By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The art organization's 10-year lease and purchase option on the vacant school across the street from its officewhich a multi-million-dollar renovation is gradually turning into a museumis with Our Lady of Mount Carmel. That's the church where Salerno was buried in 1990, interrupting 100-year and 70-year sentences on separate federal racketeering convictions. Father Peter Rofranothe priest whose Salerno eulogy revealed that "God walked with him"brought the museum to East Harlem and sits on its board.
Fugazy first came to public prominence in 1960, when he and his partner, the legendary fixer Roy Cohn, bought out the boxing promoters Rosensohn Enterprises, which had produced the first heavyweight title fight between Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson. The company was partially owned by Tony Salerno, and Fugazy and Cohn got the rights from it to promote the two multi-million-dollar return bouts. While Fugazy says he never knew Salerno, Cohn became Salerno's lawyer, representing him for decades in a host of criminal cases.
Salerno's Palma club lived on pasta from Rao's, the famous Italian restaurant just around the corner on 114th Street. Currently owned by the nephews of Vincent Rao, a convicted money launderer for the mob, the restaurant caters the museum's annual fundraiser (which is billed as "A Night at Rao's"), and sends a jar of Rao's famous sauce to every invitee. Rao, who ran the restaurant before turning it over to his nephews, was nailed in 1979 on charges that he laundered about $100,000 a week in loan-shark checks and cash through the restaurant books for heroin kingpin Ralph "the General" Tutino and Genovese underboss John "Buster" Ardito. "You'll wind up in the East River," Tutino said on a trial tape to one businessman who missed an interest payment.
A Rao nephew, Frank Pellegrino, who appeared in Goodfellasand The Sopranos, has given the 105-year-old restaurant its current mob chic aura, serving the likes of John Gotti and Paulie Castellano. Pellegrino appears on the cover of the museum's glossy journal and was the honoree at one of its biggest fundraisers. Though the small restaurant's exclusive 10 tables are literally "owned" by the powerbrokers and celebrities who regularly eat there, the restaurant gave one to the museum for weekly Tuesday use.
While the respected Pellegrino's only known connections to the mob are through lineage and celluloid, FBI documents allege that his partner, Ron Straci, who is a labor lawyer, split a $500,000 kickback with Tony Salerno's brother, Charles "Speed" Salerno,on the sale of a union building. The son of notorious mob capo Joseph "Joe Stretch" Straci, Ron Straci was also pictured in the museum's glossy magazine, with his full-page, loving account of his Uncle Vince and the restaurant. The museum's three journals have been filled with long-winded celebrations of the restaurantalso recounting the history of Italian East Harlem without ever mentioning the mob that once dominated the neighborhood or the Latino Catholics who actually live there now.
Another honoree was Ed Bergassi, who was also the chairman of its dinner committee and is one of its most involved board members. Bergassi was the bonding agent for Vincent Zollo, a construction contractor who was a business partner of John "Junior" Gotti, head of the Gambino crime family. Bergassi was overheard in 1996 on state organized crime wiretaps advising Zollo on how to beat probes of his company and Gotti ties, including attempts to get Zollo to donate to politicians who might prove helpful. Gotti Jr. listed himself as the controller of Zollo's firm. Zollo, who was eventually charged with extortion and selling cocaine, pled guilty to racketeering and was sentenced to 46 months in prison.
When the New York Post reported Bergassi's taped conversations in 1998, he stepped down as an unpaid commissioner on the State Insurance Fund. That's also when he stepped up at the museum, and was featured in full-page bios in the 1999 and 2000 journals and praised for "achieving excellent fundraising goals to help the construction of the new museum."
Another Bergassi client with problems, Frank Stubbolo, was also listed as a member of the museum board in its 2000 magazine and bought a $5000 table. Stubbolo and his brother, Ken, run a construction company that Newsday reports is the subject of an ongoing state-inspector-general probe. Though four insurance companies had already sued the Stubbolos for allegedly defrauding them, Bergassi managed to get them bonded to do a state university job. Major fundraisers for Governor Pataki and other Republicans, the Stubbolos won the $28 million contract over contractors with more experience and none of the bad debt, bankruptcy and misrepresentation history of the Stubbolos. In the end though, they were forced off the project by the state for shoddy work and unsafe conditions.
Charged with threatening someone to collect a $10,000 debt in the mid '80s, Ken Stubbolo pled guilty to criminal solicitation. The Manhattan and Nassau County district attorneys were reported last year to be probing the Stubbolos, whose records were subpoenaed.
The only honoree at the 1997 dinner (usually there are three) was Charles Uribe, a construction contractor who pled guilty on bribery charges in June 1998, and was celebrated again in a colorful, four-page tribute in the museum journal published that fall. The only reason Uribe wasn't in jail at the time of the 1998 party was that he was too sick to be incarcerated. Uribe was fined $3.3 million as part of his guilty plea, and politicians like Vallone and Pataki scampered to return some of his many political contributions. But the museum kept its donations.