Getting to Know ‘Rodrigo’

Ex-Prosecutor’s Work Inspires Novel

Posted September 17, 2007 at 5:10pm

As federal prosecutor in Baltimore, Ron Liebman saw cases argued by “unpolished” lawyers for “low-level crooks” — a far cry from the cases he typically deals with now at Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C. But one of the cases he took on while at Patton Boggs landed him in

Camden, N.J., and reminded him of his time as a prosecutor. That inspired him to write “Death By Rodrigo,” a criminal justice thriller about two hard-knock-cops-turned-lawyers whose lives are threatened after one of their defendants turns on them.

“Death by Rodrigo” centers around lawyers Mickie Mazzonatti and Junior “Junne” Salerno, who rent office space from a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers “who do slop and falls, car crashes, mostly small-time.” The two face trouble when crime boss Rodrigo Gonzalez gives them an ultimatum: Get him out of jail, or else.

With some heated encounters with Rodrigo’s liaison — or is he? — help from cousin Dumpy, and entertaining descriptions of pimp Buffalo Reds and Judge Thurgood Rufus Brown, “Death by Rodrigo” is fast-paced and funny. Liebman writes in a style characteristic of his genre, with short, emphatic sentences and a healthy dose of profanity. Only sometimes does it devolve into banality, with too many short sentences strung together in a predictable pattern that makes the suspense sound cliché.

Junne’s and Mazzonatti’s romantic lives, though a side story, are nearly as entertaining as the main plot. The pair’s multiple romances and Junne’s closeted lifestyle provide masterful character development and juicy details.

It was Liebman’s time as a federal prosecutor that provided the backbone for his novel, but dealing with hard criminals hardly represented the extent of his experiences. This tall, affable, white-shoe lawyer was once responsible for the prosecution of former Vice President Spiro Agnew and dealt directly with the cases of other high-level public servants, including former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel (D).

“It was an extraordinary experience for a young attorney,” Liebman said.

Agnew, who resigned as vice president under former President Richard Nixon, was first investigated when he served as governor of Maryland. Liebman said that he and others had looked into some zoning infractions in Baltimore County and eventually were involved with prosecuting Agnew for accepting bribes from the construction industry.

With his remarkable experiences, why is he most interested in writing a novel about relatively low-level lawyers?

“Perhaps to some degree, I identified with these lawyers,” he wrote. “I grew up blue collar, went to a state law school. I got lucky, clerking for a federal judge after graduation, then hired as an associate in a law firm assigned to the best trial lawyer in town.”

Liebman, born and raised in Baltimore, is the son of a professional jazz musician and an English teacher, and he obtained his bachelor’s degree from McDaniel College in 1966. He has been married for 35 years to his wife, Simma, with whom he has two daughters. Shana, 33, is a writer in New York, and Margot, 30, is a doctoral candidate in education.

Liebman said he is afflicted with “chronic adolescence.” He plays drums in two rock bands, The Developments and Moving Parts, and is proud to show off pictures of him in action behind a drum set.

“Rodrigo” is Liebman’s third book and second fiction novel. The first novel he wrote, “Grand Jury,” was about a pushy prosecutor who takes on a Philadelphia mayor. His second book was a compilation of short stories he solicited from lawyers at random from around the country. Liebman also was a contributing writer for the book, titled “Shark Tales: True (and Amazing) Stories from America’s Lawyers.”

His work at Patton Boggs includes litigation and dispute resolution, and he regularly deals with clients involved in Congressional investigations, though most of his clients are corporations. Though he says he “hated” the years in school needed to obtain his law degree from the University of Maryland, he speaks fondly of his legal career after that.

“Other than writing, I can’t think of anything else I would rather be doing,” he said.

Liebman will read from “Death by Rodrigo” at 7 p.m. tonight at Olsson’s Penn Quarter, 418 Seventh St. NW.