Infernal Racket

The Mafia Doesn’t Just Break Legs. It Can Also Break the Spirit.

When Saul Heifetz, a 68-year-old contractor with alleged mob ties, was faced with a demand to pay several minority construction workers at their correct union rates, his response was quick, emphatic, and revealing. "No. I am not paying no fucking nigger $600 a day," said the builder.

The comment, made in Gebruary 1999, was captured on government wiretaps, transcripts of which were obtained by the Voice. And while those 11 cold words don't in and of themselves constitute criminal conduct, they are part of the disturbing backdrop of a massive and still unresolved organized-crime racketeering case brought three years ago by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau.

Heifetz still hasn't had his day in court on the charges, but he was one of more than three dozen people, including mob chiefs and soldiers, union leaders, and businessmen, who were snared in the case and accused of robbing taxpayers and jilting workers.

Mob taxer: Steven "Stevie Wonder" Crea, alleged Luchese chief
Mob taxer: Steven "Stevie Wonder" Crea, alleged Luchese chief

It was one of a series of investigations demonstrating the way the Mafia reaches deep into the lives of working-class New Yorkers. It also showed that despite the mighty arsenal at the government's disposal—including commissions, special strike forces, and racketeering laws—the mob still maintains a persistent influence in the business of constructing buildings here in New York. In one telling illustration, police detectives working the case secretly watched as a powerful Mafia soldier named Anthony "the Razor" Pezzullo drove his white Cadillac early each morning to the work site where the Riverside South high-rise complex on Manhattan's West Side was then being erected by mega-developer Donald Trump. There, Pezzullo engaged in whispered conversations with top officials of half a dozen unions at work on the site, including the operating engineers, bricklayers, and ironworkers.

The case has also shown that the mob hasn't altered its basic game plan very much. The schemes described by prosecutors are similar to scores of others that have provided grist to past law enforcement efforts: Morgenthau said the members of the criminal enterprise had rigged bids and bribed labor officials as a means of siphoning off millions of dollars from both public and private construction projects. The district attorney, who has been pressing such cases since the 1960s, when he was part of Robert F. Kennedy's Justice Department, estimates that the arm-twisting had imposed a "mob tax" of at least 5 percent on the value of the contracts.

One of the ways this was accomplished, Morgenthau explained, was that while contractors were obligated under city and state laws to pay their workers a so-called "prevailing wage" set at approximately the same level as union contract rates, special deals with mobsters and corrupt union officials allowed them to avoid doing so. In turn, contractors allegedly pocketed the often substantial difference between what they claimed to be paying for labor and their actual costs, sharing the bonus with their mob cronies.

This particular investigation was dubbed the "Luchese case" because that is the name of the crime family to which several of the lead defendants allegedly owed their allegiance. Top of the list was a Yonkers-based contractor and restaurant operator named Steven Crea—"Stevie Wonder" to his admiring crew members—who is considered the acting boss of the Luchese clan. An ex-fighter with a lantern jaw, Crea was alleged to be the power behind numerous construction firms that built everything from modular schools to luxury homes. Among Crea's close friends, wiretaps showed, were Bronx car dealer and Democratic political big Dick Gidron, and Burt Young, the actor who often plays gangsters. Young was so attuned to Crea's world that when police raided the mobster's home, Young called out of concern. "You got company, bad company with you?" asked the actor. "Yeah," responded Crea. "Oh, shit," his friend responded.

Heifetz, a resident of Rockland County who has been running construction firms for years in the Bronx and upstate, is accused of using mob ties to rig bids and cheat on school contracts. During the investigation, police watched as Heifetz drove to Crea's office in his truck, counted out a thick stack of cash, and then put it in a brown paper bag and walked inside. Delayed by motions and counter-motions, the case has limped along on the court calendar. In the meantime, more than two dozen of the original defendants have pleaded guilty, and several of those remaining, including Crea, are negotiating plea bargains. Heifetz, along with the city carpenters' union leader, is one of a handful of defendants who have insisted on taking their cases to trial.

"It never should have been brought," said the contractor last week when reached on the new work phone number he acquired after learning that his old phone was a government listening post. His attorney, Kyle Watters, echoed that claim. "My client was a victim," he said.

Prosecutors and organized-crime cops monitored more than 50 wiretaps during the four-year probe, an immense and complex juggling act. For the most part, Crea and other savvy individuals, ever wary of government eavesdroppers, avoided making incriminating statements over their own phones. Heifetz, however, was a talker. His remarkably outspoken and candid comments about his business practices were captured on tape, comments that shed a rare light on a shadowy world. Morgenthau's "mob tax" analysis is one way to try to persuade the public why it should care about mob corruption. But Heifetz's unguarded descriptions offer a far more compelling lesson about the human cost of the underworld's economic policies.

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