- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014


By Andrew Meacham,

c.2014 Tampa Bay [email protected]

ST. PETERSBURG — The trial of U.S. Rep. Richard Kelly over the 1980 Abscam scandal brought together two of the strongest personalities in Tampa Bay legal circles.

Kelly and his well-known lawyer, Anthony Battaglia, were old law school buddies, which gave Kelly, a former judge, all the more license to tell his old friend how to conduct his defense.

Fortunately for Kelly and hundreds of other clients, Mr. Battaglia was no pushover. The flamboyant attorney, who always prepared exhaustively for his cases, pushed back sufficiently to get Kelly acquitted. After an appeal, Kelly ended up with a one-year jail sentence.

But he was walking the streets while six co-defendants, all congressmen, were still serving time.

The case was one of dozens of high-profile defenses undertaken by Mr. Battaglia through the years, during which he developed a reputation as a lawyer deserving of his substantial fees.

A legal savior of accused murderers, shady developers and suspected racketeers, he died Monday of bronchiectasis , a thickening of the airways, his family said. He was 87.

“When Tony came into the courtroom you knew he was there,” said Joseph Donahey , a retired circuit judge. “You knew he was Tony Battaglia, and you knew you had better listen to him.”

He condensed the complexities of each case with the help of a thick black binder, tabulated by legal issue for quick reference. The larger the case, the more lawyers he assigned from his firm, which in the mid 1980s was the third-largest in St. Petersburg.

His law practice came first. “I give it priority over everything,” Mr. Battaglia said in 1986. “Over family, children, business — and my wife accepts that.”

Jean Battaglia, his wife since 1972, confirmed that statement. “We didn’t have much down time,” she said. “He took dictation and a briefcase everywhere we went. … We’d be at the beach, and he’d be sitting back under an umbrella, dictating.”

After that much preparation, Mr. Battaglia was not about to allow jurors to overlook him by showing up in cheap clothes. He aroused their interest with his father’s gold pocket watch, a diamond pinkie ring and a satin handkerchief tucked in the pocket of his double-breasted suits.

Clients included a Treasure Island city manager accused of burglary and rape; a local used car salesman accused of hiring a hit man to kill his wife’s lover; a time-share developer charged with defrauding investors out of millions; a Pasco County sheriff facing corruption charges; and the former head of the Bayway Isles-Point Brittany condominiums who netted $5.3 million in a check-writing scheme.

All were acquitted.

With his defense of Kelly in Abscam, on which the movie American Hustle was based, Mr. Battaglia had to walk a fine legal line. His client was sane but eccentric, enough to pocket stacks of cash in order to prove corruption against his co-conspirators. Kelly insisted he was not actually taking bribes from FBI agents posing as oil sheiks but conducting an investigation of his own.

“There were some fantastic stories about him having to deal with (Kelly),” said Clearwater lawyer Denis de Vlaming , who later would serve alongside Mr. Battaglia and F. Lee Bailey in the racketeering trial of the Rev. Henry Lyons. “Tony kept shaking his head, saying, ‘Judge, we can sell this (to the jury). We can’t sell that.’?”

In a recent interview with the Times, Mr. Battaglia believed there was a good chance Kelly, who died in 2005, actually believed he was conducting his own investigation.

Anthony Sylvester Battaglia was born in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1927. He entered the University of Florida at age 16 and later graduated from its law school.

After a stint at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he went into private practice. At age 28, Mr. Battaglia became the youngest elected member of the Republican National Committee for the state of Florida.

He cherished his Sicilian heritage, the opera, Sunday dinners and the Florida Gators. “He dedicated himself to work and family,” said Brian Battaglia, his son and a recent judicial candidate. “Those things were important to him.”

Mr. Battaglia never really stopped working. In the weeks before his death, he was planning to compile the opening and closing statements from a dozen of his most famous cases.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.


Anthony Sylvester ‘Tony’ Battaglia

Born: Aug. 21, 1927

Died: Sept. 15, 2014

Survivors: wife, Catherine Jean “Jeanie” Battaglia, sons Anthony “Skip” Battaglia Jr., Brian Battaglia and Marc Battaglia; daughters Sandra Hultgren, Brenda Battaglia and Christina Xenakis ; sister Doris DeRisio; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Funeral Mass: 2 p.m. Tuesday ; the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle; 5815 Fifth Ave. N.

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