By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
He didn't deny some early run-ins with the law. He had worked in a numbers bank and had taken a couple of gambling collars as a result. There was a 1980 arrest when he was picked up in a gambling den on East 209th Street with 220 policy slips in his pocket, another when he was busted as a blackjack dealer. But he didn't remember several other arrests on his rap sheet. "I don't recall that far back," he said. He forgot a 1979 incident in which he had hit a woman in the head with a glass; he later pled guilty to harassment, paying a $25 fine. A weapons possession of which he was acquitted by "mental defect" also slipped his mind, along with a 1982 assault rap in New Rochelle, case dismissed. "I was picked up a lot of times," he testified, "but I was innocent . . . just for walking the streets in my neighborhood."
But as tough as it was for Mustafa to talk about past crimes, he had a far tougher time talking about his job. Records submitted to the immigration court showed he did astonishingly well, earning more than $20 million between 1990 and 2001. He and his wife had put away $6 million in cash and stocks. What exactly was the nature of his work? the government's lawyer asked him.
It was "900 numbers," Mustafa explained. "I create programs for business. I get a salary and commission," he answered. "I come up with an idea, and if it makes money, I get a commission."
Did he have an example?
"OK, like umm"
"The nature of the work you do," the judge prodded Mustafa.
"You put up a Santa Claus line, you put up a love line. A gag line, talk lines. Santa Claus, Grandpa Munster."
What was a love line?
"People talk to each other."
Pressed for further details, Mustafa elaborated: "Generally, you call up, and ya talk to, a lonely person calls up and talks to somebody."
Most of the time, he explained, the callers reached taped recordings that he helped create. What did the recordings say?
"It could say a million and one things. 'Hello, how ya feel? Ah, how's everything? How's ah, you're a lonely person, have ya had a date lately?' Goes on and on. What would you talk about on a date? Will you go out with somebody?" Such programs, he said, were given to a "young lady and she reads it out."
It wasn't phone sex, Mustafa said, but he had a hard time explaining just how he knew that. But yes, he had become a millionaire this way. "It happened to be a multi, multimillion-dollar business," he said. "I came up with an idea, the American way," he told the court. "I put it out and I made money."
The riches came without much heavy lifting, he acknowledged. The original business had been started with a small investment, Mustafa said. He initially balked at naming his partners, but later relented, admitting that Tore LoCascio and Tore's uncle Joseph LoCascio were owners. "I put a few dollars into it. . . . Tore chipped in a few dollars, Joe chipped in . . . "
Yet he had no idea how many employees he had, and he gave an address for his firm that was several years out of date. That was because he rarely, if ever, went to the office, he explained. "I could go once a year," he said. "I could go once every three years." He didn't need to. His job only took up about "an hour" a day. Asked how that hour was spent, Mustafa labored to describe the creative process.
"My particular day, I go out, I talk to a lot of different types of people. I try to come up with ideas. I try to figure out what the public likes. And that's my idea." There wasn't anyone he could refer the government to, however, because "they don't know I'm trying to pick their brain."
Despite the Homeland Security Department's intense efforts, including putting an FBI agent on the stand to testify, the hearing judge later shocked the government by ruling in Mustafa's favor, canceling the deportation order. The judge cited Mustafa's more than 40 years as a resident, his American-born wife, five American-born children, as well as the fact that the defendant had paid "very, very substantial taxes." In addition, said immigration judge John Reid, "he is well regarded in at least some segment of the neighborhood." All in all, the judge said, the "scales tip very, very heavily in favor of the respondent's equities."
The agency appealed, but that was denied as well. Mustafa finally became a free man early last year, just in time to be indicted for his role in the business that made him such a substantial taxpayer. Now that he stands convicted, the government is likely to seek his deportation once he's done his time. According to the feds, he can go back to Italy, where he was born. Mustafa's lawyers, however, have insisted there is no place else to send him. On his passport application he listed himself as stateless. A millionaire without a country.