Goodfella

Playing a high-rolling mobster, Norm Berger was a convincing undercover agent for the IRS and FBI. Then the government accused him of pocketing some of the proceeds. As Norm would say, "Ya gonna love this one."

"That's me and Gotti...Not that Gotti. Gene Gotti. John's brother," says Norm Berger, pointing to one picture on the Las Vegas-Atlantic City wall of fame he's nailed up in his spare, one-bedroom apartment in Far North Dallas. Next to the man he identifies as Gotti, who looks every bit the Gambino crime family underboss in his two-toned amber shades, is John Sacco, a 300-pound figure in the Buffalo mob underworld.

"John and I really hit it off," says Berger, whose smoke-stained Philly accent makes him sound as if he's proposing a toast at a Mafia wedding. "He was a good friend."

Along the rest of the wall are glossy shots of Norm with various casino entertainers -- Cher, Jackie Mason, Bette Midler -- or long-ago boxing champs like Jake LaMotta and Jersey Joe Walcott, or pool player Willie Mosconi. The 8-by-10 glossies date to the '80s and early '90s, and Berger was a lot heavier then. He's the big guy in the gray suit, with the Kent smoldering in his right hand.

Mark Graham
Guy wise: In his high-rolling days, Norm Berger called anything less than $1,000 "peanut money." Now, he says, he has his phone in the name "Berger Norman" to save the $2-a-month fee for an unlisted number.
Mark Graham
Guy wise: In his high-rolling days, Norm Berger called anything less than $1,000 "peanut money." Now, he says, he has his phone in the name "Berger Norman" to save the $2-a-month fee for an unlisted number.
Steppin' out: Berger, left, with some pals in Atlantic City. "We never could determine if he really did know mob guys," says attorney Charles Blau. "But he kept some rough company."
Steppin' out: Berger, left, with some pals in Atlantic City. "We never could determine if he really did know mob guys," says attorney Charles Blau. "But he kept some rough company."
In his high-rolling days, Norm was a VIP-desk-regular at this Atlantic City hotel. The government says it was the scene of the crimes -- the targets' and Norm's.
In his high-rolling days, Norm was a VIP-desk-regular at this Atlantic City hotel. The government says it was the scene of the crimes -- the targets' and Norm's.
Berger with gal pal Dolores Pomilio play ring-a-ding-ding at a Vegas casino. He gave her a diamond ring. When things fell apart, it turned out to be as fake as everything else.
Berger with gal pal Dolores Pomilio play ring-a-ding-ding at a Vegas casino. He gave her a diamond ring. When things fell apart, it turned out to be as fake as everything else.
Miracle worker: Defense attorney David Lewis won an acquittal for Berger despite what prosecutors says was a surfeit of credible, interlocking evidence.
Mark Graham
Miracle worker: Defense attorney David Lewis won an acquittal for Berger despite what prosecutors says was a surfeit of credible, interlocking evidence.

Those who know Berger tout his skills as a first-rate actor, a convincing liar, a man of several eccentric talents, including the ability to pass himself off as a mob-connected man-about-Vegas. "First of all, I talk like a mobster," he says, his diction all soft d's and very few r's. But it's a certain sensibility -- rude and crude, yet funny and relaxed and worldly-wise -- that makes it convincing. It's the way he acts when, one recent afternoon, a woman in heavy makeup, with hair the color of black polyester and slot-machine eyes, lets herself into Norm's apartment while he's holding court at the table in his tiny dining alcove. "I'm busy here," he tells her gruffly. After she backs out the door, Norm turns and says wearily: "That broad drives me nuts. She thinks she's in love with me. I'm 70 fucking years old. I tell ya. I don't need that." I-don-need-dat.

Then he launches into another subchapter of his long and weird tale. It winds through his undercover salad days in the '80s, then the big case in '91 in which he helps bring down a Ponzi scheme into which unknowing investors pumped $100 million, maybe more. Then, how the same federal agents for whom he's working accuse him of scamming more than $100,000 in undercover proceeds, the resulting 47-count federal indictment for embezzlement and fraud, the 1995 trial, and the acquittal. All followed by his attempt -- the consuming center of his present existence -- to get someone to believe his impossible-to-believe story about how two government agents, several close friends, and other assorted parties conspired to set him up.

Although Norm would disagree, this last matter isn't what's so interesting about Norman B. Berger. What's harder to ignore is how a man who spent most of his life as a dressmaker and mild-mannered husband, a maker of finely detailed balsa-wood model airplanes, could convince some shrewd and dangerous Dallas criminals that he was a bloody-minded mobster who could launder millions of dollars with the help of certain associates in Jersey.

"It's more than acting," says former IRS criminal investigator Mack Garvin, for whom Berger worked on two cases. "He had connections back East, and he was able to hook up and get people to help him with his appearance, to be who he said he was, to look real. The average domestic Joe Blow couldn't do that."

Indeed, Berger had a genuine casino lifestyle and was at least drinking buddies with some real made men. In just six months while he was working for the government, he made 17 trips to Atlantic City and deposited more than $360,000 at the cashier's cage at the TropWorld, a pile of glass cubes along the boardwalk where Norm usually would check in at the VIP counter and be "comped" a $200-a-night suite. "Two bedrooms and a Jacuzzi in the living room," as Norm would describe it. One IRS agent who supervised Berger recalls his winning or losing "my annual salary" at the craps tables in a matter of hours.

Looking back on Berger's undercover career -- which in its last Texas phase included duping a Plano bookmaker, a drug dealer from Melissa, and a ring of Ponzi schemers from Irving -- even prosecutors who wanted to see him spend the rest of his life in a federal pen are a bit awed by what he accomplished. "I had the opportunity to watch him on videotape and audiotape, and he gave every impression of being in the mob. He was very effective that way. He had a real bent for that kind of talk and mannerism," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Webster, who heads the Dallas office's criminal division. Berger's reward for his last case, $50,000, remains one of the biggest informant fees Webster can recall being paid for such work.

A man with a flair for the dramatic and the quick-buck deal, Berger was convincing enough to fool Texans he was "mobbed up," but says he never got involved with investigating true Mafiosi. "Those guys didn't care what I was doing, as long as it didn't involve them," he says.

"Norm's an interesting character," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Jarrett, who led the prosecution of Berger for allegedly ripping off the government. "The case I tried against him, and the whole circumstances around it, these were some of the wildest things I've ever seen up here. It was a crazy case."

Indeed, Berger's story of deception and double-crossing, hookers and mob molls, faux wiseguys and sacks of cash make up a crazy story, one untold until now. But as one comes to learn, Norm studied the art of fixing dice and stacked decks from a couple of Philly guys with movie-character names like "The Donkey" and "Coco Joe." With this guy, nothing is quite as it appears.


Norm and his second wife, Kathleen, arrived in Dallas in 1980, moving from Cleveland, and a decade before, Philadelphia. They had sold a small business in northeast Ohio, a company that made balsa-wood model airplanes, exacting replicas of World War II fighters and the like, some so detailed that they ended up being used in movie and TV productions, including Baa Baa Black Sheep, a late-'70s series about a fighter squadron. Norm moved to Texas to get back into the clothing business, his lifelong career. "I was working for this company, designing a line of raincoats," he says. "It was a good job. I got bonuses and commissions -- the whole bit."

The Bergers bought a middle-class tract house in Plano and went about life in a most domestic fashion. "As far as I know, Norm went to his job. He liked to gamble a little, but there was nothing out of the ordinary in his life," recalls Kathleen Berger, who was married to Norm for 24 years. "He put in linoleum and planted flowers in the beds and painted and wallpapered and decorated the house...Then the government arrived."

Kathleen Berger says a big change came over her husband in 1984, after the birth of their son. "There started all this rough language on the phone, door-slamming, and loud, scary conversations. He was scary. I didn't realize it was an act, because he didn't tell me it was an act," she says.

Unknown to Berger's wife, but confirmed in a memo from the head of the IRS criminal-investigation division in Dallas, Berger had become a "numbered informant," CI 7585, assigned to the case of Winford J. Brown, an alleged bookmaker. In all investigators' notes and other IRS files, Berger is referred to only by his number, which is used to maintain secrecy and confidentiality.

Berger had been introduced to the IRS by an FBI agent he had known for many years, and he was happy to get into the action as the bookmaker's partner, becoming more than just a dime-dropping provider of information. Berger says he played similar roles in some long-ago investigations in Cleveland and Philadelphia, although those earlier activities could not be confirmed and Berger offers few details.

Just like the sworn undercover agents working for the agency full-time, Berger assumed a role and developed an ongoing relationship with his marks, his "targets" in fedspeak. Through a card game with the bookmaker, Norm met Kenneth C. Strickland, who eventually was indicted in absentia on major drug dealing and tax-evasion charges. Strickland happened to live next door to Norm's bookmaking partner in rural Melissa, north of McKinney, and when Strickland paid off a poker debt with $18,000 in cash bundles tied at the ends with rubber bands, Norm correctly concluded he was in the drug business. Before long, he had Strickland convinced he could help him launder more than $100,000 a week by opening up a bogus check-cashing business, buying checks in bulk from a friend in a for-real check-cashing company, and cashing the real checks.

Berger learned a few fundamentals about money scams, as well as gambling and other vices, growing up in Boston. His gang of would-be Jewish toughs, the Pharaohs, used to play craps under the streetlights, he recalls. One old pal, Burton "Chico" Krantz, became a notorious Boston bookmaker who ended up as a key government witness against leaders of the mob in New England to whom he was forced to pay "rent," or protection money. Berger got a bit more of his education from people he met in Philadelphia, where he went to work in the '50s as a reserve police officer and later a patternmaker in the clothing business. Around his 60th Street neighborhood he ran into various loan sharks, gamblers, and mobsters and learned some of the tricks of cheating at cards -- "card mechanics."

Kathleen Berger says Norm learned a lot about mobsters the same way everyone else does -- at the movies. "Let's just say he watched Goodfellas more than once," she says, referring to Martin Scorsese's raw 1990 look at a young man growing up in La Cosa Nostra. When Norm explains how mobsters don't talk so openly about whacking the competition, one has a vague recollection of having heard it somewhere before. "Mob people don't threaten directly. They say, 'It's out of my hands,' which means that's the end of that." Dat's the enna dat. And when Norm uses "fuck" six times in a sentence, he sounds as if he's been taking vocabulary lessons from Joe Pesci.

Norm, who has no love for his former employers, says the government nearly got him killed in Las Vegas during the Strickland drug probe -- and this was hardly acting.

Dressed in striped pajamas and sitting at his wobbly glass-topped dining table -- his pale skin, white hair, and white chin stubble all melting into a ghostly chowder -- Norm tells the story like this: "We're in Vegas at this one blackjack table, and it's me, these three drug dealers, and Greg [not his real name], this undercover IRS agent. He's wearing a Nagra, a wire, and we're down there talking about the deal. These guys are betting $5,000 a hand. All of a sudden, Greg gets up and says, 'I gotta go.' He leaves his jacket there with the recorder in it. I mean, what the fuck...I'm scared shitless. So I turn to these guys and say, 'That fucking Greg. Drinking again. I'll see you guys in a little while.' I take his jacket and I finally find Greg. He's back up in the room getting a head job from a hooker, snorting some of the cocaine that we're supposed to have tested."

IRS documents show Berger was paid $5,000 plus expenses for his work on the Strickland case, but he says there was more to it. There was side action. "I was allowed to keep my commissions," he says -- meaning the 10 percent fee he charged his targets while posing as a money-laundering hood. As irregular and unlawful as that would have been -- he would have become a true part of the criminal conspiracy he was investigating -- the amount of these "fees" was substantial. By his own sworn account, in his next operation he kept $28,000 from a single money-laundering transaction and gambled it away in an Atlantic City casino.


Given the way things ended up, Berger might have had commissions in mind when he hooked up with the "peso case," the government's undercover probe of a scam in the late '80s and early '90s that launched at least three generations of criminal cases and resulted in several convictions.

Masterminded by Tulsa con man Robert Leslie Johnson, the scam's Dallas link was William Wayne Gray, then a 43-year-old white-collar type from Grapevine. From his investment office in Las Colinas, Gray promised investors amazing returns -- 12 percent weekly -- in a scheme involving the trading of pesos bought at a discount. In reality, agents later testified, it was a straight Ponzi scheme in which money from new investors was used to pay off previous investors. There were no peso trades.

It is unclear just who contacted whom -- whether Berger went to the government first, or whether the government came to him. Webster, the prosecutor, says the IRS initiated Berger's involvement -- that he was acting from the very start.

Berger says he went to the feds after he invested some of his own money and immediately pulled it out for a quick profit. Then one of his associates in the clothing trade invested but didn't get a return, and Berger, playing the mobster, stepped in to retrieve the money. His initial target was Barry Lekavich, a broker who happened to have an office across the hall from Gray's, and who, perhaps seeing all the action at Gray's, jumped into business with him.

"I call this guy Lekavich and say I happen to be friends with these investors. I say, 'Look, don't bullshit me. There's no way this isn't a scam,'" Norm recalls. "'I want their money back tomorrow, and if you don't give it back, well, it's out of my hands.'"

Through Lekavich, Berger met Gray, who at the time had a pressing problem. Local authorities, pursuing a charge that Gray had violated state securities laws, had raided Gray's office, seized his bank accounts, and confiscated his cash assets, including $827,000 in small bills stuffed in a duffel bag in a closet at Gray's house.

Gray, however, had more than a million in uncashed cashier's checks and money orders, and he needed a way to cash them. Enter Berger, who came highly recommended by Lekavich after Berger took him on a trip to Atlantic City, cashed his checks, gambled with him, and, some government reports allege, set him up with a hooker. As Gray testified, Lekavich told him, "This guy is the greatest guy. You're not going to believe what he can do for you in Atlantic City...He can do all this stuff with your money."

Berger agreed with agents from the IRS criminal-investigation division and U.S. Customs to work the case -- with the aim of recovering what was thought to be tens of millions of missing investors' funds and making a federal case against Gray and his associates. "I can't tell you how many doctors, attorneys, judges, rich people fell for this deal," says Berger of the peso scam.

Berger arranged to meet Gray at the Denton airport for a meeting held in a private jet Berger had borrowed from a friend -- an impressive setting for a guy who boasted he could launder nearly any amount of money by sending it abroad and bringing it back through various companies, accounts, and loan arrangements.

The first step in the developing plan was to deposit the funds to be laundered in a government-controlled account at a bank in Voorhees, New Jersey, about 90 miles north of Atlantic City. Berger, through his many gambling trips, was acquainted with the bank's chairman, and he introduced Gray personally. The account was opened in Berger's name because, as Gray explained, he wanted no paper trail leading to him.

In two trips to New Jersey with Gray, nearly $800,000 worth of investors' money -- in cashier's checks and money orders averaging about $10,000 each -- was deposited in the Berger account. In one trip with Lekavich, more than $100,000 of investors' money was deposited in a series of transactions for which Berger was paid $28,000 as his laundering fee.

Gray and his associates had been unsuccessful in cashing the checks in London. But after Berger managed to cash the checks in New Jersey, they were satisfied with his services. Berger, meanwhile, regaled his new pals with stories about guys getting "whacked" or having their knees broken or their faces doused in battery acid. "Usually people wouldn't ask who you knew," says Berger. "But they'd see me with these guys, and they figured these were my friends."

Between trips to the New Jersey bank, Berger and his targets gambled and dined and generally behaved like wealthy men-about-town. Gray would later tell federal investigators that Berger furnished him and his lawyer with prostitutes at the TropWorld, where Berger had arranged for a set of suites. Norm had joked on the ride in from the airport about a "seven-foot-tall prostitute," and women who had already been paid arrived at their rooms that night. The next day, Berger asked him, "How was your night?"

Meanwhile, Norm did a fine job of keeping up appearances, introducing his targets to guys with names like Joey C, hugging guys in Mafia-style greetings, and gambling at the high-dollar tables. Lekavich, who later pleaded guilty to federal charges in the peso-scam case, told federal agents the "IRS must have deep pockets," because he saw Berger lose more than $20,000 one night and $50,000 another night. IRS Special Agent Bonnie Vannett, who was one of two agents supervising Norm on the trips, said she watched him gamble more than her annual salary on a single night at the TropWorld. Norm's gambling funds were not provided by the government, she said. He appeared to have his own sources.

Berger was separated at the time from his wife in Texas, and in addition to maintaining a modest apartment in Dallas he had rented an apartment on the New Jersey shore with a 50-year-old widow named Dolores Pomilio. She introduced herself to Gray as a former girlfriend of Nicky Scarfo, the swaggering, violence-prone Philadelphia mob boss who was jailed in 1988.

It was an act, but she looked the part. "Dolores Pomilio dresses with her skirt up to her knish, half her tits sticking out. She prances -- she doesn't walk," Norm says, adding that Pomilio was interested in him because "she needed a lollipop." Not that Norm did anything to discourage her from thinking he was actually wealthy. One time he took her to Florida and went house shopping in Fort Lauderdale's Bermuda Riviera section. Berger told the real estate agent he was considering purchasing one house they had looked at, which was listed at $700,000. He said he would be paying cash.

"I was supposed to be going with Norm," Pomilio told a private investigator later. "In fact, he gave me a ring." After Norm went back to his wife, Pomilio thought of selling the ring and had it appraised. "It wasn't even a diamond," she said. "It was CZ [cubic zirconia, a fake diamond]...I thought, 'That son of a bitch!'"

Norm says these days that it was all an act, that Pomilio was not even his girlfriend. "I met her at the Top of the Trop," he says, referring to a club at the hotel where he usually stayed. "I think I banged her that night. But that was it."

After the Atlantic City trips, the IRS phased Berger out of the investigation and replaced him with an undercover IRS agent actually in the government's employ. Berger told Gray he was being promoted to "capo" and would be busy with other mob matters. "Norm worked best making the introductions," says Webster. "He was in his eyes the star government witness, when he was in fact the introduction. His bravado...was important, but most of the subsequent transactions took place once the IRS agent took over."

By that, Webster meant another series of bank transactions -- taking the money from Atlantic City, depositing it in a fake business account in Reunion Bank in Dallas, then running it through a bank account in Toronto that happened to be operated by the Canadian Mounties. In all the shuffling, the government let most of the money from the cashed checks flow back to Gray. It was never recovered.

Gray and his wife spent lavishly on cars, houses, and things such as "$4,000 lunches at Cabaret Royale. There was ostentatious wealth, lots of traveling," recalls Webster. In all, the government recovered about $3.3 million in investors' funds, Webster says, and the yearlong undercover operation yielded a well-documented case against Gray, his wife, and several associates. They were charged with conspiracy, money laundering, and wire fraud. Gray was convicted of 27 counts and sentenced in October 1991 to 12 years in prison. Marty Weisberg, a New York attorney who worked with Gray, was acquitted.


Had Gray and his attorney not mounted a vigorous defense, Norm's alleged shenanigans -- his purported scam against the scammers -- never would have come to light. "They had private investigators running around Atlantic City, checking out everything they could about Norm and his friends," Webster recalls.

Defense attorney Charles Blau was the first to mention some checks missing from the two packets of checks and money orders Gray and Berger were supposed to have deposited in the account in Jersey.

Blau's client, Weisberg, had been on one of the Atlantic City trips. "Gray was completely sucked in by Berger," says Blau. "My client didn't know what to make of him. Here was this guy who claimed to be a mobster whose girlfriend used to go out with Don Corleone."

According to the IRS internal-affairs investigative report prepared in Berger's case, Blau first alleged that IRS agents had procured the prostitutes in Atlantic City. As an IRS internal-affairs agent got to work investigating that charge, the issue of about $70,000 in missing checks also arose.

Berger, who had handled nearly all the peso investors' checks in Atlantic City, had told IRS agents that Weisberg had taken the checks. He testified under oath at Gray's trial that he thought Gray had given the checks to Weisberg -- a scenario both men denied.

Dennis Wilson, the IRS internal-affairs investigator assigned to the case, began an exhaustive investigation into the checks. He followed bank records, tracked checks back to scammed investors, and questioned a long list of Berger's associates in Atlantic City. Nearly three years later, he emerged with evidence of an interconnected set of transactions in which Berger is alleged to have stolen 38 checks worth about $123,000 -- right out from under the noses of Gray and the IRS agents with whom he was working. Berger, he reported, then either used the checks as the basis for high-interest, short-term loans to several Atlantic City acquaintances or gave them directly to his girlfriend Pomilio to cash for him. All this happened in the weeks and months following Gray's trips to the coast.

"They accused me of loan-sharking," says Berger, who denies any wrongdoing.

Here's how one of the transactions worked, according to Wilson's interviews with Berger's Atlantic City chums: Joe Galanti, an old friend of Berger's who owned a motel in Ventnor, New Jersey, said Berger gave him two of the investors' cashier's checks -- one for $20,000, which bounced, and another for $24,000, which cleared. Galanti says he wrote a check to Berger's girlfriend -- on Berger's instructions -- for $4,000 and loaned the other $20,000 to a man named Edward Griffith. Griffith told the IRS investigator that he had asked Galanti for a loan and that Galanti obliged by lending him Berger's money. To pay back the loan, Griffith wrote Berger 22 checks for $1,000 each, meaning Berger received 10 percent in interest for the five-month loan. The principal, of course, was money Berger allegedly had just stolen from the targets of the IRS investigation.

Gray, too, says he received a Berger gambling loan in Atlantic City, paying back $20,000 for borrowing $15,000.

In the largest of the transactions, Pomilio says, Berger asked her to cash a batch of 33 checks and money orders for him. He told her he needed her help because he didn't have an account at a New Jersey bank. Bank records show that the money orders were deposited in Pomilio's account and that she withdrew the money in cash.

Yet another Berger associate, Marty Mazurek, a friend from the clothing business, told investigators Berger agreed to lend him $20,000 so he could complete work on a swimming pool at his house. Berger is alleged to have given him one of the peso investors' checks, but a stop-payment order had been placed on it, so the loan was never made.

The agents watching Berger never picked up on all these transactions, and there are several explanations why. For one, Berger refused to wear a concealed microphone or recording device in Atlantic City. He had told agents that if one of his mob friends were to come along and hug him, it could get dangerous.

Beyond that, only two agents had the job of watching Berger and several targets. "I'll be the first to say that investigation was a little fast and loose," says Webster, the prosecutor. "The Ponzi scheme was working fast and hard, and there weren't enough people on this case. Norm was without sufficient supervision, and the agents weren't in a position to account for every check."

"He [Norm] was running the case, flat out," alleges Blau, the Dallas defense attorney who worked for 20 years as a federal prosecutor. "We traced a couple of the missing checks, and it turned out these people who cashed them were Norm's bosom acquaintances. The government didn't know anything about them until we brought it up."

The checks formed the heart of an indictment handed up against Berger in 1994 alleging 47 counts of embezzlement and fraud -- a case that went to trial in the summer of 1995 and could have put Berger in prison for the rest of his life. "They wanted me bad," says Norm.

David Lewis, Berger's attorney, says he developed three different defenses and used them all at Berger's trial. First, he argued that Norm was under such close scrutiny that the IRS agents watching him knew what he was doing. Second, he argued that government rules permitted "churning" of investigative proceeds. Nearly all the money Norm might have received was quickly lost at the gambling tables, and as part of his undercover persona, Berger needed to pose as a high roller.

His third defense was more complicated, but seemed to be the one that worked. The government's case relied ultimately on the testimony of Norm's cronies and former girlfriend because no bank records tied Norm directly to the stolen funds. The loans and check-cashing favors put Norm one step away from the money. So Lewis went after the chief government witnesses, Galanti and Pomilio, who turned out to be easy targets to discredit.

"When she [Pomilio] took the stand, she looked like she was married to the mob," says Lewis, who attacked Pomilio's assertion that she gave the money to Norm after she cashed the investors' checks. "We had records of her spending thousands of dollars on clothes and a trip to Europe...Meanwhile, Norm is living in a tiny apartment, driving this tiny old car. Where was all the money?" Lewis says. Galanti testified "just as a mobster would," Lewis recalls. "He was going to give just enough to make the government happy, but he'd go...'Maybe it was like that.' and 'If you say so.' It was clear he didn't want to hurt Norm."

Berger had fashioned his own elaborate explanations for how Gray's checks got into the accounts of his friends, but Lewis decided not to put that material before the jury. "I pretty much got in everything I wanted through [the prosecution's] witnesses," says Lewis, who portrayed his client as a man who risked his own life to help the government bring down a huge investment scam.

After four hours of deliberation, the jury apparently liked that view of Norm. It acquitted him on all counts.

"The judge left the courtroom cradling his head in disbelief," recalls Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Jarrett, who lost the case. "I remember we didn't have the best witnesses that we might have, but they testified truthfully. I felt wholeheartedly then and I still believe Norm committed violations of federal law. He was guilty then, and he's guilty now."

Although Berger was clear of the federal case, it's never wise to mess with the IRS. The agency audited Berger's personal finances and went after him for tax evasion -- including such things as nonpayment of taxes on the $28,000 he said he made "laundering" money for the peso crooks. IRS accountants accused Berger of underestimating his income by $135,685 in 1989 and by $75,515 in 1988, resulting in underpayment of $52,300 in income taxes. Norm declared bankruptcy, his wife left him for good, and a federal tax lien was levied against the couple's Plano house. Kathleen Berger, who still lives there, say the lien amounts to about $16,000.


After such an ordeal, most people would have breathed a sigh of relief, let go, and moved on. Norm Berger is not one of them.

He is as conversant today with these fading events as he was five years ago. Over the years he has hauled his box of smoke-saturated, coffee-stained documents to various reporters, spinning tales of IRS agents on the take and government agents having affairs, stories for which he has no proof other than his own word.

"Norm is a persistent man," says Lewis, the attorney.

Berger, who lives now on Social Security and the occasional job installing wood floors, and whose small apartment is littered with balsa-wood airplane parts, says he is motivated by the desire to clear his name. Not that his name was ever sullied in any public way. Few of the events he was connected with were ever publicized, before or after his trial.

"There's no doubt he felt betrayed," says Blau, who says he still talks with Berger from time to time. "He felt betrayed by the agents he was working with. He felt they led him into a series of traps and it was their fault the way things turned out. He had worked hard for them as an informant, and they repaid him by prosecuting him."

Over the past several years, four different agents with the IRS internal-affairs department have told Berger or his attorney that they have been looking into his allegations, but Webster and other attorneys say the statute of limitations on such matters has long passed. "Agents got commendations for their work on the peso case," says Webster. "Not a single person's career has been affected by what Norm has had to say."

One government employee, who asked not to be identified, says Berger spent years calling prosecutors from U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins on down in an attempt to get someone to take his accusations seriously. "He called investigators and people in the U.S. Attorney's Office ranting and raving about his case. It got to the point where people wouldn't tolerate him. He got scary. People swallowed a tremendous amount of Berger's shit, and finally they stopped taking his calls. He spun out over this case."

Berger's ex-wife, with whom he is still friendly on and off, says she believes he is stuck in that chapter of his life because he enjoyed it so much. "He had a nice, normal home and family. I was vice president of the PTA...Norm wanted to run around like a gangster. That sort of thing would be an embarrassment to me, but that's what he liked," she says.

Her ex-husband had been a lifelong gambler, but once he got a taste of the high-rolling, $200-a-night-suite life, he became addicted to it, she says. Same with the gangster act he adopted in his undercover role. "He took on this persona for the government," she says. "And it consumed him."

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