By Albert Samaha
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Yet it's hard to believe Puccio couldn't have turned the story of former Teamsters official Patrick Dello Russo into good reading. Dello Russo, the Luchese crime family's feared enforcer at the airport, was a former Local 295 shop steward who was alleged by the government to have had several mob hits under his belt. In front of several members, he beat bloody another Teamster steward who got in his way.
Dello Russo jumped the fence to work for management when the government moved to seize the local, a position that allowed him to continue orchestrating the mob's airport enterprises. Puccio's original deputy in the local, a zealous former federal labor investigator named Michael Moroney, launched a far-reaching investigation of Dello Russo, with legal help from Joel Cohen, another former prosecutor from Puccio's federal strike force days. Dello Russo became the linchpin that led to the federal trusteeship of Local 851, whose officials were revealed to be Dello Russo cronies.
To make sure he could never again be a power in the union, Dello Russo was later barred from membership by a court-appointed national Teamsters administrator. This makes him the only Local 295 member removed since Puccio took over.
But the gangster is only a fuzzy memory to the defense lawyer. Asked about Dello Russo last week, Puccio, who still recalls minor players from his prosecutor days, expressed puzzlement. "The name sounds familiar," said Puccio. "I think Mike [Moroney] may have done something with him."
Mike Moroney, whose investigations led him into a public dispute about alleged organized-crime ties of then Teamsters president Ron Carey, was later replaced by Michael Tobin, a former Puccio investigator with no labor background.
Tobin, who receives $113,500 a year, is now the day-to-day overseer for the local. Members, however, describe him too as remote and often unavailable. (Puccio refused to let Tobin answer questions for this article, or to allow the Voiceaccess to the union's new offices in Valley Stream.)
Pressed to name his key contributions to the local, Puccio repeatedly cited his work with the union's benefit funds, which are managed jointly with those of Local 851.
"I've made decisions on the pension and welfare funds that are worth millions," he said.
Although he avoids membership gatherings, Puccio has been a regular attendee at quarterly benefit fund trustee meetings, which are held in an office on Dag Hammarskjold Plaza not far from his Park Avenue law offices. But according to several people who attended meetings with him, Puccio displayed little interest in routine matters involving member benefit payments, focusing instead on investment decisions for the $450 million funds.
At one point, Puccio introduced an officer of a multi-billion-dollar Connecticut-based hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Managementa firm he had previously representedto pitch a potential investment to the union. Board members recall Puccio recommending investment in the hedge fund, which was managed by prize-winning economists and wildly popular among major financial institutions. To do so entailed putting a minimum of $10 million into one of the fund's offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. Puccio said he took no position other than making the introduction. "I maybe mentioned it to some board members," he said. "They were interested in [hedge funds] and I said, 'OK, I can bring these people in.' " He said he disclosed that the fund was a former client.
The rest of the trustees, including the investment adviser, rejected the proposal as too risky. Later, they had reason to believe they'd acted wisely. In 1998, the hedge fund collapsed and had to be bailed out by federal money regulators.
Puccio maintained the investment would have been "absolutely appropriate" and brushed off the near disaster. "They would've gotten their money back. All the newer investors did," he said.
As for the local itself, Puccio said he has been "moving toward elections for the past two years." The "bottom line reason" they haven't been held, he said, is that he wants to merge Local 851 into Local 295. Combining the two locals is something Puccio has repeatedly advanced throughout his trusteeship. Such a merger would accomplish an economy of scale, give the union more clout, and keep the mob from filtering back in, he said.
The idea has been rejected, however, by the U.S. attorney's office and by Local 851. Both have stated that 851's clerical workers, who are already holding elections, would be overwhelmed by Local 295's drivers and warehousemen.
Puccio remains adamant. "Nobody's been able to convince me it makes sense to have two separate unions," he said. "This is all about protecting turf."
Meanwhile, in the wake of the allegations from the national union, Puccio is moving to defend his own turf. Rather than handle the investigation himself or use his deputy, he has hired a firm run by another of his former agentsone who worked with him on the Abscam caseto pursue the charges. The bills will be paid by the local.