Capes, who graduated in 1971 from the University of Arkansas School of Law, worked for Fulbright until the senator lost a primary election in 1974. He had an early inkling of the importance of the Pentagon Papers, which Fulbright’s office declined to publish before they ultimately were leaked to The New York Times.
Capes got an LL.M. in taxation from Georgetown University and began a five-year career with the Department of Justice, working first as an attorney-advisor to the assistant attorney general and then as a federal prosecutor in the DOJ’s Criminal Tax Section. It gave him a front-row seat to the Watergate scandal.
“It was a little bit like today, with subpoenas flying all over the place,” Capes said.
His prosecutorial work took him to Oklahoma in a criminal tax case against the Phillips Petroleum Company (an offshoot of the Watergate investigation) that culminated in a plea agreement. Capes considered returning to Washington. But his wife was from St. Louis, and he ultimately decided to finish out his federal career with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri, where they could raise a family in the Midwest.
His background and interest in tax law lent itself to investigating white-collar crime — a timely career choice as old-fashioned heists gave way to complex financial frauds.
“When I first came here, everybody wanted to do bank robberies,” he said. “I wanted to do white-collar work.”
In 1980, Capes went into the private sector, joining the venerable tax-law firm of Rosenblum Goldenhersh in St. Louis. It was his law-firm home for 20 years, and Capes said he “learned everything” from the firm’s co-founder, Stanley Rosenblum. Then in 2001, Capes and several other lawyers struck out on their own, forming Capes, Sokol, Goodman & Sarachan.
Capes’ pre-eminence in tax and white-collar criminal matters grew out of his formative years. Knowing how Congress wrote the laws that now were being turned against his clients and how the Justice Department made use of them, Capes knew how to spot prosecutorial overreach.
“I think I’ve always been lucky to have some history on my side,” he said.
When he was 40, Capes suffered an aneurysm, a terrifying experience that ultimately validated his career decisions.
“I was on a table, and I was looking up wondering if a poster on the wall was the last thing I was going to see,” he said. But as family and colleagues helped him to successfully recover, he said he knew that relationships with people you value are more important than being at the center of events.
Capes, now 72, said he’s been “trying to spread the joy, you might say,” ever since.
“Which I think you have to do in law because you’re dealing with such difficult problems for people,” he said.