Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reputed Mob Lawyer Sam Banks Succumbs to Cancer

Whether he was prosecuting comic Lenny Bruce on obscenity charges, defending a client, or fending off talk that he was a mob mouthpiece, lawyer Samuel V.P. Banks was a bulldog in the courtroom.

"Sam" Banks, who questioned witnesses with the force and cadence of a jackhammer, died of cancer Saturday at age 73 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

He was a member of one of Chicago's most politically connected families. His brother, former Ald. William J.P. Banks (36th), headed the City Council zoning committee until he retired last year; his son, James, is a zoning lawyer; his brother, Ronald J.P. Banks, was a judge, and his daughter, Karen, married state Rep. John A. Fritchey (D-Chicago).

Some of the city's most colorful federal probes -- and characters -- were braided through Mr. Banks' career.

Ronald Banks said his brother believed everyone deserved a strong defense. "He was good," Ronald Banks said. "He was not afraid to try any case. He believed you're innocent till proven guilty."

Sam Banks represented 1st Ward Ald. Fred Roti in 1989 after "Operation Kaffeeklatsch" broke wide open when a busboy found hidden recording equipment at a favorite pols' haunt: the old Counsellor's Row restaurant. Roti was a "made member" of the mob, according to the FBI.

In the 1991 "Gambat" probe of 1st Ward corruption, Mr. Banks defended Pasquale "Pat" Frank De Leo against charges he bribed Judge David J. Shields to fix a case.

At the 2007 "Family Secrets" trial of mobster Joey "The Clown" Lombardo, a former burglar testified he believed he'd passed bribes to police through Sam Banks. But the man admitted he never saw money change hands.

In 1989 at the Operation Greylord trial, former mob gambling boss Ken Eto -- who entered protective custody after a botched "hit"--linked Mr. Banks to a ticket-fixing scheme.

Mr. Banks was never charged with any wrongdoing.

"Sam used to say 'I take 'em as I find 'em," his brother Ronald said. "Insinuations, they do it all the time."

Mr. Banks loved the chess game of a trial, and never stooped to anything untoward because of his courtroom skill, his brother said. "Sam had too much dignity and class for that -- he was a talented man."

He grew up in the Austin neighborhood and graduated from Austin High and Loyola University. He worked his way through school as an investigator for what was then the city Welfare Department. His specialty was tracking deadbeat dads.

"One time, they knocked on a door and said they were with the Department of Welfare," his brother said. "Four bullet holes went through the door."

Mr. Banks had to call police to arrest the man inside.

Mr. Banks received his law degree from DePaul University, where he impressed Dan Ward, who was dean of DePaul's law school before becoming chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

When Mr. Ward became Cook County state's attorney, he asked Sam Banks to join him.

Mr. Banks successfully prosecuted comic Lenny Bruce on allegations of obscenity in his act at the Gate of Horn nightclub in 1963.

He was proud that he was Mr. Ward's protege, said retired defense attorney Patrick Tuite, who was sworn in as a prosecutor on the same day as Mr. Banks. "Some assistant or secretary was giving him some guff," Mr. Tuite recalled, "and he said, 'I didn't get this job through the Tribune want ads.' ''

"When I started out, he sent me a case and he gave me some encouragement and kind words," said defense attorney Terry Gillespie. "He was an aggressive, determined lawyer in the courtroom, but he had a compassionate side, especially with young lawyers."

To avoid anti-Italian bigotry, Mr. Banks' father, currency exchange owner Vincenzo Giuseppe Panebianco, anglicized his name to James Joseph and added "Banks" to their surname, said Ronald Banks. All his sons continue to use "P" or "Panebianco" in front of "Banks."

A resident of River Forest, Mr. Banks loved golfing at La Grange's Edgewood Valley Country Club and Riverside Golf Club.

He is also survived by his wife, Dorothy, his sister Marlene Panebianco, and two grandchildren. Visitation is from 3 to 9 p.m. today at Salerno's Galewood Chapels, 1857 N. Harlem. A funeral mass is scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. Giles Church, Oak Park. Burial is at Queen of Heaven Cemetery, Hillside.

Thanks to Maureen O'Donnell

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