By Albert Samaha
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By Roy Edroso
Amid little fanfare, one of New York's most powerful labor racketeers was packed off to an upstate federal prison this month to begin a six-and-a-half-year sentence for bribery and conspiracy. Only a single tabloid squib marked the occasion when Louis Moscatiello pled guilty to six counts of bribery and racketeering, including his participation in the Genovese crime family. Prosecutors said that Moscatiello, 67, served as the mob's point man in no less than three vital construction unions. He regulated who held top union posts, who got the best-paying jobs, and which contractors were allowed to cheat on wages and benefits, thus allowing them to win lucrative contracts by making artificially low bids.
Unions representing the city's carpenters, operating engineers, and plasterers all followed Moscatiello's instructions on those matters, law enforcement authorities asserted, making him one of the most influential, if unheralded, figures in the city's multibillion-dollar construction industry.
In the early 1990s, before new leadership took over, Moscatiello was also the power in the plumbers' union, the Manhattan district attorney's office declared in a series of successful criminal cases at the time.
But while most gangsters rely on a combination of bullets, brawn, and bluster to assert their dominance, Moscatiello, who was ranked by the FBI as an acting captain in the Genovese family when he was arrested last year, never brandished such tactics himself. "He was really a nebbishy kind of person," said one who knew him. "Not a throw-his-weight-around character."
If he wasn't a genuine tough guy, however, Louis D. Moscatiello was a decidedly innovative racketeer.
In one of the most audacious labor swindles in a city that has seen them all, Moscatiello managed in the late 1970s to snatch away the livelihood of several hundred workers whose job was to tape up the seams between drywall boards used in interior construction. The move came in the wake of a months-long strike by the tapers' union that increased wages for the members, thus aggravating many drywall contractors. As court testimony later showed, it was at the urging of an influential mob builder named Vincent DiNapoli that Moscatiello formed Local 530 of the Operative Plasterers & Cement Masons International Association, which promptly asserted union jurisdiction over all drywall work.
The technical basis of the jurisdiction claim was that while the tapers applied the standard three coats of joint compound over wallboard seams, members of the new plasterers' local used a special thin "skimcoat" spread over the entire wall. The advantages of the thin glaze were unclear. Workers derisively called the process a "pisscoat" since it was barely visible and had no visible effect. But because the new local's wages were a fraction of those included in the tapers' contract, and welfare benefitswhen anyone bothered to collect themwere negligible, contractors flocked to sign up with the new local.
Most everyone knew the local was bogus, designed to accommodate mob-tied contractors like DiNapoli, who didn't want to use the legitimate, but more expensive, tapers' union. But when the tapers challenged the job thefts to a panel of the AFL-CIO building trades, top officials there ruled for Moscatiello. The dispute went into federal court, where the two sides have wrangled ever since. Two years ago, in a decision blasting the skimcoat claims, Brooklyn federal judge John Gleeson stated that "Local 530 is an employer-dominated union."
Gleeson ruled that the local had violated prior court orders that Local 530 could be employed only at job sites where architects had specifically called for the skimcoat. Instead, in what the judge termed "quasi-extortion," the local's officers had pressured contractors to employ its members, even if the special skimcoat wasn't used. This went on, Gleeson found, at many of the city's biggest construction projects, including those at Baruch College, LaGuardia Airport, Columbia-Presbyterian hospital, and Penn Station.
The judge ruled the union in contempt, but monetary damagesthe most powerful deterrenthave yet to be assessed. To this day, the union Moscatiello founded still dominates the drywall trade.
"It was the wiseguys' union," said John Alfarone, the former leader of Local 1974 of the tapers' union, who spent 20 years trying to expose Moscatiello's fraud, watching his membership plummet from 1,600 to 300 in the process. "Everybody knew who they were: the government, the builders, the other unions. Still they allowed it to happen."
To do so, Moscatiello needed friends, and powerful ones at that.
Before he got into the labor game, Louis Moscatiello's everyday business was running an insurance and real estate brokerage practice on Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx's Pelham Bay section. There, he was so adept at backslapping and handshaking that he formed his own Democratic political club in the late 1970s. He helped elect several district leaders, and threw his own hat in the ring for an open City Council seat in 1982. He lost that race, but remained a power to be reckoned with in the north Bronx, so much so that his support was sought by anyone seeking elected office from the district.
When he wasn't dealing with the upper echelons of organized crime and sorting out various labor schemes, Moscatiello was as likely to be found chatting with otherwise upstanding elected officials.
So it was that when state police threw a wiretap on Moscatiello's phones in the late 1980s, they heard him discussing political and personal matters with state senators Efrain Gonzalez and Guy Velella, and then assemblyman and now congressman Eliot Engel, among others.
When veteran Bronx congressman Mario Biaggi became vulnerable after his indictment for bribery in 1987, both Biaggi and challenger Engel eagerly sought Moscatiello's support.
"If he [Biaggi] gets convicted, I think he'd be a loser," Moscatiello was heard advising Engel in a June 14, 1988, tape. "I think if he don't get convicted I think he'll be a winner."
"I agree with you. I agree with you," Engel responded before putting the arm on Moscatiello for campaign contributions.
"That's really where I'm looking for help. Anything on the slyI'd never embarrass you; you know that," said the candidate.
Engel long ago acknowledged his discussions with Moscatiello, insisting that he had no idea he was dealing with an organized-crime figure at the time, and that he never took improper contributions.
That investigation resulted in an earlier prison sentence for Moscatiello, who was convicted of labor bribery. He served 45 months at Sing Sing, and then was bounced back inside again when he was spotted violating parole rules by meeting with underworld associates.
After his release, however, Moscatiello returned to his old Bronx haunts, and police detectives and investigators watched as top figures in both the construction industry and the Genovese family consulted with him.
When federal and state organized-crime investigators combined to examine rampant and hugely expensive no-show jobs in the operating engineers' union, wiretaps quickly showed that Moscatiello was the hub of that wheel. He was arrested in February 2003, along with 40 others, including top operating engineers' union officials (see "The Mob's Engineers," December 14, 2004). At the time, prosecutors urged that Moscatiello be remanded to prison, insisting that he was a threat if allowed to remain free. But Moscatiello's longtime attorney, Lawrence Hochheiser, argued convincingly that his client had no prior record of violence or threats and he was released on $500,000 bond.
Six months later, however, agents watched as Moscatiello took payoffs in exchange for his assurances of "labor peace" at a major, city-subsidized new construction project at West 56th Street and Tenth Avenue. The veteran racketeer collected one payment of $5,000, then stopped back a month later for another $5,000 envelope.
Arrested again last April, Moscatiello was finally charged with the now two-decades-old swindle that was Local 530. "For more than 25 years, the drywall industry has been a cash cow for the Genovese crime family," said FBI assistant director Pasquale D'Amuro at a press conference with Manhattan U.S. Attorney David Kelley and state attorney general Eliot Spitzer.
Hochheiser, Moscatiello's attorney, said that despite his client's guilty plea, he was no one's image of a mobster. "I can tell you that he was a man of modest means. He lived in a modest house, and drove a modest car."