The Wiseguy and the Wetlands

A Brooklyn Waterfront Dream House Becomes the Target of an Environmental Probe

This is the one New York story about a Mafia soldier and a marshy Brooklyn wetland that does not include any of the following: a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson, duct tape, an area rug, or misplaced appendages.

Instead, this is the saga of one felon's continuing fight with the government over the construction of his waterfront dream home with a stunning view of Mill Basin (not to mention easy access to the Belt Parkway and the Kings Plaza shopping center!). It is the story of what happens when a careless gangster gets caught in the act--the Tidal Wetlands Act, to be precise.

Now, more than eight years after environmental inspectors first cited mob figure John Rosatti, the 54-year-old multimillionaire and state officials are finally close to settling their protracted, snail-paced litigation. Sources said that Rosatti, who recently sold the luxurious home for $3 million, is expected to pay a low six-figure fine--likely less than $200,000--to settle charges that he filled in wetlands to extend his property into protected areas of Mill Basin.

While the penalty is a significant one for a case involving a private home, Rosatti, who owns several car dealerships, will have no trouble covering it. The Colombo crime family figure, in fact, is apparently New York's wealthiest hoodlum--and by a wide margin. In underworld circles, Rosatti is known as an ''earner,'' a valued mob figure who generates millions from illegal activities or legitimate businesses--in this case, the automotive industry.

While a recent spate of newspaper stories has chronicled the supposed disarray--organizational and financial--of New York's crime families, Rosatti is feeling no such pain. Last year, records show, the mafioso sold two Florida auto dealerships for a staggering $33 million in cash. His remaining business interests--which include Nostrand Avenue's prosperous Plaza Auto Mall--and real estate investments could make Rosatti the underworld's only $50 million man.

Joel Winograd, a Rosatti lawyer, said that his client was ''happy'' that the wetlands matter ''is coming to a conclusion and will be much happier when it's finalized.'' One state official involved in the negotiations said the two sides were now ''fine-tuning'' a settlement agreement. The talks have dragged on, in part, because of staff turnover at both the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the attorney general's office. During the course of the Rosatti case, the AG's office--which has filed a lawsuit against him--has been headed by Robert Abrams, Oliver Koppell, and the current officeholder, Dennis Vacco. DEC also saw staff changes when George Pataki succeeded Mario Cuomo as governor in 1995.

With his prodigious investment portfolio, there was little surprise in Mill Basin when Rosatti began construction in 1989 of an expensive two-story mansion on a corner property on National Drive. Located at the intersection of two inland waterways, the Rosatti site was the neighborhood's best, far outstripping the smaller spreads of neighbors like Meade Esposito, the ex--Brooklyn Democratic boss and longtime National Drive resident.

With its modern decking, patio, in-ground pool, home gym, balconies, four-car garage, and immaculate landscaping, the stucco home Rosatti built looked more Bridgehampton than Brooklyn. Rosatti, who has owned yachts and Cigarette boats, also built a floating dock. The sprawling home was so big, one visitor compared it to a ''department store.''

Since some of Rosatti's construction involved work on the property's weathered bulkhead, DEC inspectors were required to insure that Rosatti did not damage the tidal wetlands adjacent to his property. What they discovered one day in 1989, according to DEC inspection reports and a subsequent state lawsuit filed against Rosatti, was that the wiseguy had improperly extended his property by excavating and placing landfill in tidal wetlands. As a result, the DEC charged, Rosatti had constructed a portion of his house, his swimming pool, and a concrete patio ''within the tidal wetlands and tidal wetlands adjacent area.''

According to one environmental official, while DEC inspectors often discover instances where homeowners with waterfront sites try to ''extend their property lines because they want a bigger garden or a larger deck,'' Rosatti's construction was particularly egregious. His brazen move, state officials charged, resulted in the destruction of 2000 square feet of Mill Basin wetlands and was a violation of the state's Tidal Wetlands Act, which stipulates that ''tidal wetlands constitute one of the most vital and productive areas of our natural world, and that their protection and preservation are essential.''

Appalled at Rosatti's disregard for these environmental guidelines, the DEC in 1992 began administrative proceedings against the mob figure. A lawsuit, which is still pending, was filed later that year against Rosatti in Brooklyn's state supreme court. Government lawyers initially argued that, in addition to steep fines, Rosatti be ordered to cure all violations on his property.

Mark Chertok, a Rosatti lawyer, countered that the state was trying to force his client to ''rip down part of his house, demolish and remove the entire swimming pool and patio, remove the new bulkhead....'' This work, Chertok claimed in an October 1992 court filing, would run ''at least into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and probably in excess of $1 million.''

As both sides began negotiating a settlement, Rosatti was forced to deal with another problem developing in Brooklyn. By 1992, his crime family had split into two factions and was engaged in a shooting war across New York and Long Island. Since everyone was a target, Rosatti traveled with muscle and stashed a gun in his waistband for protection.

With his thriving automotive businesses, Rosatti has been a key source of cash and no-show jobs, according to FBI memos. At one point, Rosatti pledged $50,000 to the insurgent Colombo faction headed by Victor Orena. But he turned down an Orena request to provide autos for hit teams prowling the metropolitan area in search of supporters of Orena's rival, Carmine ''The Snake'' Persico. An FBI informant report details how Rosatti, during the Colombo war, flew to an Oklahoma prison to meet with his jailed Mafia superior to discuss the street fighting. Another memo describes how fellow Colombo members joked about a no-show job given to Orena's son Victor at a Rosatti dealership. ''You're the only salesman that never sells any cars and makes money,'' one hood told the younger Orena.

While a dozen other Colombo figures were murdered during the two-year family war, Rosatti succeeded in staying out of harm's way, though he was arrested by the FBI on a gun rap in 1994. Since his criminal record included a mid-'70s attempted grand larceny conviction (for boosting cars), Rosatti was charged as a felon for possession of a gun. Though that rap could have netted Rosatti several years in prison, he pleaded guilty and escaped, remarkably, with no jail time, one year's probation, and a $5000 fine. Compared to other Colombo war casualties--some dead, many imprisoned--the car salesman got the best deal on the lot. Between his felony convictions, Rosatti successfully maintained a low profile, avoiding arrest while building a booming car business that started 20 years ago with his purchase of an Oldsmobile dealership in Flatbush.

Rosatti's biggest financial windfall came last year when Republic Industries, a publicly held conglomerate, paid the hoodlum $33 million last summer for two thriving Florida auto dealerships.

Republic, whose chief executive is Wayne Huizenga, bought Hollywood Honda and Hollywood Kia from Rosatti in an all-cash transaction, according to a Republic spokesperson. Huizenga, owner of the Florida Marlins, Miami Dolphins, and Florida Panthers sports franchises, purchased Rosatti's businesses as part of a dealership buying binge. The former Blockbuster Video CEO--he sold that company to Viacom in 1994 for $8.4 billion--wants to build a nationwide network of new-and used-car dealers.

Rosatti continues to operate Brooklyn's Plaza Auto Mall, a bustling automotive supermarket featuring Honda, Kia, Mazda, Dodge, Saab, Acura, GMC Trucks, and Pontiac dealerships. He also sells used cars.

While splitting time between New York and Florida, Rosatti no longer calls National Drive home. He sold his Mill Basin mansion for about $3 million to Galina Anissimova, a Russian-born real estate broker. As part of the deal, Anissimova, who moved into the waterfront palace last year, required Rosatti to place about $200,000 in escrow to cover any settlement payments with state environmental regulators.

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