Guilt-Edged

Pugnacious defense attorney Frank "Tony" Fabbri never backed away from a fight. Then the lawyer ran afoul of the law.

"A lot of people think Fabbri is anti-cop, but he's not," offers fellow counselor Neil Bruntrager, who represents numerous police officers. "I ran into him recently, standing on the street corner downtown, after his car had been towed, and I took him to get it. Turns out the person running the lot is a retired police officer. He says, 'Sorry about the car,' and then he says, 'You know what, because it's you, Tony, I'm going to waive the fees.'"

Fabbri has spent countless pro bono hours lecturing at minority churches and youth-group functions as a board member of BASIC (Black Alcohol/Drug Service Information Center). He's famous for the ten-pound African slave cuff he passes around and likens to the heavy burdens created by drug and alcohol addictions.

In his letter to Judge Stiehl, BASIC director Oval Miller Sr. related how Fabbri had approached the group in 1997. "No other attorney, before or since, has expressed such a high level of curiosity and concern. We readily accepted him because we had already heard of his unique ability as a White man to 'connect' with minority youth and young adults and redirect them toward sobriety."

"God love Tony," one ex-cop observes of Fabbri. "But he's a guy of excesses."
jennifer silverberg
"God love Tony," one ex-cop observes of Fabbri. "But he's a guy of excesses."
Friends, colleagues and adversaries wrote to U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl on Fabbri's behalf. A PDF sampling of the letters is available online at here.
Friends, colleagues and adversaries wrote to U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl on Fabbri's behalf. A PDF sampling of the letters is available online at here.

When the agency needed a shuttle for clients, Miller's letter continues, "Frank, on his own, found a 'one owner' 1972 Cadillac limousine and, working on it at night in his garage, totally rehabbed it. He surprised us with the gift of a virtually 'new' and clever transport car...."

During 25 years of service to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, Fabbri helped launch a home-ownership assistance program, counseling the disadvantaged and ensuring that homebuilders fulfill their duties. "Frank would actually go to the homes and meet and critique the work of these contractors with the homeowner," Urban League president and CEO Jim Buford wrote in his letter to the judge. "Needless to say, meeting a lawyer in a suit at a job site remedied many problems!"

"For many of us in the African-American community, Frank has been a mentor," wrote former Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White.

"I always found him to be an aggressive and honorable opponent when I prosecuted his clients," wrote former St. Louis Assistant Circuit Attorney Nels Moss Jr.

"There is no doubt that his mistake was a violation of the law," wrote U.S. District Judge Charles Shaw, "but it was a human failure, not one of the soul. As Archie Bunker once said, 'God don't make no mistakes. That's how he got to be God.'"

A former Tower Grove East neighbor shared with Stiehl one of the funnier stories related to Fabbri's go-to-the-mat mindset: "One night I returned to my abode intoxicated," the man wrote. "I called Tony and said I had been arrested and was being held at the Central District on the charge of DWI. Tony immediately said, 'Don't talk. I'll be there in fifteen minutes.' I laughed and went to bed. Tony not only went to Central District but all the other districts on the belief that the police were playing ping-pong. He did not get home until 5:00 a.m."

All who know him agree Fabbri is equally generous with his clients. "He was a 'soft touch,' to use an old expression," Zotos, his partner, wrote to Judge Stiehl. "Scores of clients never received a bill. Hundreds paid for a fraction of the services rendered." (To view a sampling of the letters written to U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl on Fabbri's behalf, click here.)

As Terry Fabbri, Frank's younger brother, puts it, "My brother has a huge heart, and the people who recognize that about him consider him a good guy. Those that don't, think he's a flamboyant asshole."

"I am a licensed attorney."

Salsa pulsing from the stereo of his plush Volkswagen Phaeton, Fabbri is chipper on the drive to the federal courthouse in St. Louis on November 2. Tanned though he appears, however, the lawyer has dropped sixteen pounds over the past three weeks.

"I am definitely not scared," he says. "I've had a lot of anxiety, but I've never been scared, and I'm not scared now.

"I did look up my [prison] register number, though: 07769-025," he adds. "That's what I am. Might as well accept it."

Two weeks later Fabbri will learn that he is to report to the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas on December 14. But for the time being he's a free man – and, as he says, a licensed attorney.

Also for the time being.

A week earlier the Missouri Bar Association filed a motion to disbar him. If the justices of the Missouri Supreme Court accept the bar association's recommendation, Fabbri will not be eligible to retake the bar exam for seven years after he leaves prison, by which time he'll be nearly 70.

Fabbri had worked until 9:30 p.m. the previous evening on a statement for the client he's meeting in court today, a 22-year-old woman who's to be sentenced for bank robbery. Pleased with the deal he secured for the woman, Fabbri takes a seat in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Rodney Sippel to await their turn. He pops a few scraps of paper in his mouth, a nervous habit he's had for as long as he can remember.

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