First published in The Record, Feb. 23, 2018
The allegedly disgraced, decidedly deceased doppelganger of Richard Weiner
For a time, Richard Weiner had three things in common with Richard Weiner. Both men were attorneys. Both had offices in Hackensack, across the street from the county courthouse (and, as it happened, across Essex Street from each other).
Each man prided himself as a doer, a man who accomplishes big things. One Richard Weiner represented accident and burn victims, winning some of the biggest settlements in the history of New Jersey jurisprudence, including $23.5 million for the family of a Saddle River eye surgeon who was killed in an automobile crash.
The other Richard Weiner has spent three decades at the pinnacle of North Jersey’s legal establishment, specializing in family and business litigation while serving at various times as president of the Bergen County Bar Association and chairman of the association’s ethics committee.
And then there are the names. Who could forget the names? The two may share a moniker, but the subject of names is where the lives and reputations of these two very different Richard Weiners begins to radically diverge.
The Richard Weiner of the establishment — the one whose corner office windows face the county courthouse, the former member of the Wyckoff Recreation Advisory Board, president of the Wyckoff Free Public Library and an imposing fixture on the tennis courts of the Indian Trail Club — was born in 1959 with the middle initial “H,” for Harris.
“I’ve known him over 30 years,” said Peter Doyne, who was praised as the “Atticus Finch of Bergen County” when he retired from the bench in 2015. “I have always found him to be an honorable man.”
Richard Weiner the injury lawyer, meanwhile, was born in 1939 with the middle name Joel. In 2009, he paid $5,000 to settle a civil lawsuit alleging that he violated federal law by attempting to solicit victims of a plane crash before the mandatory 45-day waiting period had ended.
He also remains a named party in an explosive, long-running lawsuit in which the family of Frank P. Lagano, an alleged mobster who was murdered in 2007, maintains that Weiner, Lagano and Bergen County's former chief of detectives, Michael Mordaga, engaged in a “business arrangement” in which Lagano lent money to Weiner’s firm. The suit also alleges Weiner paid Mordaga more than $100,000 for “illegal” referrals to his firm on behalf of injury victims with cases potentially worth millions of dollars.
Crucially, the Richard Weiner with the alleged connections to organized crime is dead.
The Richard Weiner located at the physical and institutional heart of Bergen County’s legal community, on the other hand, remains quite happily alive.
“The Rich Weiner that I know has always been a man of tremendous integrity,” said Frank O’Marra, executive director of the county bar association. “He is not the bad Richard Weiner with all of these shenanigans.”
Despite these many differences, however, some people continue to get the two Richard Weiners mixed up. This confusion recurs every time this newspaper, the Star-Ledger or the New Jersey Law Journal publishes another story about the lawsuit that Lagano’s heirs filed against Mordaga and the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
The stories in The Record have identified the Weiner in question as Richard J., not Richard H. They have stated that he is deceased.
People read quickly, however. Perhaps that's why some continue to conflate Richard H. Weiner and his allegedly disgraced, decidedly deceased doppelganger.
Distinctions between Richard H. and Richard J., between the living and the dead, get lost.
“People often want to confuse me with him,” said Weiner — the living one, who is 59 — “and each time it appears in a publication, the level of concern is heightened.”
That level of concern is expressed through various means. Sometimes an acquaintance approaches Weiner at his tennis club or inside the courthouse to ask how he ever got mixed up with the Mafia.
Others ask his friends.
“When the stories about the bad Rich Weiner started appearing a few years ago, I got calls saying, “What the hell is going on?’ ” O’Marra said. “And I would say, ‘Wait a minute, you know Rich. You know this can’t be the Rich Weiner we know.' ”
Weiner’s wife is a personal trainer in Wyckoff and surrounding towns. His mother is 87, his aunt is 93, and both live in North Jersey. Every time a news story surfaces about the Lagano case, people who consider themselves longtime friends of the family approach the women closest to him and ask how Richard Weiner could have sunk so low.
“My mother and my wife are often confronted by people in the community raising questions about my credibility, my integrity and my appearance in these various publications," Weiner said, "which clearly denote a negative connotation with my name.”
At least those people have the guts to say something. How many others — fellow attorneys, perhaps, or even potential clients — harbor identical concerns about the interchangeable appellations but stay silent, depriving Weiner of the opportunity to clear his name (and win their business)?
“That’s what I worry about, the unknown,” Weiner said. “My concern was always: Who is not telling me, who is not confronting me, and who was not coming here as a client because they Googled my name?”
Whoever these people are, they certainly have never met both men. One Weiner, Richard H., stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 225 pounds. His dark brown hair is receding and graying at its fringes. He possesses the broad shoulders and powerful presence of a man who lifts weights six days a week.
The other, Richard J., who died in 2015, was short, red-headed and tubby.
“The other Rich Weiner was considerably shorter and older,” said Doyne, who watched both attorneys try cases in his court. “And fuller.”
Despite the physical differences between the two men, the confusion appears likely to continue. The Lagano case is still moving forward. As it does, news organizations, including this one, will continue trying to suss out whether there was ever a relationship among Lagano, rumored to have been a soldier in the Lucchese crime family, Mordaga and Richard J. Weiner.
That leaves Richard H. Weiner wondering what to do. His best guess is to try subverting the dead man online. Currently he is paying an expert in search engine optimization to promote the website of his firm, Aronson Weiner Salerno & Kaufman, to the top of Google searches, while demoting websites related to the other Richard Weiner.
The effort appears to be working. Type “Rich Weiner,” “Richard Weiner” and “Richard Weiner Hackensack” into Google, and the living Richard Weiner's website comes up first every time. One must scroll past entries for Richard Weiner the Czech journalist, Richard Weiner the Romanian theoretical physicist, and Richard Weiner the therapist in Rochelle Park before finding any mention of a certain deceased attorney.
Even a cursory investigation can confirm that none of these Richard Weiners is the Richard Weiner at the center of the Lagano case.
“I’m not related or affiliated, and I don’t even know who he is,” Richard Weiner, the therapist, said last week when reached by phone. “I just started practicing in Rochelle Park a few months ago.”