By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
At the height of his power, in the days when he was regularly seen strutting the Little Italy streets with his retinue, John Gotti was overheard on an FBI bug describing his organizational ambitions this way: "This is gonna be a Cosa Nostra 'til I die. Be it an hour from now, or be it tonight, or a hundred years from now when I'm in jail. It's gonna be a Cosa Nostra."
He spoke those confident words in 1990 as he sat upstairs from the old Ravenite Club on Mulberry Street. A few months later, the full weight of law enforcement landed on Gotti and his men. The preening gangster was sent to prison, where he died last week of cancer.
But the most fitting tribute to the late Don's vision of Cosa Nostraliterally, "this thing of ours"may have been the federal indictments filed in Brooklyn just days before Gotti's death, charging his Gambino crime family with continued control over much of the city's waterfront, a case that has sent shivers through Staten Island's political establishment.
The mob's stranglehold on the docks has survived 50 years of scrutiny and prosecution, law enforcement officials acknowledge. Its grip on the International Longshoreman's Association has been maintained even in the face of a civil racketeering suit that gave the feds veto power over union officials and operations.
Exhibit one, prosecutors said, was Anthony "Sonny" Ciccone, a former ILA official and reputed high-level Gambino captain who pleaded not guilty to running the family's waterfront operations. Another man pleading innocent was Frank "Red" Scollo, the 75-year-old president of the most powerful longshoreman's chapter, Local 1814, who is accused of shaking down businessmen and extorting his own members. Also denying guilt was Gotti's brother Peter, the retired sanitation worker elevated by default to boss of the family, and who allegedly accepted what would have been John's share of the proceeds from the shakedowns and scams.
John Gotti himself perceived the docks as such a safe part of his empire that he paid them little attention, according to agents who watched him closely. "He could care less about that stuff," recalled former FBI supervisor Bruce Mouw. References to the ILA were rarely heard on the Ravenite wire, said Mouw. "Sonny was on his own and he gave the money to John."
According to the new indictments, a big chunk of that mob tribute money emanated from the politically connected operators of a sprawling 220-acre waterfront freight loading complex on the island's north shore called Howland Hook Container Terminal, a government-subsidized facility long tied to the borough's leading politicians, including newly elected borough president James Molinaro.
On behalf of Ciccone and other mobsters, Scollo allegedly extorted thousands of dollars from a local businessman named Carmine Ragucci, who ran the huge facility until last year when he was ousted in a dispute with other owners, according to law enforcement sources and news reports.
Ragucci, an outspoken advocate for waterfront development, has long been an influential figure in Staten Island's often fractious politics. He has pumped more than $12,000 from his family and businesses into Governor Pataki's current campaign, records show. Last year he was elected chairman of the borough's Conservative Party, a post he won with the help of his close ally, borough president Molinaro.
Ragucci's involvement has stirred a political thunderstorm on the islandthe kind of thing that Gotti and other hoodlums would describe as bad for business. Ragucci has reportedly told law enforcement that he was forced to endure the mobsters' extortion in silence for years. But it is not unfamiliar ground for the businessman. In 1987, it was reported that Ragucci took the Fifth Amendment before a grand jury investigating no-bid contracts won by a mobbed-up builder at Howland Hook, a probe in which he was never charged.
Ragucci has said little publicly. "There's so much that has come out, there is no way I would be able to sort it all out," the usually garrulous Ragucci told the Staten Island Advancelast week. He did not return calls for this article.
But investigators say there is worse on the way. State organized crime and waterfront commission investigators managed to place several bugs, including one in Scollo's car and another in a popular restaurant called Brioso's on New Dorp Lane. "There are things said on those tapes that are going to be devastating for local politicians when they come out," said one investigator.
The public record already shows how crucial Ragucci's freight terminal has been for the political fortunes of Molinaro, who served for years as right-hand man to his similarly named predecessor, former Staten Island beep Guy Molinari. Financial disclosure filings from Molinaro's race last year reveal that Howland Hook and its tenants served as a virtual ATM for his candidacy, with almost $37,000 collected from more than 50 firms and individuals.
Ragucci and members of his family personally gave $10,000. Scollo and his longshoremen's union kicked in another $9500, including a dozen sequentially numbered money orders of $50 apiece from members employed at the freight facility. Another $10,000 came from owners and managers of businesses located in the facility.
Molinaro also picked up $7500 from Salvatore Calcagno, a wealthy contractor hired by Ragucci to help build a new warehouse to handle banana shipments. In another indication of the close ties between borough hall and the terminal, Calcagno is partners with Molinaro's son Steven in a trucking business that is operated out of Howland Hook.
The warehouse has become another focus of the probe, investigators said. Ragucci and his son Christopher, who helped run the terminal, initially tried to supervise the construction of the so-called banana house themselves. But the project quickly turned into a fiasco of delays and cost overruns, according to a former official of the Port Authority, which holds the lease on the terminal and funded the effort. "It was unbelievable. We cut it off and said no more," he said.
Calcagno told the Advancethat he earned more than $2 million on the project. "I did nothing wrong," said the builder.
The bungled warehouse project wasn't the only example of troublesome business practices that investigators discovered. An ex-NYPD detective and former Republican assembly candidate named Glenn Yost has acknowledged that he paid $1400 per month rent in cash to Ragucci for a now defunct imported water company that was headquartered at the terminaland never got receipts. Yost is the son-in-law of Richard Addeo, owner of Adco Electric, a major contractor that raised $5250 for Molinaro's campaign. Adco officials said they had no involvement in Howland Hook.
Molinaro didn't respond to requests for comment. But records show he has given other contributors the benefit of the doubt as well. He accepted $2100 from Philip Castellano, a son of ex-Gambino boss Paul Castellano and the owner of Scara-Mix, a large island concrete firm. The company poured much of the concrete for the new Staten Island Yankees ballpark that was pushed through by former mayor Rudy Giuliani. Even Giuliani returned Scara-Mix contributionsafter Newsdayreported them.
Politically tinged development scandals are nothing new on Staten Island, and the common perspective from Manhattan sophisticates is that the borough is little more than a suburban backwater. But island voters have been the crucial difference for the last two mayors. They put former Giuliani over the top in 1993. Last fall, Mike Bloomberg collected 80 percent of the votes there, with those 85,000 ballots amounting to more than his margin of victory over Democrat Mark Green.
In testament to those numbers, a grateful Mayor Bloomberg traveled to the island in February to attend the Conservative Party dinner. Bloomberg praised Molinaro as "a valuable ally in the mayoral campaign" as Ragucci sat nearby on the dais.