Devil's Advocate

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHEN ATTORNEY FRANK RUBINO traveled to Panama in February 1988 as part of a defense team for Gen. Manuel Noriega, he braced himself for an encounter with a bully. Though Noriega had just been indicted (in absentia) on drug-smuggling charges in the U.S., he was still firmly ensconced as the strong-arm ruler of Panama, a man with a history of terror and repression. "I was taken to meet him in this very military-looking boardroom with all these maps that lit up," Rubino, 46, recalls. "I expected this mean, nasty dictator to come striding in with big black boots."

Instead, Noriega made a modest entrance wearing slacks and a lightweight leather jacket. "He walked right up with this big smile on his face and said, 'Hello, I'm General Noriega.' He was not a hard man to like."

A veteran trial attorney, Rubino had been brought into the case by some Miami colleagues with previous ties to Noriega on the off-chance it might end up in court. "I pick juries and try cases," he says. "If you want to play Let's Make a Deal, get Monty Hall." So for two years he played a minor role in the legal team's efforts to hammer out a behind-the-scenes settlement with American officials. Then in December 1989, the U.S. invaded Panama, and Noriega was taken to Miami to stand trial. Suddenly Rubino found himself in a familiar spot—defending the supposedly indefensible—only this time on a national stage.

Known around Miami as a white-powder lawyer because he has defended major drug dealers and other organized-crime figures, Rubino specializes in opposing sprawling, complex conspiracy prosecutions in federal court. He has tried 136 of them in the last 17 years. "What is there to a 7-Eleven store robbery?" Rubino says. "I like a case that will fill my entire library with books and papers and documents." That certainly describes the Noriega defense, which involves more than 100 witnesses and unique issues of covert government activity and international law.

Rubino cuts a flashy figure around Miami with his $800 Hugo Boss suits and tropical-patterned ties, a red Mercedes 500SL and blond identical-twin secretaries. But he also enjoys a reputation for honesty and gentlemanly conduct in the courtroom, even in the heat of a cross-examination. "The jury may be anti-Noriega," says Jeffrey Weiner, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But they're not anti—Frank Rubino, and I think his charisma is spilling over on behalf of Noriega. Frank's integrity is providing a glaring contrast to that of the government witnesses, whose testimony has been bought and paid for."

Weiner is referring to the fact that, as reported in the Miami Herald and elsewhere, the government has supplied visas, green cards and substantial financial assistance to witnesses with known criminal backgrounds. But Richard Gregorie, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney who helped draft the original indictment of Noriega but is no longer involved in the case, says, "That goes on every day of the week. The government has to offer deals in order to get firsthand testimony." Of course Rubino would try to use these deals in court, Gregorie says, because "with this many witnesses who say your client is guilty, it's pretty hard to do much more than that."

News accounts have also highlighted two other questionable government tactics in the case: the taping of conversations between General Noriega and Rubino that were then leaked to CNN; and the U.S. Marshals' release—inadvertently, they say—of the defense team's secret witness list to prosecution attorneys. The prosecutors will not comment on these incidents because they are under investigation, but Gregorie, again, points out that any federal inmate knows he is under surveillance.

"This whole case ain't fair. Where do you begin?" says Rubino, who is working at the court-paid rate of $75 an hour rather than his customary $325. He will collect more if Noriega is acquitted and regains access to the $20 million in assets currently frozen by federal authorities.

Rubino pursues his cases with a single-mindedness he says he inherited from his father, Frank Sr., a beer distributor in Philadelphia, and his mother, Eleanor, a nurse. The elder of two children, Rubino lost his father to lung cancer when he was 12. After graduating from Seton Hall University in 1967, Rubino worked briefly as a motorcycle patrol cop in Miami Beach before a job opened up in the local office of the U.S. Secret Service.

During three years with the Secret Service, Rubino often guarded the Nixon family in Key Biscayne and ultimately was offered a transfer to the White House. "Had I not wanted to be a lawyer, I sure would have gone for it," he says. Instead he enrolled at the University of Miami Law School, supporting himself and wife Mary, whom he married in 1970, and their two sons by working as a private investigator. (Rubino divorced Mary in 1982; son Anthony, 20, is now a pre-law student, and Matthew, 17, attends a private Miami high school. A second marriage, in 1985, lasted two years.) Meanwhile Rubino continued to indulge a love for adventure by racing motorcycles on weekends. He later switched to cars and in 1986 won the 24-hour Daytona IMSA race. "Many times I scared myself to death in my race car," Rubino says. "But it wouldn't be very exciting if you couldn't get hurt or killed, would it?"

By the time he stopped racing the year after breaking his right leg in a smashup, Rubino had established himself as a go-for-broke competitor in the courtroom. "I believe a trial lawyer is a gladiator," says Rubino. "He gets into the ring and he fights. I'm sure you have to be part egomaniac to do this. But it's fun."

Married in April for the third time, Rubino enjoys being pampered at home. New wife Ann Aquilina, 40, spends part of each day watching her husband in court, yet "every night I come home to a table set with crystal, candelabra, the whole thing," Rubino says. "She'll put a rose on my plate. It's great."

Rubino watches Star Trek reruns most evenings in his four-bedroom condominium and insists on sleeping with a tattered childhood pillow named Oscar. On weekends he and Ann go out riding on his cream-and-tangerine Harley-Davidson motorcycle with the Hog Brothers, a group of Yuppie bikers.

In recent weeks, though, Rubino has been lying awake at night mulling over the Noriega case. Rubino claims that the misdeeds of which Noriega stands accused are the consequence of the general's loyal service to U.S. intelligence agencies. For example, the prosecution contends that Noriega met with Fidel Castro in 1984 to ask him to broker a dispute between the general and leaders of the Colombian cocaine cartel. But Rubino argues the meeting was part of a series of visits by Noriega to convey high-level messages from the White House to Castro. "The government admits this," Rubino says. "But the jury has been prevented from seeing the big picture."

So far, Judge William Hoeveler has blocked most of Rubino's efforts to introduce evidence of Noriega's covert cooperation with the U.S. "The judge has said he views this as a drug case and wants to stick to that aspect only," Rubino says. "But I'm just going to keep screaming and fighting, because I don't want to lose.

MEG GRANT in Miami

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