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The man authorities say is the acting boss of the Luchese crime family stood in line with everyone else last week at Manhattan Criminal Court, waiting his turn to pass through the metal detector. In the battered old courthouse, Steven Crea, called Stevie Wonder by his admirers, cut an imposing presence: Surrounded by young men in jeans and baseball caps, Crea wore a dark overcoat atop a double-breasted blue suit. He had close-cropped gray hair and a jutting prizefighter's jaw that he kept tightly clamped.
But if the reputed mobster was given equal scrutiny on his way into the building, upstairs, in the high-ceilinged 11th-floor courtroom of Judge Jeffrey Atlas, he was treated to a leniency that other defendants awaiting justice in the courthouse could only dream of.
Almost four years after being charged as the ringleader in one of the city's biggest labor-racketeering investigations ever, Crea was present to plead guilty to price fixing, bid rigging, and constraint of trade in connection with three large construction projects. Police and investigators had spent more than three years in the late 1990s listening to wiretaps and conducting surveillance as Crea directed a wide-reaching network of organized- crime figures and corrupt union officials. In each of the counts to which he pleaded, laborers had been cheated of their rightful wages and developers coerced. The crimes were Class E felonies for which mandatory prison terms range from 1 1/3 to 4 years.
In addition, Crea admitted to an overarching crime called "enterprise corruption." According to the indictment brought in September 2000 by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, the enterprise was the Luchese crime family, whose muscle allowed it to push around unions and contractors alike while imposing a "mob tax" of some 5 percent on each job. This was a Class B felony, which carries a minimum punishment of one to three years in prison, or a maximum of 8 1/3 to 25 years.
Citing Crea's lengthy history as a labor racketeer and past convictions, prosecutors had demanded a stiff six to 18 years in prison. They weren't even close. Atlas ruled that a term of just two to six years for Crea was appropriate. Moreover, since the alleged mob boss had already pleaded guilty to similar crimes in federal court, where his sentence was 34 months, his state term would run concurrent with his federal prison stretch. This, Atlas announced to the courtroom, would save state taxpayers the cost of his incarceration and represented an adequate sanction for crimes in which violence had never played an explicit role.
In a lengthy speech, in which the judge sounded angrier at prosecutors than at the defendant pleading guilty, Atlas noted that many counts of the original indictment had been dismissed and that he had personally undertaken a painstaking examination of the evidence, including meetings with confidential informants used in the case.
"In my estimation, after 24 years as a judge and as a defense attorney, a sentence of more than two years is, by any standard, a severe sentence in terms of loss of freedom and confinement, not a reward," Atlas said.
At the defense table, Crea kept still as a rock, as though he feared that if he even relaxed his shoulders the judge might change his mind. Beside him, defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt beamed. Across the aisle, Assistant District Attorney Michael Scotto quietly smoldered.
Although the judge made no mention of it in his remarks, his unusual defensiveness stemmed from a tough six-page letter he had received 10 days earlier from Morgenthau's chief of investigations, Daniel Castleman. In the letter, Castleman termed the judge's intended punishment both "illogical and unreasonable" and "a mere slap on the wrist."
"The offer of two to six years . . . does not adequately punish the serious crimes committed by this organized crime leader," nor does it "take into consideration Crea's long history of criminality," wrote Castleman. Moreover, allowing Crea to serve the sentence concurrently with his federal term "in effect rewards Crea for committing multiple unrelated crimes by allowing him to serve most of his state sentence in a more well-appointed and comfortable federal prison."
Pointing out that Atlas had already sentenced two of Crea's underlings in the case to the same two to six years, Castleman said that it only made sense that the man who directed the scheme get a tougher punishment. "The boss deserves a greater sentence than his soldiers," he wrote.
Crea, the letter also noted in frustration, "will serve less time in prison than it has taken to litigate the motions in this case."
Castleman's memo was met with a rejoinder from defense attorney Lefcourt which, in effect, said that those were the breaks, and pointed out that the D.A. had overstated the number of counts Crea faced. "Mr. Castleman would no doubt prefer that the dismissals on so many counts never occurred, but that hardly explains his pretending they are still in the case," wrote Lefcourt.
At the hearing's conclusion, Crea, accompanied by family members, quickly left the courtroom. He began serving his federal sentence last Thursday.