“Do you have a cocktail?” tax-lawyer Robert Bernhoft boomed, Glenlivet in hand. “Come on, let’s get you one!”
With that, Bernhoft rose from a table crowned by a box of aromatic Cohíbas and led me from a canopied corner of Craft’s patio toward the restaurant’s outdoor bar just across the way from the CAA building. Jay Gatsby may have been bewitched by a little green light burning at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock, but in L.A., it’s the blinking red beacons atop Century City’s towers that beckon to the newly moneyed and anointed. Tonight they were winking upon Bernhoft and his law partner, Robert Barnes, Milwaukee’s celebrated tax attorneys who were celebrating their new offices on the Avenue of the Stars.
“Is Wesley Snipes paying for this?” I asked Bernhoft, pointing to my Jack on the rocks.
“No, I paid for that!” the bearlike Bernhoft answered. “When Wesley paid me, his money became my money.”
It’s a shame they don’t teach these fundamentals in schools. Bob Barnes had held down a Malibu outpost of his and Bernhoft’s boutique firm for four years, maintaining a discreet profile — until Wesley Snipes came along. In 2006, the Blade star, a self-styled, tax-rebel samurai, found himself on the business end of a 16-count federal indictment for tax evasion. Bernhoft and Barnes took over the case and, earlier this year, beat all the felony counts Snipes faced. The victory reaffirmed the two Bobs’ prowess in winning half of their cases on a playing field in which the government’s winning record, as Bernhoft said, “is usually at body temperature: 98.6 percent.”
Snipes hadn’t completely aced his tax trial, however. Just before it ended, he fired Bernhoft and Barnes and, coincidentally or not, was convicted of a trio of misdemeanors, for which he was sentenced to three years in federal prison.
“We’re still on good terms,” Bernhoft said of Snipes. This denouement, however, inevitably made Bernhoft and Barnes look even more indispensable to potential clients.
As guests gathered around and waiters brought quail-eggs benedict and curried pork bellies, Bernhoft savored the challenges of Snipes’ case. It was prosecuted by hotshot U.S. Attorney Bobby O’Neill in rural Ocala, Florida, before an all-white jury.
“It was Crackerville,” Bernhoft said of the venue, “in the middle of Central Florida.”
I asked what Southern movie the court case resembled.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Bernhoft replied. “We were put up in the gated home of a black church family.”
Barnes agreed, as he nursed a whiskey sour. (“It’s a Tennessee drink,” Barnes explained. “I’m from Chattanooga.”)
He and Bernhoft had their work cut out for them from the beginning. For one thing, they’d shown up for voir dire only to find potential jurors gone when they arrived in court.
“We went from 134 prospective jurors to 83 without being told,” Barnes said. “The one gay man was dismissed by the judge because the man ‘had a cold.’ The judge deleted more than three blacks from the pool.”
While Bernhoft himself will not relocate to L.A., the consensus seems to be that his firm’s move from Malibu is a grownup decision.
“Century City is where the real people live,” a young woman affirmed. She was standing at a small buffet table loaded with platters of ham, prosciutto and cheeses but, oddly, no bread. The idea was to just eat the stuff off a plate.
“Yeah,” the woman agreed, “something carbie would’ve been good.”
Carbies would’ve helped, certainly, to absorb the liquor flowing that night. By now I’d moved to Jack Daniels neat — which, the bartender assured me, was his favorite. Don’t fall into the prosciutto, I kept reminding myself.
A while later Bernhoft was momentarily alone. He’d replaced the scotch with Pinot Noir, and his pinkie ring caught the light as he raised the stemware.
“I’m a snob when it comes to wine,” Bernhoft admitted. “The French do three things well and I won’t go into the first two.”
The Gatsby sky was a patch of dark, deep heaven crowded by high-rises. The two tax lawyers from Milwaukee seemed eerily anachronistic, with their Glenlivets, whiskey sours, pinkie rings and cigars. When the valet brought up Bernhoft’s car, I wouldn’t have been surprised had it been a Cadillac or Lincoln. Next year his firm will defend Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis against federal tax charges — time enough for the two Bobs to learn about carbies and for L.A. to see how well they drive in the fast lane.
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