Sammy Vs. Son Of Sam

THIS MUCH WE KNOW FOR SURE: Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano has got a very big mouth. In 1992 his testimony put his former boss, the mobster John Gotti, behind bars for life. Prosecutors would use his testimony to convict 37 mobsters in subsequent trials. More recently, Gravano turned up talking into author Peter Maas's tape recorder. The result was ""Underboss,'' Maas's best-selling look at Sammy's grisly career, including the 19 murders he committed. Gravano and Maas both insisted that the former mobster was not paid to cooperate with the author - that the book represented nothing more than a chance to portray himself sympathetically and justify his betrayal of Gotti. Then the New York state attorney general announced plans to bring a lawsuit against the author, the subject and the publisher, HarperCollins, accusing them of violating the state's Son of Sam law, which forbids felons to profit from their crimes. The denials only grew louder. ""I haven't committed any crime,'' Maas told NEWSWEEK in April. ""I have not forwarded a check or a penny in cash to Sammy Gravano.'' Which was not, as some cynics noted, quite the same as saying Gravano hadn't been paid.

There matters stood until two weeks ago, when Gravano took the stand in the murder-and-racketeering trial of Vincent (Chin) Gigante. Confronted with a series of documents subpoenaed from HarperCollins, Gravano admitted he'd been paid, and paid handsomely. He reluctantly testified that he and Maas had split an $850,000 advance, that he had collected $20,000 for family photos and a voice-over for a book commercial and that he will profit from the movie deal. Sammy's candor could prove costly. If the state attorney general has his way, Gravano won't get to keep a cent.

Secret deal: The only people truly taken by surprise by Gravano's revelation were his publishing partners, who spent an uneasy week scrambling to cover their tracks. Maas was ""salmon-fishing on some river,'' according to Michael Dowd, his lawyer, and couldn't be reached. Maas's agent, Sam Cohn of International Creative Management, claimed he was too busy to talk. HarperCollins said the overseas deal was ICM's idea. And Victor A. Kovner, a lawyer retained by ICM, credits Gravano's advisers for the idea. (Gravano's lawyer didn't return calls.)

Kovner, a First Amendment expert, told NEWSWEEK that the book deal hinged on two points. Gravano's lawyers, according to Kovner, ""did not want those who are angry with him to be able to trace, or to know about, his whereabouts.'' (Gravano is still under federal protection, although he left the Witness Protection Program a year ago because it cramped his style.) And they were also concerned about the Son of Sam law. To avoid New York state's jurisdiction, the book deal was made between HarperCollins's British arm and TJM, a corporation created by Maas. So who finally did pay Sammy? ""It would be hard for me to say who precisely paid who what,'' Kovner said. ""But it is my understanding that some moneys went from an entity in which Mr. Maas had an interest to an entity that was created at Mr. Gravano's instance and request.'' Kovner believes that Maas dissembled to the press chiefly out of concern for Gravano's safety. Maas, he says, is committed to keeping ""information about this confidential so Mr. Gravano's whereabouts and safety are not threatened by the publication of this book.''

Kovner is convinced that the rarely invoked Son of Sam law will be ruled unconstitutional as soon as it can be tested in court. (An earlier version of New York's law, passed in 1977 after David Berkowitz, the so-called Son of Sam serial killer, was offered money for his version of the story, was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991.) He is also convinced that structuring the Maas-Gravano transactions outside the United States was presently legal.

Before it can proceed with its lawsuit, the state of New York will have to serve a subpoena on Sammy Gravano, and to do that it has to find him. When an attempt was made to serve the subpoena during his appearance at the Gigante trial, the judge refused to permit it. And after his testimony, of course, Gravano disappeared again back into hiding. Which leaves the state attorney general, Dennis Vacco, fuming. ""I think it's time for the federal government to step up to the plate and help us serve Sammy Gravano,'' he says. There's one thing for certain, in a story where the surprises never stop: you can be sure this one isn't over.