Stephen Stallings is no stranger to high-profile cases

January 28, 2008

The ink had hardly dried on lawsuits to win back his floating casinos from a crooked Washington lobbyist when millionaire Konstantinos “Gus” Boulis was gunned down on a South Florida street in a mob-style hit.

Boulis’ lawyer in 2001 was Stephen Stallings, whose work on the case led to the underpinnings of federal fraud cases against lobbyist Jack Abramoff and partner

Adam Kidan as well as state charges against three men in the slaying. The case played a major role in Stallings’ decision to switch from being a highly paid civil lawyer to a hard-charging prosecutor.

“He always said that experience made him want to chase bad guys,” said Jeff Shields, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who covered Boulis and his murder for three years while working at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. “He’d already proven he was pretty good at it.”

After 9/11, Stallings joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. Now in Pittsburgh, Stallings, 40, is leading the government’s public corruption case against Cyril H. Wecht. The trial begins today.

Stallings declined to be interviewed, saying he did not want to jeopardize a fair trial.

Former colleagues said that fits his style. “He’s very smart and very ethical, but not all-assuming — just as a prosecutor and a representative of the United States government should be,” said Caroline Heck Miller, a veteran federal prosecutor in Miami who worked with Stallings on a $173 million bank fraud case. “Judges like him. Opposing counsel likes him. Defendants probably don’t like him very much.”

With his chiseled jaw line and cheek bones, close-cropped dark hair and matching dark suit, Stallings is all business in the courtroom. Yeses are followed by sirs or your honors,and he rarely speaks without first standing.

“Truly, truly, he’s my kind of prosecutor,” said Guy A. Lewis, who hired Stallings while serving as U.S. attorney in Miami from 2000 to 2002. “When I was U.S. attorney, I wish that I had a hundred more like him.”

In December, Stallings was honored with the Outstanding Performance Award from the Law Enforcement Agency Directors of Western Pennsylvania for his work in completing a years-long corruption investigation of the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office with several convictions.

Stallings has prosecuted other complex fraud cases since arriving in Pittsburgh, his wife’s hometown, in 2004. Chief among those were Celestial Burial Co. and owner Joseph M. Stabile, who is serving six years in prison for using the Greensburg casket company to defraud more than 250 victims out of $2.4 million.

Next up is Wecht, 76, of Squirrel Hill, the former Allegheny County coroner accused of using his public office for private gain and defrauding clients of his pathology consulting business.

The renowned forensic pathologist built an international reputation as a medical expert in celebrity cases, including the assassination of John F. Kennedy as well as the deaths of Elvis Presley, JonBenet Ramsey and Anna Nicole Smith. His trial, which is based on 41 counts of fraud and theft, will focus largely on less-celebrated work he did for surrounding counties.

Dennis G. Kainen, a Miami lawyer who successfully defended a client in a $10 million tax-evasion case prosecuted by Stallings in 2004, praised Stallings’ passion.

Kainen said things got heated over some of his legal tactics, like not telling Stallings in advance about the identities of expert witnesses. “He got very frustrated and annoyed, but he handled it well,” Kainen said.

In the two years since Wecht’s indictment, court proceedings and private meetings between defense lawyers and prosecutors often have been volatile. Stallings, a native of Charlotte, has traded jabs with Wecht’s lawyers in the courtroom, conference rooms and case filings.

“He’s not scared,” Lewis said.

Stallings has characterized the antics of Wecht’s lawyers, notably Jerry McDevitt and Mark Rush, as circus-like and unprofessional attempts to sway public sentiment through the press.

“The constant drumbeat from the defense has helped fuel a standing tempest of publicity, as real and obvious as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot,” Stallings wrote in a recent filing.

Stallings called for court sanctions after Wecht’s lawyers claimed the charges against their client, a Democrat, were politically motivated and that U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, a Republican, ordered prosecutors to restart plea talks in June to divert attention from her appearance before congressional investigators, who were looking into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.

“The scope and breadth of dishonesty and lack of candor by Mr. Rush and Mr. McDevitt in this case is staggering,” Stallings wrote.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, a member of Wecht’s defense team, found himself on the working end of Stallings’ prosecutorial passion twice in one morning.

Sensing during a meeting at Buchanan’s office on Jan. 5, 2005, that he could not sway her from indicting Wecht, Thornburgh asked for time to take the matter up with her bosses in Washington. Stallings, seated directly across the table, wagged a finger in Thornburgh’s face and demanded to know what he planned to say.

Describing the event in an affidavit, Thornburgh said Stallings later erupted when Thornburgh told Buchanan she would regret charging Wecht.

“I did not respond to his outburst,” Thornburgh wrote.

Rick Del Toro, a federal prosecutor in Miami, said Stallings doesn’t lack confidence and jokingly suggested his friend might back down only if a wrestling match broke out in the courtroom. McDevitt, Wecht’s lead attorney, is a top lawyer for World Wrestling Entertainment.

“He’s got a formidable intellect, so he’s got no reason to back down,” Del Toro said. The two became friends at the University of Florida, where Stallings earned his law degree after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Del Toro said he remembered Stallings telling him over lunch one day how the Boulis case intrigued him about the work of prosecutors.

Lewis said he and Stallings discussed that case during his job interview. “It really made it clear to him that federal prosecutors could have a profound impact on the well-being of the community,” said Lewis, who as an assistant U.S. attorney in Miami helped to convict Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega of cocaine trafficking, racketeering and money laundering.

Boulis was a Greek immigrant and self-made millionaire who started the Miami Subs restaurant chain in 1979 after selling the Mr. Submarine franchise.

In 1994, Boulis started SunCruz Casinos, which used a fleet of cruise ships to take people from South Florida into international waters to gamble. In September 2000, Boulis sold SunCruz to Abramoff and Kidan for $147 million.

Boulis kept 10 percent ownership as a silent partner, but his relationship with the new owners was rocky. In December 2000, Boulis got into a fistfight with Kidan and threatened to kill him, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

That same month, Stallings and his firm of Hunton & Williams filed Boulis’ first lawsuit seeking to regain control of SunCruz. Two months later, Boulis was murdered.

On Feb. 6, 2001, Boulis left his office and was driving home in his BMW sedan when a vehicle pulled in front and forced him to stop. A black Ford Mustang stopped beside Boulis’ car and a gunman shot the businessman several times, according to Fort Lauderdale police.

Boulis’ car traveled several blocks before crashing into a tree near a Miami Subs location.

Stallings and his firm helped reveal that Abramoff and Kidan defrauded lenders in the SunCruz sale and that the partners made $250,000 in payments through the casino to the three men charged in September 2005 with killing Boulis. They revealed that one of the men arrested, Anthony “Big Tony” Moscatiello, was a reputed mob associate.

In 1983, Moscatiello was charged in a racketeering case with John Gotti’s brother, Gene. Charges were dropped after a mistrial.

In March 2006, Abramoff and Kidan were sentenced to nearly six years in federal prison for defrauding investors in the purchase of SunCruz. The men pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud for faking a $23 million wire transfer to get lenders to put up $120 million. They were not charged in connection with Boulis’ death.

“It was clear that Stallings was doing a lot of the detective work and feeding it to the Fort Lauderdale police,” said Shields, the reporter. “Steve had always said that’s what inspired him to make that move to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. And I don’t think he’s looked back since.”