Decades after attempted extortion, he has backing of many lawyersJan. 8, 2014 John J. Balistrieri, a felon and the son of Milwaukee's onetime organized crime boss, is in the final stages of a
Balistrieri, 65, his older brother Joseph and their father, Frank, were convicted of attempted extortion in 1984 after an FBI sting and federal trial that focused on the role of organized crime in the Milwaukee vending machine business. Frank Balistrieri died in 1993 and Joseph died in 2010.
The Balistrieri brothers were sentenced to eight years in prison, but the term was cut to five after they blamed their father for their troubles and claimed to cut ties to him. Each brother's law license was suspended in 1984 and each was later disbarred.
John Balistrieri's current bid to get his law license back stands in contrast with his last application, which failed in the late 1990s. At the time, he charged that state legal industry regulators had a "hostile bias" against him and other Italian-Americans. Balistrieri's charges came after the Board of Attorneys Professional Responsibility recommended against giving Balistrieri his law license back.
"He really got a raw, unfair deal," said William Cannon, a high-profile personal
"Compare his punishment to all the other lawyers who have lost their licenses for worse behavior but got them back. He got a raw deal ... there are no two ways about it."
Daniel Blinka, a Marquette University law professor, testified for Balistrieri "to make the point that our standard has always been good moral character today."
Blinka, a former assistant district attorney who worked in the organized crime unit, said that in the years since Balistrieri's release he appears to have shown the good moral character required to hold a law license.
"A felony conviction is a salient factor to consider, but so is the passage of time," said Blinka, who is not a friend of Balistrieri's but agreed to research and testify in the case.
Lawyers' supportOther lawyers supporting Balistrieri include former federal prosecutor Mark Cameli, now with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren; defense lawyers Stephen Glynn, who represented Balistrieri in the 1980s and James Shellow, who represented Frank Balistrieri; William Steinmetz, formerly with Reinhart, now with Shellow's law firm; and Kenosha attorney Joseph Madrigrano Jr.
In a letter to Ninneman, Cannon listed nearly two dozen lawyers who got their licenses back after being suspended or disbarred for serious unethical behavior — including pocketing client funds — or being convicted of felonies.
In his recommendation to the Supreme Court supporting Balistrieri, Ninneman cited cases involving former state Sen. Gary George and David Jennings III, both of whom got their law licenses back after serving prison sentences.
George was convicted in 2004 for accepting kickbacks of about $270,000. He was without a law license for about six years. Jennings went more than 19 years without a law license after being convicted of embezzling more than $600,000 from his mother's trust and from companies he represented.
"In Wisconsin, the conviction of a felony is no absolute bar to the reinstatement of an attorney's license to practice law," wrote Ninneman, a retired Quarles & Brady partner.
The Journal Sentinel reported in 2011 that more than 135 people with criminal records had Wisconsin law licenses. Some kept their law licenses while they were serving time or were on probation, the paper reported.
In its objection to Balistrieri's reinstatement, the Office of Lawyer Regulation raised questions about Balistrieri's income tax filings; argued that he left out important information on his reinstatement application, blamed others for his mistakes and has not accepted responsibility for his actions.
"Once again, more than 25 years after his conviction for the crime of extortion and attempted extortion of an undercover FBI agent, Balistrieri continues in failing to accept responsibility for his conduct," Denis Vogel, attorney for the regulators, wrote in a brief.
Vogel said Balistrieri "attempts to cast himself in the role of a pawn of his father and victim of his family's culture."
Vogel argued that Balistrieri continues to shift blame to others "especially where Balistrieri has been confronted with conflicts between his statements and actual facts."
Ninnemann, however, said Balistrieri has earned the right to practice law again.
"After 28 years, whether for his family or for his own self-esteem, the time has come to reinstate Balistrieri's law license," Ninneman wrote. "Accordingly, I strongly recommend that Balistrieri's petition be granted."
The recommendation has been pending with the Supreme Court for a year. Terry Johnson, Balistrieri's attorney, said he hoped the court would decide the matter soon. Balistrieri declined to comment.
During his testimony at his reinstatement hearing, Balistrieri said, he wanted his law license back "primarily to rehabilitate my reputation, rehabilitate my name, rehabilitate my character."