy one of our goals for longer. Thirty-five seconds! But that’s okay, that’s normal when you’re representing someone like the president.”
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An owner so hands-on he claimed credit for persuading former Belgian international Radja Nainggolan to drop down to Serie B back in January, it’s difficult to see how Tacopina can juggle a relegation fight in Italy with Trump’s pressing legal troubles an ocean away. Then again, many wonder why he’s taken up this cause at all. He’s a savvy enough operator to know the former president has a hard-earned reputation for not paying those who work for him. Rudy Giuliani is just the latest attorney to have discovered he somehow regards their efforts on his behalf as pro bono.
“I have to believe it in my soul – that’s a prerequisite for me,” said Tacopina about what motivates him to fight a case. “The only way I’m good is if I’m passionate. I don’t know if it’s a formula you can bottle up, but it’s an elixir that has several ingredients. You have to really care. Have I represented people I believe are guilty? Absolutely. But people who have made mistakes in their lives are entitled to a defence, too. Prosecutors overcharge. Sometimes people do deserve a break. The system is based on us challenging the government.”
The most Trumpian value of all.