Special Report: Organized Crime

  • "With the unions behind us, we could shut down the city, or the country for that matter, if we needed to, to get our way."

    -- Genovese soldier Vincent (Fish) Cafaro, in 1988 Senate testimony

    Peter (Blackheart) Savino, an associate of the Genovese crime family, was a man with a mission and a machine gun. As he drove down Scott Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was furious with PECO Corp., a window manufacturer. The company, which had ties to the Genovese family, had started to succumb to overtures by the smaller Lucchese clan. This was cutting Savino out of his kickbacks. So with the blessing of family higher-ups, Savino and a fellow gangster stormed the company's storage yard, pulled out their machine guns and blew to bits more than 200 windows that were sitting on an open truck. For PECO's owners, happy to still be breathing, it was a pointed lesson that so many businessmen have come to learn: you don't mess with the Genovese gang.

    That episode, which took place in November 1983, came to light because Savino later became a rare traitor in the Genovese ranks. In 1987 he wore a concealed microphone to help prosecutors build evidence for an indictment last May of Genovese boss Vincent (Chin) Gigante and other leading mobsters. The charge: controlling a labor union and rigging $143 million worth of contracts for windows in public housing since 1978. The Mob is not taking this act of betrayal lying down, but Savino may. Two weeks ago, a gasoline bomb was found on the seat of his wife's Pontiac Grand Prix in their Brooklyn driveway.

    These are difficult times for the 25 families, or "brugads," that make up America's Cosa Nostra (rough translation: our thing). During the 1980s, some 1,200 Mafia operatives were convicted, including the leaderships of New York City's five brugads and 11 smaller Italian gangs in cities ranging from Denver to Kansas City to New Orleans. The bloodletting has decimated two major New York City families (Colombo and Bonanno) and enabled Gambino family boss John Gotti, a flamboyant newcomer, to rise up overnight as America's leading media mobstar.

    Yet the underworld's most powerful force is the quieter and more sophisticated Genovese clan, with its entrenched army of more than 1,500 "made" members and associated underworld entrepreneurs. "You keep hearing all this crap about Gotti being the boss of the bosses," says Richard Ross, one of the FBI's leading Mafia experts, "but Genovese has always been the country's most powerful family." Says Joseph Coffey, a top investigator at the New York State Organized Crime Task Force: "The Genovese gang more or less invented labor racketeering. I consider them the Ivy League of the underworld."

    Organized crime is an estimated $100 billion-a-year untaxed business operated by groups ranging from motorcycle gangs to Asian drug triads. But the Italian Mafia is still the only group that has infiltrated hundreds of legitimate U.S. industries and labor unions. Despite the wave of new prosecutions, the Cosa Nostra -- and particularly the Genovese branch -- is showing few signs of abandoning these businesses, which today are far more lucrative than such traditional vices as gambling and loan-sharking. "In terms of the Genovese family, I'm afraid we haven't even made a dent," concedes investigator Coffey.

    A report that Coffey's unit recently prepared for New York City police commissioner Lee Brown describes the Genovese family as the "most stable," the "best counseled" and the most diversified business-crime group in the country. Leading the family's extortion list is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest U.S. labor union (1.7 million members). Mostly through unions, the family also has major clout in such trades as construction, food distribution, textiles and garbage hauling. The Genovese clan dominates the ports of New York, New Jersey and Miami, as well as America's biggest fish market.

    Many of these industries are vulnerable to racketeering because of their high labor costs. Payoffs to the Mob can assure businessmen of prompt deliveries, labor peace and the ability to use cheaper workers. Following indictments in June involving a painters' union, the Manhattan district attorney's office estimated that an average $15 million-a-year painting contractor saved $3.8 million in costs by paying gangsters. How? The payoff entitled the contractor to use low-wage painters without getting any flak from the mobbed-up union. But in the end, consumers often pay the price. Economists estimate that Cosa Nostra's penetration of industries in New York City alone costs citizens hundreds of millions of dollars annually from inflated prices for everything from fresh fish to new condominiums. The biggest beneficiary: the Genovese clan.

    In the entertainment industry, Mob watchers say it is difficult to book an act in Las Vegas or Atlantic City without the Genovese brugad getting its slice. Law-enforcement officials point to superagent Lee Salomon of the William Morris Agency as being linked to a top Genovese captain named James (Jimmy Nap) Napoli. In the late 1960s, at a time when the government was bugging the talent agency's Manhattan office, Salomon was arranging for Napoli's wife Jeanne, an unknown singer, to get star billing for her nightclub act.

    Since then, the agent has represented the likes of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Julio Iglesias, Tony Orlando and Jackie Mason. "The stars are victims more than co-conspirators," maintains a Mafia investigator. "In order to work, they have to cooperate." Salomon vehemently denies any Mob ties. Says he: "I'm the cleanest, purest person you'll ever meet in your life." Salomon admits knowing "Jimmy Nap" but wonders, "Doesn't everybody?"

    While the Genovese family is New York based, its influence has few geographical boundaries. Smaller crime families from Cleveland to Pittsburgh to New England answer to the Genovese gang in various ways. So did Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa of Detroit, who vanished without a trace in 1975 after pledging to boot his Mob sponsors out of the union. At the time, the family was emerging as a global trader of sorts, in one case allegedly trying to pass $950 million in counterfeit and stolen securities to the Vatican's bank in Rome. In a recent operation, the family shipped counterfeit watches, wallets and clothing from Hong Kong to Florida.

    Since 1981 the family has reputedly been run by Gigante, 62, who operates out of a seedy social club in Greenwich Village. Gigante is rarely seen in public without his trademark bathrobe and slippers, which he allegedly wears to feign mental illness and avoid prosecution. Despite such behavior, federal agents portray Gigante as the CEO of a conglomerate-like enterprise. He has been linked to activities as diverse as record-industry extortion, the improper sale of taxicab meters and the defrauding of a credit union.

    A point of keen speculation is whether Gigante talks business with his younger brother Louis, a cussing, cigar-chomping, Roman Catholic priest who is celebrated for overseeing the creation of 2,000 low-income housing units. That reputation has been tarnished by accusations that Father Gigante's nonprofit group doled out tens of millions of dollars in government housing grants to Genovese-tied subcontractors. The priest claims he had nothing to do with the selection of these companies. "I purposely stayed out of it," he says. But the priest does commend one contractor, a Genovese captain who is now imprisoned: "If you would talk to work forces in the South Bronx, you would also get a lot of praise for him."

    Even the currently troubled Donald Trump has allegedly paid his Genovese dues, perhaps unwittingly. Last month Trump took the stand in Manhattan's federal court to deny that he knowingly hired 200 illegal Polish aliens to demolish a building in Manhattan in 1980 to make way for his glittering Trump Tower. Members of Housewreckers Local 95, who also accuse their own president in the scheme, allege that Trump was able to avoid making payments that would now total $1 million (including interest) into the union's pension funds. % "You can bet there was a wise guy somewhere in the background," says an FBI specialist on the Genovese family. Says labor consultant Daniel Sullivan, an FBI source on the Mob who has testified in the case: "It's a classic Mob relationship. Trump or his people had to have a deal to get such a sweetheart contract."

    A Trump spokeswoman calls this speculation "preposterous." Maybe so, but Housewreckers Local 95 was identified in a 1987 government report as being controlled by the Genovese gang. In 1984 the union's three highest officials were convicted of racketeering in an unrelated case.

    The Genovese family's quiet, pervasive power is a long-standing tradition. After years of Mob warfare, the family's founding godfather, Charles (Lucky) Luciano, took charge of the entire underworld in 1931. He imposed a panel of bosses, the so-called Commission, that oversaw all the rackets in the U.S. Luciano was considered "first among equals," and few Mob ventures went forward in the 1930s without his approval -- and without his getting a piece of the action.

    Luciano drew vast power from his trusting relationships with such non- Italian criminals as Hollywood gangster Bugsy Siegel and moneyman Meyer Lansky, the founders of Las Vegas. Luciano's gang was years ahead of most Mob families in labor racketeering, with tentacles stretching from Detroit's car industry to Hollywood's stagehands' union to textile locals in New York City. His successors -- Frank Costello, the most prominent gangster of the 1940s, and Vito Genovese, whose name the family adopted -- consolidated the empire by taking a page from business-management textbooks: they decentralized control and gave senior members more decision-making authority.

    In later years, a key to the family's success has been its ability to shield its true leadership. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the family was secretly run by Philip (Cockeyed) Lombardo, also known as "Benny Squint." Lombardo held power until 1981 -- an astounding fact that until very recently was kept hidden from other Mob bosses, the FBI and even most Genovese members. Under Lombardo, who had a string of "bosses" fronting for him, the family expanded even further into labor unions. In 1987 he died of natural causes in Miami at 79. To date, unlike in most Mob families, not a single Genovese chief has been rubbed out.

    When Gigante took over in 1981, he chose comrade Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno as his front man. Like Lombardo, Gigante has an intense desire for secrecy. In / 1987 he ordered the death of John Gotti because he felt the publicity- conscious Gambino boss was bringing heat on the Mafia. The hit was canceled after the FBI was tipped off. "When we warned Gotti that Gigante had a contract out on him, he believed us," recalls FBI agent Ross. "This guy fears Chin." The bathrobe-clad Gigante has no patience for Gotti's $2,000 Brioni suits and fancy restaurant meals.

    The Genovese gang's penchant for privacy has permeated its corporate culture. "You'll catch Genovese guys driving Chevys instead of Cadillacs," says one G-man. They're also more careful about recruiting: two members must vouch for every rookie's trustworthiness with their own lives. Even so, Genovese members are much less trigger-happy than their brethren, perhaps owing to the gang's higher number of high school and even college graduates. "Most other families have the IQ of an ashtray," says investigator Coffey.

    The Genovese family has lost a dozen key men since 1986, thanks to tougher racketeering laws, stiffer sentences and a squeal of defectors. This would paralyze the average brugad, but Luciano's clan has always shown remarkable resilience. A prime example is the waterfront. Since the 1930s, the family has had a stranglehold on the 1,500 sq. mi. that constitute the New York-New Jersey harbor, largely through control of the International Longshoremen's Association. In the late 1970s the feds believed they finally loosened that grip through a probe called Operation UNIRAC (for union racketeering), which led to the convictions of more than 130 businessmen, union officials and mobsters.

    Yet UNIRAC was only a glancing blow. By 1985 even Gigante's own son Andrew was a union vice president on the docks. Thomas Gleason, president of the I.L.A. until 1987, is reputed to have been a virtual Genovese puppet. Today, at 89, he is paid $100,000 a year as president emeritus and serves on the union's executive council. His successor, John Bowers, was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in several recent prosecutions for taking payoffs and even soliciting a murder. In February, a decade after UNIRAC, the U.S. filed a civil racketeering suit that seeks to have trustees oversee elections and to permanently bar Genovese operatives from the waterfront.

    Yet even those measures have failed in the past to rid unions of mobsters. Case in point: the Teamsters, whose officials and lawyers have spent the past year stonewalling three court-appointed officers and bogging them down in % lawsuits. Since the officers began their work in 1989, only 14 tainted Teamsters have been banned or prompted to quit on their own, and many Mob-tied officials remain ensconced.

    For the first time in the union's history, the Teamsters rank and file will elect leaders by secret ballot over the next two years, supervised by a court officer who has the difficult task of monitoring more than 650 locals. But even fair elections can be corrupted. In 1988 the government blocked Michael Sciarra, a Genovese mobster, from running for the leadership of the Teamsters' Newark-based Local 560, a violence-torn cabal that was celebrating its first experiment with democracy. With Sciarra sidelined, the Newark membership proceeded to elect his brother Daniel. But Michael was still being greeted in 1989 with hugs and standing ovations by roomfuls of Teamsters.

    The U.S. is seeking to bar Michael from Local 560 for secretly running it from the wings. "This case is a microcosm of how difficult it is to remove the Mob," says Newark prosecutor Michael Chertoff. "Sometimes victims support the guys who are victimizing them. It's very tribal." Along the highways of New Jersey, bridges and signposts are sprayed with graffiti supporting Sciarra and his ironically named party, Teamsters for Liberty.

    Sometimes government paralysis is to blame for the Mob's gains. Since Luciano's day, Manhattan's Fulton Fish Market and its union have been Genovese-controlled. Each year upwards of $1 billion worth of seafood passes through this wholesale market, the country's largest. For 20 years, brothers Carmine and Vincent Romano were the family's point men, controlling all parking, loading and unloading.

    In 1988 the U.S. succeeded in placing a trustee at the fish market with a four-year mandate to battle racketeering. Carmine and Vincent have been banned forever, yet some crime fighters say this has left brother Peter to call the shots. In reality, little has changed. Earlier this month, the frustrated trustee, attorney Frank Wohl, issued a blistering report about the fish market's "frontier atmosphere." He blames New York City for failing to regulate the market, a charge that has endured for a half-century.

    Meanwhile, inside America's most powerful Mob family, any form of government foot dragging can only be good news for Dominick (Quiet Dom) Cirillo, the heir apparent to the family's throne. Cirillo, 61, who lives in a simple house in the Bronx, could prove even more elusive to the feds than his predecessor. Unlike Gigante, who has a criminal record dating back 40 years, "Quiet Dom" has been nailed just once, with a one-year suspended sentence for narcotics sales in 1952.

    One of the few things the FBI knows about Cirillo, according to the agency's records, is that he benefited from no-show employment at Olympia & York, the construction giant owned by Toronto's Reichmann brothers. A spokesman for O&Y; confirms that Cirillo was employed as a "laborer" for eight months in 1986 at the site of the World Financial Center in Manhattan but was "laid off for lack of work." Cirillo is far from unemployed, crime fighters contend, since Gigante may be bogged down in court for some time. As Cirillo's friends down at the fish market would say, if they were talking: the underworld may soon be his oyster.