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Joel Winograd, attorney whose clients included Mafia members and Steve Madden, dies at 81

Defense lawyer Joel Winograd outside federal court in

Defense lawyer Joel Winograd outside federal court in Central Islip in 2007. Credit: James Carbone

Joel Winograd, a defense attorney with deep roots on Long Island who defended a wide range of clients — from shoe designer Steve Madden to members of New York City’s Mafia families — died of pancreatic cancer Sunday in Florida. He was 81 and had been living in Boynton Beach since his retirement in 2015.

"My father’s decades of legendary work as a defense lawyer saved people far and wide, from gangsters to rabbis, and cops to CEOs," Corey Winograd, his son and law partner for 20 years, said Tuesday. "Whether it was a federal indictment or just a personal problem, he was always there to give advice, guidance and solutions to his clients, family and friends."

The younger Winograd described his father as a fixture in the legal scene for five decades, someone who was widely admired and liked by prosecutors, fellow defense attorneys and judges who came to know his work in federal and state courts.

"He started in the rackets bureau working on organized crime and fraud cases and later became deputy chief of narcotics, indicting 30 to 50 defendants a week," the son said of his father's early work as a prosecutor.

Winograd was born in 1940 in Brooklyn to Julius Winograd and Celia Kalmanowitz, Corey Winograd said. When Winograd’s mother died two years later, his father raised him with the help of aunts. After graduating from high school, Winograd attended Long Island University where he studied accounting and went on to get his law degree in 1965 from Brooklyn Law School.

But before graduating from law school, Winograd worked in the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, once traveling at the age of 24 by helicopter with President Johnson and a Secret Service entourage to a campaign event at Eisenhower Park, his son recalled. After the political exposure, Winograd took his first job out of law school as an assistant district attorney in the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold.

After spending four years with Gold’s office, Winograd worked for a while as a law secretary for Brooklyn Civil Court judge Lester Sachs, passing up an appointment to become a Civil Court judge and instead deciding on becoming a full-time defense attorney. By then, Winograd, his wife Elaine and their growing family moved to Bellmore, a place they would call home from 1968 until 2002.

Winograd’s big break as a defense attorney came with well known gangster Paul Vario of Island Park, who ran a Lucchese crime family crew out of a junk yard in South Brooklyn. Unknown to Vario, the Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold had detectives place a bug — the infamous "Gold Bug" — inside a trailer Vario used as an office, according to court records. Vario was indicted for various crimes, including bribery and rewarding official misconduct. Vario was accused of paying several hundred dollars to an undercover detective and was convicted.

Winograd argued on appeal that there was no evidence that Vario or his intermediary ever handled the money allegedly given to the undercover cops, the attorney told a reporter. The conviction was overturned and years later Winograd recalled how he broke the news to Vario, who was seated in an undershirt inside a bar he owned. Winograd asked Vario to drink some whiskey with him, he told a reporter.

"What is this all about?" asked Vario.

"I want to toast you and celebrate because your conviction was just overturned," Winograd said.

More legal victories followed, including for one of Vario’s sons, and with them Winograd burnished his reputation as an effective cross-examiner of government witnesses, people close to him said.

Manhattan defense attorney Benjamin Brafman said Monday that Winograd wasn’t afraid to go after both prosecutors and their witnesses, a trait that made him one of the most effective defense attorneys.

Former State Supreme Court Judge Barry Kamins added that Winograd prided himself on being prepared for his cross examinations.

"He was a terrific guy, I loved him," Bronx defense attorney Murray Richman said.

Lido Beach attorney Barry Levin talked frequently with Winograd. "He was one of the nicest guys in the profession and I will miss his friendship," Levin said.

In 2002, Winograd defended designer Steve Madden after he was indicted on charges of stock manipulation and other crimes stemming from his company Steven Madden Ltd. Madden was convicted, sentenced to 41 months in prison and released in 2005.

After retirement, Winograd’s outgoing personality and skill as a raconteur made him a fixture at weekly poker games in both Florida and Brooklyn with former judges, former prosecutors and old legal colleagues, his family said.

In addition to his wife Elaine and son Corey, both of Florida, Winograd is survived by son, Andrew of Boynton Beach, daughter, Stacey Felice Holt of Providence, Rhode Island, and several grandchildren. A funeral was held Tuesday at Sinai Chapel in Fresh Meadows, Queens. Interment followed at Beth David Cemetery in Elmont.

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