The office girls turned out in orange and brown ensembles. Suburbanites donned foam dog bone hats and woofed at each other, and a vendor with bad teeth and a thin goatee sold T-shirts proclaiming "Pittsburgh Still Sucks." Ironworkers forty feet in the air banged their tools on I-beams in rhythm with the Strongsville High School marching band, which peppily performed "The Final Countdown."
Everyone loves a parade, even if it means listening to cheesy '80s hair metal played on brass and percussion.
The reason for the celebration was simple. Nearly four years after Art Modell ran off to Baltimore, the National Football League had kept its promise to return professional football to Northeast Ohio. The day before the reincarnated Dawgs broke in their new $283 million lakefront kennel, fans were having a city-sanctioned love-in with their new Browns.
The parade ended with thousands of revelers amassed at Public Square for an afternoon pep rally, cheering for Browns old and new. They saw Mayor Michael White bark. Alongside White, team owner Al Lerner, President and CEO Carmen Policy, and Coach Chris Palmer sat on a stage ten feet above a wall of police fencing and concrete barriers, as safely ensconced from the masses as the Ku Klux Klan would be some 22 hours later.
Policy looked relaxed as he stepped to the podium and called Cleveland "The Rocky Balboa of the great American sports cities." And why not? Policy is used to throngs of adoring football fans. The undersized Youngstown native has been gridiron royalty since the early '90s, when the San Francisco 49ers teams he helped build continued as one of the elite franchises of professional sports.
But Public Square holds other, darker memories for Policy. The stage was only a few hundred feet from the federal and county courthouses where, in his previous life as a slick and gifted criminal defense attorney, Policy spent months at a time defending some of the most notorious mobsters between New York and Chicago.
Before the speeches and pep talks, fans and VIPs alike watched a brief video about the team's namesake, Paul Brown, on a temporary Jumbotron screen. WEWS-TV sportscaster Dyrol Joyner introduced the clip by asking the frenzied crowd, "Can you really understand where you came from? . . . Let's take a look back and see where it all started years ago."
Joyner's directive could be usefully applied to Policy as well.
Despite all the accolades, the overwhelming praise, the regal bearing, and undeniable charm, there are some interesting and even unsettling questions about the man The Sporting News hailed as the NFL Executive of the Year in 1994.
Some of the events in Policy's past are simply overlooked-but-interesting nuggets, like the starring role he played in one of the most sensational trials in Cleveland history, that of the killers of Danny Greene. Or how Policy whined that a known killer and mobster he represented was being victimized by the Justice Department.
Other questions are tougher. Like why his name was mentioned repeatedly, and often cryptically, in secretly recorded 1980 conversations after mobsters laundered money through Policy's law partner. Or what Policy might have known about alleged links between the gangsters he represented and one of his biggest business clients. Or why so many of his business partners wind up in trouble with the law.
Policy will not answer these or any other questions about his past. A Browns spokesman turned down a request for an interview, saying Policy does not have the time.
Which is too bad. There is no smoking gun in Policy's hand, no skeleton threatening to destroy his career, should it come rattling out of the closet. But a candid conversation might shed some light on how Policy has managed a unique and remarkable transformation, from a lawyer defending some of the state's most ruthless killers to the toast of Cleveland's social scene.
All his life, Policy has shown an uncanny ability to swim with sharks and emerge unscathed. Nearly everyone around him his best friend, his former business partner, his mentor has been tied to serious criminal wrongdoing. But none of the proverbial muck has ever stuck to Policy. He leads a charmed life, dancing away from the flames as they engulf those around him, while his reputation grows even larger than his bank account.
But a hard look back reveals a whole range of evidence some circumstantial, some anecdotal, some just plain common sense that suggests maybe, just maybe, there's more to Carmen Policy than anyone except Carmen really knows.
A Class Act
Policy is, by nearly universal acclaim, among the brightest and most charming men in professional sports. Friends say he has the sharpest mind they've ever come across, and even the very few people who admit to disliking him have a grudging admiration for his intellect and accomplishments. Policy has argued before the United States Supreme Court, built winning football teams, and single-handedly revolutionized the structure of football contracts. Political, business, and community leaders speak glowingly of him, often with an almost eerie uniformity.
"He's a very capable guy," says local defense attorney Niki Schwartz. "He's very bright, very personable,"
"He has probably the most charisma of anybody you could ever meet," says Youngstown fireworks executive Bruce Zoldan. "He walks in, and the room lights up."
"He's extremely suave, very charming," says attorney John R. Climaco.
"He's sure polished," says Mike Poplar, former vice president and treasurer of the Cleveland Stadium Corp. "He's very glib."
All of them are no doubt sincere. But the feeling in talking to people about Carmen Policy is that they'd rather have a root canal than say something negative about the only bona fide celebrity associated with the new Browns.
Policy's roots lie in Youngstown. Like many of the town's famous and infamous natives, they go back to a low-lying neighborhood on the city's east side known as Smokey Hollow. Shopping mall magnates Eddie DeBartolo Sr. and William Cafaro were raised there, as were Policy and several of the town's better-known mobsters.
In the post-war years, the neighborhood was anchored by Italian immigrants and their descendants, most of whom worked in thriving steel mills. Today many of the houses are gone, and the few that remain are generally rundown and in need of repair.
Policy's parents operated a drugstore and soda fountain, but both of them died suddenly before Policy, an only child, was ten years old. He moved in with his mother's parents, the Tisones, and soon was working at the tavern that provided the family's income.
He followed a well-worn path out of the neighborhood, attending Ursuline High School (where he made the football team but never played a down), followed by Youngstown State University. From there he made a significant jump to Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C., from which he graduated in 1966.
By his early twenties, friends say, Policy already had a reputation as a popular, stylish charmer. Youngstown lawyer Dino Prassinos relates an instructive story from that period.
The financially strapped Policy and several friends had just finished taking the Ohio bar exam in Columbus. The group, which included several would-be lawyers who came from wealthy families, stopped in a bar to celebrate.
"Whereas normally they'd maybe order a couple bottles of expensive wine, they ordered beer in order to not make Carmen feel uncomfortable," Prassinos says. "Whereupon Carmen says, "What's the matter with you guys? We just took the bar,' and orders the most expensive cognac in the house. It shows the class of the guy."
It also shows the champagne tastes of a man who, throughout his life, has gravitated to and ingratiated himself with the wealthiest and most powerful players around.
Policy started his legal career in Youngstown at a small firm where he did bankruptcy work, followed by a stint in the Mahoning County prosecutor's office. Like most talented and ambitious attorneys, he wanted to be his own boss. But when the time came to start his own firm, Policy didn't partner with just anyone. He teamed up with the most politically connected young attorney in town, Ed Flask Jr.
Flask, currently under indictment on federal charges of bribery, corruption, and conflict of interest from his time as director of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District, is the son of a former mayor of Youngstown. He was a powerful and natural complement to Policy.
"Eddie [Flask] grew up rubbing elbows and hobnobbing with all the other politicians in the town and the county and the state," says Prassinos, who worked at Flask & Policy for twelve years. "Then you have Carmen Policy, who also knew a lot of people. Plus, you have to add in the personality. He's the kind of guy who makes friends with everybody."
Policy does have a knack for putting people at ease, from high-powered CEOs to low-level office drones. Prior to being named one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the country in 1987, Policy was named 1975's Boss of the Year by the Mahoning County Legal Secretaries Association.
One of the people Policy became fast friends with was Edward DeBartolo Jr., more commonly known as "Eddie Junior." When DeBartolo and Policy met in 1968, DeBartolo's father, Edward DeBartolo Sr. "Mister D" to friends was busy buying up tracts of land across the country and building huge shopping malls, creating a real-estate empire worth billions.
Whereas DeBartolo Sr. was a dedicated genius who worked nearly up to his death in 1994, his son was brash and hot-tempered. In terms of intellect and work ethic, Policy was more like a son to the old man than Eddie Junior was.
"My opinion is that [Policy] really shepherded Eddie through much of Eddie's career, because I don't know that the guy had much direction," says Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Carmen Marino, one of Policy's legal contemporaries. "If his dad hadn't had a football team, I don't know what the heck he would do. You're talking about a multibillion-dollar enterprise, and this guy is getting into fights at the country club."
Despite the younger DeBartolo's shortcomings, there was a fraternal tie between him and Policy. They both shared a taste for the high life Policy would later build an impressive wine collection, while DeBartolo liked to brag he hadn't flown commercial in fifteen years.
"I think there was a real bond between Carmen and Eddie Junior," says Don Hanni, who ran the Mahoning County Democratic Party from 1978 until 1994. "There was just a very, very strong bond of friendship between the two, almost to the point of brotherly love."
Hanni adds euphemistically: "They fucked the same whores and drank the same whiskey. They really were like brothers."
The link between Policy and the DeBartolo family would eventually play a prominent role in the success of Policy's law firm. Flask had ties with the Cafaro family, shopping mall developers whose wealth and influence was rivaled only by the DeBartolos. So when Flask and Policy partnered, it was a marriage of much more than just their individual talents. It brought together the financial influence and political connections of the two best-connected players in the entire Mahoning Valley.
"They were viewed as the bridge between the big money axis and the political power," says James Callen, who, as president of the Citizens League of Greater Youngstown, testified before the U.S. Senate about organized crime in the Mahoning Valley.
Which is not to discount Policy's acumen as an attorney.
"They were perceived as a very influential firm, by way of their connections but by way of their talent, too," says Prassinos. "[Policy] had a trial ability that you only see in very, very few people. I think someone like F. Lee Bailey could take lessons from Carmen and I mean that very sincerely."
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Tim McGinty has vivid memories of watching Policy in the courtroom, while McGinty was a county prosecutor. "You had to be able to afford him," McGinty says of Policy. "Jurors loved him. Women jurors instantly fell for him. He had them believing the victim wasn't dead and the coroner should have never performed the autopsy. He could take some god-awful people and make them look pretty good. He took a couple of hussies and made them look like Mother Teresa."
As for the type of cases that attracted Policy, McGinty says, "I got the sense he took cases that he thought were fun, that were challenges."
Those "challenges" included everything from legal work for the DeBartolo Corp. to Zoldan's fireworks business to white-collar criminals. Another longtime client was Joey Naples, a mob boss who ran the crime rackets in Youngstown for the Pittsburgh Cosa Nostra with often bloody efficiency.
Friends and colleagues are quick to note that, while Policy did defend some mobsters, he was no consigliere. "He was not known as a mobster lawyer," says Prassinos. "It would be a grave mistake to characterize him as such."
To be fair, there was a time when any successful attorney in Youngstown would probably attract a shady clientele. "As a practicing attorney in Youngstown, he's going to get some of that business," says one source. "I don't know what you'd classify as a mob down there, but there's no question that, at some point, you're going to have to deal with some of those people."
Policy may not have been a mob lawyer in the classic sense. But he certainly defended the best-known mafioso, at a time when they were bombing and shooting each other to death with unprecedented regularity.
The client that garnered the most attention was Ronald "the Crab" Carabbia, whom Policy defended in 1978. To the working world, Carabbia ran a vending business in Struthers, Ohio, with his two older brothers, Charles and Orland. But in reality the Carabbia brothers oversaw Clevelander James "Jack White" Licavoli's organized crime interests in Youngstown, a hotbed of gambling and prostitution also coveted by the Pittsburgh Mafia.
Like his brothers, Ronnie Carabbia was well-known to law enforcement agents. He was convicted in 1964 of promoting a numbers racket in Youngstown, though that conviction was later overturned. In 1967, Carabbia was sentenced to five years in jail for falsifying gambling records. And by 1977, Carabbia was drawn into the gang war raging in Cleveland.
Liars and Perverts
The story of impetuous Collinwood tough Danny Greene is the stuff of legend in Cleveland how he tried to muscle in on Licavoli's rackets, and how a series of bombings, shootings, and bloodshed followed. Greene, who often would sit in front of the Celtic Club on Waterloo Road wearing nothing but shorts and a Celtic cross, giving the finger to Italian mobsters driving by, is widely believed to have ordered the killings of loan shark Shondor Birns and Leo "Lips" Moceri. But his own allies were getting hit, too, like Teamsters official John Nardi, who was killed when his car exploded in a union parking lot.
On October 6, 1977, after stalking Greene for more than a year, the local Cosa Nostra finally caught up with its man. It was an overcast day when Greene came out of his dentist's office in Lyndhurst. As he unlocked his car, the corner of Cedar and Brainard roads turned bright orange. A 1970 Nova parked next to Greene's car exploded, killing him instantly.
Unfortunately for the assailants, they did not make a clean getaway. Eyewitness Debbie Spoth, the daughter of a police officer, testified that she saw Carabbia in the back seat of a car driven by hit man Ray Ferritto.
Six weeks after Greene's death, county prosecutors charged seven men in connection with the bombing: Licavoli, who got his start in organized crime as a member of Detroit's infamous "Purple Gang"; Thomas Sinito; Pasquale "Butchie" Cisternino; John Calandra; Alfred "Allie" Calabrese; Angelo "Big Ange" Lonardo, who served as Cleveland's underboss until he testified against his former associates; and Carabbia.
Charges against Calabrese were eventually thrown out, and Calandra did not initially go to trial due to heart surgery. But when the other five men were led into Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge James Carroll's courtroom in February 1978, it wasn't just a who's who of Ohio mobsters. It was also a who's who of defense attorneys: Jerry Milano. James Willis. Ralph Sperli. Elmer Giuliani. Leonard Yelsky. And, defending Ronnie Carabbia, 35-year-old Carmen Policy.
"All of these guys, whether they're wiseguys or connected or whatever, their attorneys are good," says Marino, who tried the state's case in the Greene murder. "You look at the guys who represented the defendants in the Danny Greene case there was not a weak attorney among them. And Carmen fit in with the best of them."
It was the longest trial in Cuyahoga County history 79 days and Policy, young, charming, and cordial, played a starring role.
"He was excellent," Marino says. "He was diligent, almost to a fault. We were in that trial six days a week for three months, and he was always well-prepared. He made an excellent closing argument."
Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Edward Walsh, who tried the case with Marino, jokes, "My lasting memory of Carmen is that he had a different suit on every day."
Despite Policy's best efforts, the evidence against Carabbia was overwhelming. In addition to Spoth's testimony, Ferritto became a government witness. Protected by fifty law enforcement officials who feared an assassination attempt, Ferritto told a packed courtroom that Carabbia was not only in the car, but he flipped the switch that detonated the remote-controlled bomb. Louis Aratari, another mob hit man, also testified that Carabbia was in Ferritto's car.
Given the evidence, all Policy could do was attack the credibility of the witnesses. Still, he gave a rousing closing argument. In a dual reference to witnesses who placed Carabbia at his son's high school football game at the time of Greene's killing and the criminal histories of Ferritto and Aratari, Policy implored the jury to believe the testimony of "good, honest citizens" over that of "liars and perverts." He said Ferritto was "so devoid of trustfulness, truthfulness, and morality as to be unworthy of consideration."
It was "frightening" for his client "to sit here for three months, knowing you are innocent, and there's little you can do about it." Spoth's testimony about Carabbia being at the bomb site could not be accurate, Policy argued, "because Mr. Carabbia was not there."
Policy summarized by saying: "Ladies and gentlemen, Raymond Ferritto is a hired killer. He has a new contract. He has been hired by the state of Ohio, hired to get Ronnie Carabbia. Don't let yourselves become a party to that contract."
Despite nearly 34 hours of deliberation, the jury did not buy Policy's argument. After waiting more than two hours while Policy rushed to Cleveland from Youngstown, they pronounced Carabbia and Cisternino guilty of aggravated murder and aggravated arson. The pair was acquitted of engaging in organized crime, which led to the acquittals of Licavoli, Lonardo, and Sinito, who were alleged by prosecutors to have orchestrated the bombing.
Both Policy and Carabbia slumped when the verdict was read. While Carabbia whom Marino compared to "lice" and "maggots" during the trial was later sentenced to life and is still in prison, Policy's future was decidedly brighter. Sure, his client had lost. But Policy had handled himself well. He could wade through the mud and come out unsullied. And there was a lot more mud to wade through in Youngstown.
For years, the Pittsburgh and Cleveland mob factions had split the action in Youngstown. But the war with Greene had weakened the Cleveland family, leaving an opening for the Pittsburgh mob represented in Youngstown by Joey Naples and Jimmy Prato to increase its stake in the depressed Rust Belt town.
Charles and Orland Carabbia, Ronnie's older brothers, were responsible for protecting the Cleveland family's turf in Youngstown. When they began to feel the squeeze, they went to James Traficant, who in 1980 was elected sheriff of Mahoning County, a position traditionally dogged by reports of corruption and payoffs. The Carabbias gave Traficant more than $100,000 money that Traficant later claimed he accepted so it wouldn't fall into other hands, as part of his own private sting against the mob.
That assertion is a little difficult to believe after listening to conversations secretly recorded by Charles Carabbia, who made the tapes in an effort to gain leverage with Traficant. Policy is mentioned several times on the tapes, which detail a money-laundering scheme going on just a few feet from his office.
On the tapes, Traficant tells Carabbia that he received cash and checks from Policy's best friend DeBartolo Jr. and then laundered $10,000 in illicit bribes through Policy's law firm via his business partner, Flask.
"Don't forget now, see, I had taken $10,000 down to Flask," Traficant says. "Ten of our thousand down to Flask for him to give me some checks to cover up some of my contributions." When Carabbia worries whether they can trust Flask, Traficant reassures him, "I don't think Flask would say a thing."
Policy is not directly implicated in the scheme, but it raises some interesting questions. Like how could such a smart man not know that mob money was being laundered through his law firm, when the two people closest to him, outside of his wife and children, were directly involved? Is it possible to be selectively brilliant?
Whatever the circumstances of Flask and Policy's involvement or lack thereof there were no legal repercussions after the tape transcripts were made public in 1983. "Nothing was ever done to either of them," notes the Citizens League's Callen.
Policy's name comes up at other points in the conversation, though usually in oblique references. In one conversation between Traficant and Orland Carabbia, the aspiring sheriff says he talked extensively with DeBartolo Jr. about the family contributing to his campaign.
"You see, all I have to do is tie Eddie and Carmen to this," Traficant tells Carabbia, referring to the campaign contributions. When Carabbia worries about the authorities discovering their scheme, Traficant assures him: "Eddie will be no problem. Eddie's OK."
At another point, the Carabbias challenge Traficant's loyalty, asking if he received money from Pittsburgh mobsters Prato and Naples. Traficant denies taking money from them though later he admitted to accepting $55,000 and, in an attempt to reassure the Carabbias of his loyalty, openly muses about arresting their criminal rivals on the day he is sworn in.
"What if I were, on January the fifth, 12:01 a.m., if I would dispatch the troops and arrest Jimmy [Prato], Joey [Naples], Vic [Calautti], and [Charles] O'Nesti? Do you realize what this town's going to be like if that would happen?"
Traficant asks rhetorically who would oppose such a brazen move, then answers his own question. It's an answer that places Policy alongside some of the state's political heavyweights and nails him at least in Traficant's mind as an ally of the Pittsburgh Mafia faction in Youngstown.
"They have Policy and Flask, Celebrezze, Attorney General Brown. They got the Republicans. Rhodes," Traficant says.
At yet another point, Traficant says that Bill Cafaro and J. Philip Richley, who was mayor of Youngstown from 1978-'80, are closely tied to Prato and Naples. Later in the conversation, Traficant identifies the duo as ". . . the Policy faction, which is Cafaro and Richley."
So what does it all prove? Maybe nothing, except that, in a town as small and corrupt as Youngstown, it's tough to swim there long without getting sucked into the morass. Indeed, when Traficant was indicted in 1981 on federal charges of accepting the aforementioned mob payoffs, it was Policy who first represented him. But it was a brief stint, with Policy dropping him after Traficant called a press conference to accuse the FBI of forging the confession in which he admitted accepting $163,000 from mobsters.
"The sheriff is pursuing the problem he's facing in a manner that's contrary to the advice that's been given to him," Policy told the Youngstown Vindicator. "A football team can't run with two quarterbacks playing at the same time."
It was a prophetic statement.
Blaming Little Joey
Traficant, who is now a congressman, is just one of several Scorseseian characters to emerge from Youngstown during the second half of this century. Almost all of them save Policy have been taken out by legal problems and, in some cases, untimely deaths. Many were represented at one point or another by Policy.
One of the most notorious was Joey Naples, whom Policy first represented in 1975. For years, the Naples name was synonymous with Youngstown crime. Naples's older brother Sandy was killed in 1959, shot to death with his girlfriend while the pair sat on a porch swing. Two years later, "Little Joey"'s other older brother, Bill, was killed by a car bomb.
On the surface, Naples ran United Music, Inc. a vending and jukebox company. In reality, he and Jimmy Prato ran Youngstown for the Pittsburgh crime family. A slight man with a bald head, Naples appeared harmless, but according to federal agents, was responsible for ordering at least seven executions, including that of Charlie Carabbia.
Naples was not without some perverse sense of gangland honor. When a pair of aspiring thugs raped two teenaged strippers, Naples had one culprit killed and the other wounded, police say.
In March 1975, Policy represented Naples when he pleaded guilty to one count of running a numbers business. Naples was given probation, much to the dismay of Youngstown Mayor Jack Hunter, who said: "To release this type of person to society does not in fact serve to resolve the crime reputation of this city . . . but rather serves to compound the problem."
Naples bounced in and out of trouble for much of the next decade, though it never seriously threatened his hold on the Youngstown rackets. He ran afoul of the law again in 1983, when federal agents raided his home and found 31 firearms. As a convicted felon, Naples was not allowed to own a gun. Naples claimed the firearms were actually his wife's, but the FBI didn't buy the story. In 1984, with Policy as his attorney, he pleaded guilty at the federal courthouse in Cleveland to illegal firearms possession. He was sentenced to six months in prison.
What's most interesting about the case is the vociferous manner in which Policy contended Naples was a persecuted innocent. Speaking to reporters from the courthouse stairs, Policy said his client, a lifelong criminal whom police said "offered to assist in cleaning up any blood and disposing of the body" when putting out a contract on rival mobster Joe DeRose Jr., was not such a bad guy after all.
"I think Mr. Naples is a victim of that subculture situation where people will use his name either to blame or use his name to curry favor," Policy said. "I think, if he was alive when the Titanic was sunk, he would have been blamed for that."
The same victimization mentality surfaced again one year later, after "Big Ange" Lonardo became a government witness. Lonardo told investigators that Naples and Prato ordered the killing of Charlie Carabbia. Lonardo also testified that he met with Naples and Prato to discuss how gambling profits from Youngstown would be divided between the Pittsburgh and Cleveland Cosa Nostra groups.
Policy's response? "I think Mr. Lonardo is suffering from a form of senility," he told the Youngstown Vindicator. "My client never met with the guy. He's never sat down and talked to the man. My client was never a part of any such meetings."
Eddie's Chance to Shine
Naples was the last major gangster Policy would represent. By the mid-1980s, more and more of his legal work revolved around the DeBartolo family.
Edward DeBartolo Sr. had revolutionized the American lifestyle, amassing a billion-dollar empire in the process. Working fifteen-hour days, he started building homes and gas stations in the 1940s. A decade later he was building strip malls. By the 1960s, DeBartolo was building huge shopping malls. At his peak, DeBartolo controlled two hundred shopping centers in twenty states, three racetracks, a professional hockey team, and the crown jewel of football, the San Francisco 49ers.
Policy was already handling some legal work for the DeBartolo Corp. in 1977, when DeBartolo Sr. bought the 49ers for $17 million. The elder DeBartolo instantly installed his mercurial thirty-year-old son as chairman of the team.
It was the first time DeBartolo Jr. was given a chance to shine. Like his father, he had graduated from Notre Dame, but that's where most of the similarities ended. Although he went to work in the family business, Junior shared none of his father's penchant for deal-making and was often left out of the loop on important business decisions.
While Denise DeBartolo York remained in Youngstown, learning the development business, Junior occupied himself spending lavishly on his new toy. He reportedly bought new boats for his coaches, threw soirees with Rolex watches as party favors, and had his private chef prepare prime rib for the players when they flew on the team jet.
It wasn't long before Eddie Junior had his close friend Carmen Policy handling legal matters for the 49ers. In 1979, Policy accompanied DeBartolo Jr. to San Francisco to negotiate coach Bill Walsh's contract. Four years later, Policy was named the team's general counsel and vice president.
While DeBartolo was popular with the players, he was disliked by other owners and many in the media. One Bay-area columnist called DeBartolo a "snotty-nosed brat." Rival owners resented DeBartolo's deep pockets, which allowed him to pay some 49ers reserves more than most starters on other teams were earning.
Many owners also felt snubbed by DeBartolo Jr.'s habit of skipping the owners' meetings, sending Policy instead. It was a mistake that years later would haunt DeBartolo and help Policy.
"[Policy] went to all the owners' meetings, and a lot of times Eddie Junior wouldn't go, so [Policy] became more visible," says one former NFL executive. "Maybe too visible. Some owners don't like talking to the hired help."
According to a number of sources, Policy's chief job had nothing to do with negotiating contracts, handling legal affairs, or dealing with rival owners. His primary responsibility was to keep an eye on his friend.
"[Policy] was sent out there originally by Eddie Sr. to straighten out Eddie Junior and see if he could get the place on a proper profit-making basis," says the former NFL executive. "Eddie Junior . . . is a wild, loose-cannon type. The kid found out there's a place called Las Vegas, and he likes Las Vegas very much."
"The kid [DeBartolo Jr.] was apt to do anything," says another source. "He was worse than a free spirit. He would do stupid things. He didn't have his feet on the ground."
By all accounts, DeBartolo Jr. who refused to comment for this story was a loose cannon. In 1992, he was accused of sexual assault by a waitress. He denied the charges, but reached an undisclosed settlement with the woman. Five years later, DeBartolo was charged with assault and battery in Wisconsin after fighting with Green Bay Packers' fans following a 49ers loss. The charges were dismissed after DeBartolo agreed to donate $2,500 to a Wisconsin charity.
And when money failed to keep DeBartolo out of trouble, he always had Carmen Policy.
In 1985, a rowdy Dallas Cowboys fan grabbed DeBartolo by the wrist in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel. Published reports say the 49ers owner hit the fan so hard, the guy went flying across the lobby, slamming into a wall with such force that he smashed a hole in it. Policy never lost his cool. With the lobby in chaos, he dutifully moved a potted plant to cover the hole.
The New Messiah
In February 1991 six months before his old client Joey Naples would be killed in a gangland execution Policy was named president of the 49ers. He dissolved his partnership with Flask, moved to California, and assumed responsibility for running the day-to-day operations of a team that at the time had won a record-tying four Super Bowls.
Two years later, Policy was faced with a challenge every bit as difficult as representing the likes of Ronnie Carabbia and Naples. The NFL implemented a salary cap, which forbade the 49ers and other successful teams from spending more money on players than their rivals could. By regulating teams' payrolls, league owners thought, they could level the playing field and increase competition.
As executives throughout the league wrestled with what was and wasn't allowed under the new rules, Policy, ever the studious attorney, pored over the regulations and found a loophole.
He devised a system wherein free agents were given large signing bonuses, paid up front. Under the cap verbiage, however, the amount of the bonus could be prorated over the life of the contract. For example, if Policy signed a player to a three-year, $12 million contract including a $6 million signing bonus, the player would be paid $8 million his first year, but the 49ers would only be assessed $4 million against their cap allowance.
It was a brilliant maneuver, allowing the 49ers to continue to use DeBartolo's liquid assets to attract free-agent superstars like Deion Sanders. The unique numbers-crunching reaped rewards in 1994, when the team won an unprecedented fifth Super Bowl.
But it didn't take long for other league executives to figure out how to manipulate their own cap numbers, which raises the question of whether Policy's best days as an NFL executive are behind him. His greatest asset in San Francisco his ability to figure out a way around the salary cap is now common knowledge within the NFL.
"Certainly the guy has to have some credit for the establishment of that success. You cannot deny that," says one source familiar with several NFL executives. "But is he a guy that remains a step ahead of the competition? I don't know about that. I don't know about that at all."
As Policy became the guiding hand of the 49ers, his surrogate brother, DeBartolo Jr., began looking for other ways to amuse himself. He started his own company, DeBartolo Entertainment Corp. Much to the chagrin of his anti-gambling sister Denise, he tried to start several casinos only to be rejected by three different states. One of those states was Ohio, despite $1.4 million that DeBartolo pumped into the gambling lobby and his promises that riverboat gambling would revive Youngstown.
So Junior was an easy mark when former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards offered to help him with a riverboat casino bid in that state. Edwards was paid $400,000 in rolls of $100 bills by DeBartolo Jr. for nebulously defined consulting services. That sounded like a bribe to federal prosecutors, who began a probe of the relationship.
It wasn't the first time questions had been raised about the DeBartolo family's business practices. In 1980, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn rejected DeBartolo Sr.'s bid to buy the Chicago White Sox. The common wisdom was that Kuhn quashed the sale because he was concerned about DeBartolo's organized crime ties, a charge Kuhn denied. DeBartolo Jr. told Sports Illustrated: "Kuhn was prejudiced. He didn't want us in the league," noting that the DeBartolo Corp. had been investigated by three state racing boards and the NFL, which found no problems.
But there is the matter of Angelo Lonardo. In a 1987 New York mob trial, Lonardo testified that DeBartolo Sr. asked known mobsters for help handling labor contracts. Lonardo, the Cleveland underboss until he became a defector, said DeBartolo asked Milton "Maishe" Rockman for assistance on several occasions.
"Well, whenever there was a contract that come up with the race track, DiBartola [sic] would ask Maishe to please see that he would get a good contract," Lonardo said, according to reports published in The Plain Dealer. The elder DeBartolo dismissed the charge as "bullshit."
But this time, DeBartolo Jr.'s luck had run out. After stepping down voluntarily from 49ers management in December 1997, he was formally suspended from running the team by the NFL in March of this year. Some said it was the owners' way of getting back at him for years of snubs and arrogance. Either way, control of the team fell to his estranged sister.
When DeBartolo first stepped down, Policy was expected to play a greater role in the 49ers organization, perhaps even fulfilling a longtime goal of getting a 5 percent ownership stake in the club. But relations between the once-close friends had grown strained, to the point that DeBartolo was reported to be considering firing Policy and installing Bill Walsh as head of the team.
"I think a lot of it was probably jealousy," Marino says of the split between Policy and DeBartolo. "Eddie didn't have the talent that Carmen did and probably didn't like the idea that "I own the team, and you're getting all the play.'"
Never one to be caught off guard, Policy had begun exploring escape routes some years earlier. Two sources confirm that he was part of a group of investors who approached Art Modell in the early 1990s about selling the Browns. Primarily from Youngstown, the group worked through back channels to gauge Modell's asking price and willingness to sell. Modell never seriously entertained their overtures.
"It's not something that went anywhere or was even proposed to go anywhere," says one source close to Modell. "It was a conversation [with Modell], a "here's an idea' kind of thing."
But in July 1998, with DeBartolo Jr. under investigation and his own future in doubt, Policy needed to go somewhere. Once again, he showed an incredible knack for pulling out just before the house of cards collapsed. And once again, he landed next to one of the wealthiest men in the country.
Policy resigned as president of the San Francisco 49ers and flew to Cleveland. Clad in an uncharacteristically garish suit (brown, with an orange tie), he appeared at a press conference with Al Lerner to announce the duo's intention to enter the bidding for the expansion Browns. It was a stunning press conference, with a packed room of reporters fawning over Cleveland's newest mover and shaker. And the presence of Mayor White and Browns legend Bernie Kosar left little doubt about the outcome.
So it came as no surprise when the NFL approved Lerner's $530 million bid for the team with Policy getting a 10 percent ownership stake. Policy also reportedly doubled his salary from his days as president of the 49ers, to $1.5 million.
"He hit the jackpot many times over with Lerner," says one source.
"If you walk into a room full of people, and you want to know who the richest guy in the room is, just watch who Carmen spends the majority of his time with," adds one lawyer derisively. "In the old days, the wealthiest and most powerful guy in Mahoning County was "Eddie D' Sr., and that's who he latched onto. Eddie D Sr. is gone, Eddie D Jr. is a washout, and now he's found Al Lerner."
In the rush to embrace the new franchise, the irony of Policy's transformation from criminal defender to messiah of football-hungry Browns fans has been lost on all but a few people. One of Policy's colleagues from his days defending sleazy mobsters chuckles to himself when he thinks about the ethnic kid from Youngstown rubbing elbows with Cleveland's upper crust.
"I read that he was at the art museum last week," says the local defense attorney. "From defending Tony Dope [Tony Delsanter] to the art museum. I thought, boy, times have changed."
They certainly have. Policy now seems a lifetime removed from his humble beginnings and controversial past. But every once in a while, it still rears its ugly head like this past summer, when former Mahoning County Sheriff Phil Chance was on trial at the federal courthouse in Cleveland. Chance was eventually sent to prison after being convicted of racketeering.
At one point in the trial, assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Morford was questioning Chance about his ties to organized crime. Two people had already testified that Chance was close to Joey Naples. Chance denied it, saying he had only met Naples twice before the crime boss was gunned down. The first time he met Naples, Chance said, was in the office of Bruce Zoldan, the fireworks magnate whom Policy represented.
And the second time he met Naples?
Chance testified it was in the office of Carmen Policy.
Mike Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.