The Clean-Up Man

Chic Ex-Prosecutor Makes a Bundle Overseeing Teamsters Local

Last fall, DePetris confirmed to the court that his union was ready for democratic elections, and they are being held this month. Elections also were conducted last year at two other once mob-tied Teamsters locals—the private sanitation workers and construction delivery unions, both of which were placed under court trusteeship after Puccio's local.

The slow progress at Local 295 has caused frustration among leaders of the national Teamsters Union, which sent lawyers into Nickerson's courtroom in January to ask for a schedule for elections.

"Basically, we are kind of at a stalemate [as to] whether or not the union is ready to proceed to elections," said Teamsters lawyer Bruce Maffeo at the January 12 hearing.

Rightly or wrongly, the perception among Teamsters members, and even among some in law-enforcement circles, is that Puccio has a good thing going and is reluctant to give it up. It's a perception that feeds an already widespread cynicism among union members, who see court-appointed watchdogs like Puccio as part of an old-boy network of ex-prosecutors and judges who are paid big bucks to oversee once crime-ridden unions but who themselves receive little oversight from those who appoint them.

In the case of Local 295, members note that Puccio makes more than double the $116,000-a-year salary received by Anthony Calagna, the convicted Luchese crime family member who used to run it. The local's coffers, which dipped dangerously at one point during Puccio's trusteeship, are currently at the same $2 million level as when Puccio took over. And the lawyer's high-priced services have raised eyebrows throughout the union.

"'He makes the wiseguys look like amateurs'—that's the comment you hear most often among the members," said a labor official who deals regularly with the local.

Puccio emphatically dismisses such criticism, saying he is fulfilling the government's mandate and that the members are getting their money's worth. "These people have been saying the same thing since day one," he said. He said he hasn't brought charges against members because the gangsters fled the local on his arrival. While he hasn't filed his own RICO cases, he said he has helped recoup about $1 million for the benefit funds.

"You know what I've done?" he declared in a loud voice, leaning across a table in a restaurant near the Eastern District court in Brooklyn, where the order appointing him was signed. "I've run this union extremely well for 10 years. Is it worth many times the fee I get? You bet it is. What's a good contract worth? What are good [benefit fund] investments worth? Will one of these guys who [eventually] gets elected do as well as me? Not likely.

"You want to get someone else to do it?" he continued. "Get someone less expensive? You get someone with less experience. Here they have someone with a tremendous amount of law-enforcement experience. Tremendous amount of legal experience, someone who knows management. It's like anything else—you can get someone to do a job for whatever price you offer."

No one questions Tom Puccio's experience.

In the 1970s, he was a hard-working, ambitious young prosecutor who was the terror of Brooklyn federal court. His dogged persistence cracked the case of the $73 million in French Connection heroin that mysteriously disappeared from police storage. He made national headlines as the head of the Organized Crime Strike Force whose operatives posed as bribe-paying Arab sheiks in an elaborate sting code-named "Abscam" that brought down a score of politicians, including U.S. Senator Harrison Williams.

Turning to defense work in the early '80s, he beat back a planned federal indictment for drug distribution against tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis. That case led to von Bulow, then facing a second trial after his first conviction was overturned on appeal. In a Rhode Island courtroom, Puccio put his microscopic attention to detail to work, winning a case many thought unwinnable. When Bronx political boss Stanley Friedman was charged with plundering the city's Parking Violations Bureau by then U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani, Puccio represented him only to see his case go down the tubes after his client bragged on the stand of his vaunted political powers.

The perception among Teamsters members, and even among some in law-enforcement circles, is that Puccio has a good thing going and is reluctant to give it up.

But the loss didn't hurt Puccio's reputation as one of New York's most sought-after lawyers. He kept John Mulheren, a millionaire investor accused of insider trading, out of prison. He was hired by the wealthy parents of Alex Kelly, the high school wrestler from Darien, Connecticut, who fled the country after being accused of raping a 16-year-old girl. Puccio's tough talk about the teenage victim inside and outside the courtroom angered many people. But that's what defendants in trouble pay for. They don't want a dumb, sweet-natured labrador; they want a cagey pit bull. And Puccio is considered one of the best in the business.

He told most of these stories in his autobiography, In the Name of the Law (written with New York political reporter Dan Collins), which was published in 1995.

But the book never mentions Puccio's trusteeship of the mob-tied union that for decades had a hammerlock on the the nation's busiest freight airport. "The book wasn't about this," responded Puccio. "It wasn't appropriate."

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