Hope Lefeber Has Made a Career out of Representing Unsavory Characters
The Lower Merion criminal defense attorney counts mobsters and gang members among her past clients.
Tessa Marie Images.
November 1988 was not a good month for the Scarfo clan. A few short, defining weeks wrote the all-but-final chapter for the cantankerous Philadelphia mob family. That Nov. 19, kingpin Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo Sr. and 16 associates were convicted on more than 32 counts of racketeering. The list included multiple counts of murder, drug trafficking, loansharking, extortion and illegal gambling.
Earlier that month—three days after younger son Mark’s attempted suicide—Scarfo’s older boy, Nicky Jr., and a friend were arrested for assaulting a woman in a hospital elevator. By 2015, Nicky Jr. had followed in his father’s footsteps with a 30-year sentence for fraud. His dad was 87 when he died in prison this January.
When the Scarfo Sr. trial kicked off in 1988, there were 16 male defense lawyers—the theatrical and flamboyant Bobby Simone and the steadfast Joseph Santaguida among them. “Sixteen and me,” says Hope Lefeber. “Seventeen lawyers. Seventeen closing arguments. Seventeen lawyers sitting in rows six days a week.”
An independent criminal defense attorney who lives in Lower Merion Township, Lefeber was still nursing her second child at the time. “I never thought I was an odd ball,” she says. “If I’m to give other women a lesson, it’s: Be yourself.”
During the Scarfo Sr. trial, she wore a bright red dress for closing arguments—quite a contrast to the swath of gray suits. Lefeber isn’t shy about saying she used it to get attention, even if it didn’t work. Her client, mob hitman Salvatore (John Wayne) Grande, was convicted of murder and racketeering, subsequently flipped on the mob and is reportedly living in hiding.
Lefeber had handled her first criminal case with Simone six months earlier. It involved the Greek mafia, and she was six months pregnant with the daughter she’d be nursing during the Scarfo proceedings. An emergency surgery during that trial saved the baby. Her husband, Howard, retrieved her briefcase at the courthouse as the not-guilty verdict came in. “My client was the only acquittal,” she says now. “I wasn’t even there.”
Twenty-four weeks later, Dana was born. (She’s now 29.) Confined to her back for 13 weeks, Lefeber recovered for the Scarfo case.
Mob cases are few and far between these days, but Lefeber’s extensive experience has since been put to good use in federal trials, plea bargaining and appeals—mostly for white-collar crimes like mail and wire fraud, money laundering, insurance and tax fraud, securities violations, healthcare and mortgage fraud, and drug and environmental crimes. She’s published and lectured on federal criminal law, taught continuing education classes and appeared on TV as a legal expert. And she’s held her own in some tough crowds. “There was never a fear factor,” she contends. “My clients knew that I was doing the best for them.”
A decade ago, Lefeber defended John Napoli, then president of the infamous Breed Outlaw Motorcycle gang from the Bristol-Levittown area. Violence was a big part of his $6 million meth-trafficking organization. He once used an electric drill to bore into a man’s arm, nearly crushing his face and dislocating an eye. Bikers who cooperated with law enforcement were warned: “You’ll be killed.”
“He was the nicest, kindest man to me,” says Lefeber, who represented him on appeal. “Most people are not all bad. Even the worst ones have mothers and fathers, kids and loved ones, and have some humanity. I try to bring that to the court’s attention.”
Lefeber used Napoli’s domesticated side—supported by family, friends and neighbors—to ease his burden. Instead of life in prison, as calculated under advisory sentencing guidelines, U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III gave him six more years in prison than the 30-year sentence that he gave Napoli’s top aide and codefendant, William “Tattoo Billy” Johnson. Another codefendant, Thomas “Fuzzy” Heilman, received just under 20 years.
Hope Lefeber's 2012 client, Sonia Panell,
Another high-profile Lefeber client, Sonia Panell, was charged with hiring a hitman to kill witnesses testifying against her husband, Rene Figueroa, who faced trial for a 2012 shootout murder outside a Puerto Rican social club in Bethlehem. After getting Panell’s guilty plea withdrawn, Lefeber negotiated reduced charges to time served, probation and supervised release. “Everyone deserves a defense,” says Lefeber. “The innocent ones give me wake-up nights. They’re the horrible burden. But I’m not a priest, and I can’t make a living representing all innocent people. Even the mobsters were typically great family men.”
In the mid-1990s, organized crime experts began reporting the number of cases where codefendants declared indigence and accepted court-appointed lawyers. In other words, the Mafia was on the decline and no longer covering for its underlings. Remaining crime families weren’t “family” anymore in Philadelphia—and lawyers who always found work in the genre had to diversify.
Former Main Line Today editor Mike Mallowe, who covered the mob for years for Philadelphia magazine, says Philly has become nothing more than “a satellite,” a branch office for activity further north.
Lefeber agrees. “The activity just goes down differently, and there’s significantly less of it,” she says. “The prosecution, I’m sure, will say they’ve locked them all up—that there’s no one left. But I don’t agree. It exists but on a different scale.”
It’s mid-summer, and Hope Lefeber is in her home office contemplating literally three million pages of online documents for a September case scheduled for a federal trial in Philadelphia. Years ago, all that paper would’ve been in folders. “How do you know when you’re done?” she asks. “It’s anxiety provoking, really.”
Her defendant is David T. Shulick, the former president of the Bala Cynwyd-based Delaware Valley High School Management Corp. He’s charged with conspiring to embezzle funds from the School District of Philadelphia, scheming to defraud PNC Bank and filing three years of false federal tax returns. Shulick is pleading not guilty. If convicted of all charges, he faces imprisonment, restitution and a fine of up to $3.8 million.
Hope Lefeber is currently defending
Lefeber says the indictment is an outgrowth of the father-son Fattah fallout. Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr. was charged and jailed for his role in a tax and fraud scheme involving the school district, and his father, former Congressman Chaka Fattah, was subsequently convicted of racketeering, fraud and money laundering. Apparently, though, the feds weren’t finished.
The Shulick indictment charges that, between 2010 and 2012, he and Fattah Jr. embezzled funds meant for Philly’s public schools. The prosecution asserts that they hid the true costs of services provided by Shulick’s company, Unique Educational Experiences Inc., by submitting budgets to the district that contained false entries for benefit costs, inflated staff salaries and salaries for never-filled positions at the school. Shulick is said to have used funds to pay housekeepers, nannies and contractors at his Gladwyne residence and Margate, N.J., vacation home.
Prosecutors say that when Fattah Jr. defaulted on a PNC Bank loan, Shulick, a licensed attorney in Pennsylvania, acted as Fattah Jr.’s lawyer, telling PNC that Fattah Jr. might declare bankruptcy if he couldn’t settle his debt. It’s alleged that he even offered $2,500—which he claimed was Fattah Jr.’s monthly income—as an exit fee from the loan. The indictment says that Shulick alone was paying Fattah Jr. $75,000-plus a year, with a promise for more.
Lefeber says that any fraud lies with Fattah Jr., who was “foisted upon Shulick.” Philadelphia contractually required Shulick to hire a minority contractor at the school, with “cancellation for convenience clauses”—or what she told Forbes is “the culture in Philadelphia.” When Shulick later fired Fattah Jr., he lost the contract within a year of spending $1 million in school improvements. Shulick’s company soon declared bankruptcy. “David’s case is an example of a hard-working man charged as a result of the collateral damage brought on by the Fattahs,” she says. “They brought down so many with their illegal activity and greed.”
Kip Hamilton, a CPA forensic accountant, has been working on the Shulick case with Lefeber. “She’s the maestro,” he says. “I’m just in the orchestra. Hope is passionate, and she’s living each case every day. When she goes to bed, she’s dreaming it.”
Born in New York City, Lefeber is the only child of Holocaust survivors Frieda and Hans. Her father was a top-tier judge in Germany, until Hitler discarded him in 1933. Somehow, he survived in various legal roles for six more years of the dictatorship. The name “Hope” stems from the previous miscarriages Frieda had. Growing up, Lefeber thought the name was horrible. “Everyone else was named Kathy, Susan and Nancy,” she says.
Hans was 49 when Hope was born. He didn’t live to see her attend law school, passing away when she was at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in economics, before heading to Rutgers School of Law. But Lefeber followed in her father’s path, always believing that, within the law, there’s never a right or wrong answer. Rather, it’s how you frame an argument that determines destiny. “To me, it offered a world of endless possibilities,” she says. “Between black and white, there’s so much possible, even when you boil it down to human nature and why people do what they do to bring them to the courts. I look for the reasons therein that may likely provide relief and understanding.”
Her mother’s influence—especially today at the age of 102—stems from her boundless energy and positive outlook. “She has such optimism,” says Lefeber. “She’s never given up. She’s been a remarkable inspiration in her ability to find beauty and joy in life. She’s never dwelled on the destruction or loss of family (in Nazi Germany).”
If her father’s past carries subliminal weight, it’s in his daughter’s distrust of government. Take Philadelphia’s soda tax: “Is that the government’s job?” she poses. “The government is the least qualified entity to give me advice.”
The government lacks efficiency, accountability and often harms society to make a point, Lefeber says. “There’s a heavy human side to what I do,” she admits. “Often, I’m like a doctor giving a patient bad news.”
Lefeber admits that her first name has attracted some clients. One of two brothers embroiled in a large meth-amphetamine ring was given three attorneys’ names. “He went to the other two, but then walked by a South Philly coffee shop called Hope’s Café,” says Lefeber. “He viewed it as a sign from God that [I] would be the one.” She was. Her client was sentenced to probation, while his brother got 10 years in jail. “Many of my clients need hope,” she says. “I’m their last chance. It’s a challenge and a burden. They say, ‘I’m counting on you to save me.’ It must be easier to be a prosecutor and just go after everybody.”
Bucks County’s Jacqueline McCusker turned to Lefeber in a complex money laundering, wire fraud and mortgage fraud case. After a vigorous defense, the government’s $14.6 million case against McCusker, who was facing 10-plus years in jail, was downgraded to less than $400,000 and probation. “It’s a case I’m proud of,” Lefeber says. “Despite a felony charge, they were able to move on. I made a difference in someone’s life.”
Lefeber also made a friend of Will Ross, who had a check-cashing business with locations in Center City and Lansdowne, Delaware County—until the government sent a confidential informant to tempt him to accept what appeared to be drug money in exchange for money orders. Turned away, the plant ingratiated himself with employees by “tipping” them. Subpoenaed Valentine’s Day 2012, Will was charged with money laundering and structuring (a reporting crime based on disguising transactions over $10,000). “It’s the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “The first? My first wife died.”
He’d spoken to other attorneys, even engaging one. Then he met Hope at a Chinese restaurant near Villanova University. By the time his case went to trial in 2013, the two employees had been secured to testify against him—then one of them died beforehand. The government’s informant died, too, so tapes and videos were used at trial. Prosecutors sought a plea deal. “I wasn’t willing to accept any conclusion that wasn’t true,” he says now. “I’m not a crook, and I’m not going to say I’m a criminal when I’m not. There are a lot of innocent people in jail, and I wasn’t going to be one of them.”
Ross was acquitted of both charges, but the federal case ruined him. He locked the doors on his check-cashing business and has since bought a beer distributorship in Mount Airy. “Thank God I’m still standing,” he says. “But if you Google me, all this crap still comes up.”
Older daughter Rachel, 31, has provided Hope Lefeber with two grandchildren. It’s been 38 years in practice, and she’s not tired yet. She’s also relying on her mother’s genetics. “I have too much energy,” she says.
It’s been decades since she first worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission, then did a stint with notable Philly lawyer Jimmy Binns, before setting out on her own. “There’s no [imposed] pressure,” Lefeber says. “Everything is on my terms. I don’t have to bill 1,000 hours a month.”
Independence has left room for more life and law. “There’s a whole lot more I’d like to do, and I’m at the top of my game,” says Lefeber. “The reason why I’m able to keep going is that I don’t have supervisors, and so I’m free to be myself.”
And she likes to help people. “No one is quite as guilty as the government would like to believe,” she says. “Someone has to draw out the truth.”