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By Eric Tsetsi
At a quarter of a million dollars a year, the best part-time job in America may well be the one held by feisty criminal defense attorney Thomas Puccio. The superstar lawyer, who won an acquittal for millionaire Claus von Bulow in 1985 on charges he tried to murder his high-society wife, pulls down that salary for running a once heavily mobbed-up Teamsters union local at Kennedy airport.
Appointed by a federal judge in 1992, Puccio has collected a total of $2.25 million from the 3000-member local. But it's not just the pay that makes it a good deal; the working conditions aren't bad either.
Although he has full responsibility for the local, Puccio has devoted most of his time to his law practice, which has included representation of felons like preppie rapist Alex Kelly, giant corporations like TLC Beatrice Holdings, and major securities firms like Merrill Lynch.
He's been able to do so by handling few union tasks directly.
Puccio, 56, doesn't attend meetings with members ("Why would I? I'm not running for anything," he explained). He doesn't sit through tedious bargaining sessions with employers ("I put people in place who can handle these things"). He doesn't conduct investigations (ex-FBI agents carry them out). He doesn't even maintain a log of his work or his hours ("I don't keep track of that," he said).
In addition to Puccio's salary as trustee, members shoulder the cost of all the outside lawyers and investigators he brings in. There is little to show, however, for all the expenses. To date, Puccio has brought no disciplinary actions against any members, and other than routine benefit fund claims against employers filed by outside lawyers he has hired, no lawsuits have been filed to recover union assets lost during the mob era. Even his mandated quarterly reports filed with the court arrive six months late and contain few details.
His aloof management style has left both members and those who deal with the local wondering just how the high-priced lawyer makes his contribution.
"I go to meetings regularly, I've never met Puccio," said one truck driver, a member of the local for 11 years. "He's never there. One time, years back, he came to a meeting, stayed maybe 10 minutes, then said he had a prior commitment and left."
"He's simply invisible," said an attorney who represents employers with contracts with the union. The attorney said he tried repeatedly several years ago to reach Puccio regarding a pair of union shop stewards believed to be at the heart of a massive theft ring plaguing his client's airport warehouse. Puccio never responded, the lawyer said, and the stewards were later charged by the Queens district attorney as leaders of a major mob-tied fencing operation. Puccio denied the claim, saying he has responded to every allegation of corruption.
Last month, Puccio received a letter from the unions national office stating that investigators had identified a dozen Local 295 members with possible mob ties.
But the local Puccio oversees was once notorious for such gangland antics. Teamsters Local 295 is the one the mobsters in Goodfellas gloatingly refer to as "ours." Its membersfreight truckers and warehouse workerssupplied inside tips to the mob on valuable freight shipments that could easily be hijacked. When the FBI staged a 1987 raid on the local's old offices in Jamaica near JFK, they pulled guns and a coded book of employer payoffs from behind ceiling tiles. Two prior presidents, one a Mafia capo, were convicted of racketeering and sent to prison.
Puccio, a former federal prosecutor, was given sweeping powers to clean house. Federal District Judge Eugene Nickerson authorized him to hire and fire officials, subpoena testimony, boot corrupt members, sign labor contracts, and go after any firm or individual believed to have cheated the union and its members over the years. To pull it off, Nickerson ordered federal and local law enforcement to assist Puccio at no cost.
But nine years after that awesome weaponry was placed at his disposal, problems remain. Last month, Puccio received a letter from the union's national office stating that its investigators had identified a dozen Local 295 members with possible organized crime ties. The findings came as a result of a probe by a team of former FBI agents and ex-prosecutors working for national Teamsters president James P. Hoffa. The Teamsters have been under a government consent decree since 1989, and Hoffa is trying to make the case that his union can mop up whatever lingering corruption remains.
Puccio is skeptical about the allegations. "I sincerely doubt that when I finish, there are going to be any steps taken against these people," he said.
A dramatically different record has been chalked up at a sister Teamsters affiliate, Local 851, which represents clerical staff at many of the same air freight firms that Local 295 has contracts with. There, another court-appointed monitor, named in 1994, has brought 33 disciplinary actions, barring 10 members permanently for continued associations with organized crime. At Local 851, lawyer Ronald DePetris also filed two massive civil racketeering cases against companies that had benefited from mob schemes, winning a total of $2.5 million in settlementsawards that paid the cost of his salary and then some.