By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro and Mayor Michael Bloomberg may make an odd political couple, but ever since both men won their first ever elections on the same day four years ago there's been no keeping them apart. Molinaro, 74, is the potbellied, pro-death-penalty, anti-abortion, capital-C conservative (he led the island's Conservative Party for 25 years), presiding over a largely white and middle-income borough. Bloomberg, 63, is the treadmill-slim liberal-Democrat-turned-Republican who proudly touts his abortion-rights endorsements along with his opposition to capital punishment, a gay-marriage supporter who decided this fall that even John Roberts was too conservative to sit on the Supreme Court.
They're an odd match for other reasons as well: Bloomberg has successfully projected a super-clean image, arguing persuasively that he's too rich to be bought and that talent, not patronage, determines the makeup of his administration. That's not exactly a portrait of "Jimmy"as Bloomberg affectionately calls his pal. During his first term in office Molinaro has openly defended mob-tied figures charged with looting his own borough. He's acknowledged real estate deals he had with an alleged wiseguy and even wrote a letter to a judge urging leniency for a pair of convicted mob associates.
And that's only what's already been reported. Real estate records show that the borough president owns property in Florida with a close friend and key fundraiser, a builder named Salvatore Calcagno, who is currently under indictment for federal tax fraud. Three years ago, evidence in a Brooklyn mob trial revealed that Calcagno had been caught in an organized-crime probe talking business in a Staten Island restaurant with a captain in the Gambino crime family. But despite that bright-red warning signal, Molinaro has held on to his 50 percent share in a condominium apartmentvalued at $600,000that he jointly owns with the contractor on Florida's Gulf Coast. Last year, records show, the borough president also scored a hefty six-figure profit from the sale of a residential property on Staten Island's south shore that he purchased from a Calcagno-tied company.
Calcagno has pled not guilty to the tax counts, but prosecutors in Brooklyn federal court have stated that they intend to bring additional charges against him. Law enforcement sources say those charges are likely to reflect the results of an investigation that found that Calcagno laundered millions of dollars in bogus checks made out to subcontractors.
Calcagno's attorney dismissed the money-laundering allegations as a "hallucination," and said the property deals between his client and the borough president were legitimate. Molinaro refused to answer any questions about his relationship with Calcagnoor anything else. "He's not going to comment," said Paige Stuhlman, a press aide.
Whatever shadows surround Molinaro, they don't appear to have bothered Bloomberg in the slightest. Nary a week goes by that Mayor Mike can't be found nuzzling at Molinaro's side, praising the man who is his political polar opposite. The goal here isn't hard to fathom: Bloomberg wants to make sure that the borough president's constituents never forget that he represents the thin line between them and the multi-culti Democrats. As Molinaro ally Congressman Vito Fossella bluntly put it last month in unmistakably race-shaded terms, a Bloomberg loss in November would put the island "right back in the antagonistic Dinkins years."
Even as his poll numbers soar across the city, Bloomberg has never lost sight of the 4-1 landslide he received from the city's smallest and most Republican borough in the last electionvotes that put him over the top then, and that he's hoping will do so again this time around. This year, Molinaro and Bloomberg cut ribbons for a new $20 million park and recreation area on the south shore and a 42-acre, $100 million shopping center built on once forested, city-owned property (land that preservationists had hoped to retain as public open space). And they've bent over backward to create photo ops. In May, Molinaro, a longtime smoker whose Conservative Party platform calls for overturning Bloomberg's restaurant smoking ban, posed for pictures with the mayor as they passed out free nicotine patches at a Staten Island hospital.
In February, when Molinaro kicked off his re-election campaign, Bloomberg was right there beside him. Molinaro is "the most honest and trustworthy person I have ever met," the mayor told the crowd. "Jimmy Molinaro has always stood with me, and I will always stand with him. Nobody should ever make a mistake about that."
The sterling character reference represented more than standard back- scratching. The mayor's pointed words came just two months after Molinaro was accused by a mob associateturned government witness of accepting $70,000 in under-the-table payments in two 1998 real estate deals. Ralph Garguilo, a Genovese crime family associate, also said that Molinaro had helped put his daughter in a city job and that, in turn, he'd steered work to Molinaro's son. The accusations were made to FBI agents after Garguilo secretly pled guilty and agreed to cooperate in a racketeering case involving wiseguy influence in the powerful Operating Engineers union. More than 20 organized-crime figures and union officials later pled guilty.
Molinaro didn't deny that he'd sold Garguilo the residential properties (city records showed as much). But he insisted he'd never taken anything under the table or gone to bat to get anyone a job, although records showed Garguilo's daughter did work for the Department of Buildings on Staten Island, an office that has long been larded with patronage hires. The allegations came down to dueling accounts from an admitted mobster and a high-level elected official. No charges were sought or brought.
But that wasn't the only time Moli-naro's name arose in the case. Among those charged were the underboss of the Colombo crime family, a burly exrestaurant union official named John "Jackie" DeRoss, and two of DeRoss's sons. After the younger DeRoss men pled guilty, Molinaro sat down to write a letter to the sentencing judge testifying to their good character. Using Borough Hall stationery, the politician wrote that he had lived "around the corner" from the family and that his kids had played with the defendants. He knew the father, Jackie, as "a regular guy," just another parent who rooted for his boys in Little League games, as he later told the Staten Island Advance. The boys' reputation "was always a good one," he wrote, and he beseeched U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson "to please weigh and consider these remarks positively when determining an appropriate sentence for these young men."
It was a strange testament from the chief executive of a borough that, according to the indictment, had been royally ripped off by DeRoss's crew. Using the threat of labor trouble by the Operating Engineers as its battering ram, the mob had forced contractors to accept $100,000-per-year no-show positions at the borough's biggest construction projects, including a new public school, the Bayonne Bridge, Staten Island University Hospital, and even the glittering new minor-league baseball park built for the Staten Island Yankees. Prosecutors said the schemes cost taxpayers needless millions, since most jobs were publicly funded. Moreover, at the press conference announcing the arrests, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the mob's power on Staten Island was such that it controlled every truckload of dirt moved in the borough. The key Mafia figure orchestrating that control, investigators said, was DeRoss Sr.Molinaro's "regular guy."
Nor was the borough president the only one in his office trying to help the mob wrecking crew. Molinaro's late executive assistant Albert De Lillo sent his own letter to the judge on behalf of Nicholas Lupari, another mob associate bagged in the case. De Lillo, who was once Guy Molinari's law partner, wrote that he couldn't understand "how [Lupari] finds himself in this predicament." But he should have had at least a clue. Back in 1982, De Lillo came under federal scrutiny when then U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani subpoenaed records of real estate deals he had handled for wiseguys, including the sale of the Gambino family's Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street.
But Molinaro's civic radar totally broke down when it came to dealing with Calcagno and another longtime friend and fundraiser named Carmine Ragucci. Like Calcagno, Ragucci has also been closely linked to the mob by authorities. Three years ago, a government witness in another Mafia racketeering case testified that Ragucci had made thousands of dollars in payoffs to a Gambino crime family captain named Anthony "Sonny" Ciccone. At the time of the payoffs, Ragucci was the chief executive of the Howland Hook container port, a massive shipping terminal on the Arthur Kill created with the strong support of Molinaro.
With more than 300 longshoremen working for him, Ragucci was one of the borough's biggest employers, and he wore a political hat that gave him even more clout. After Molinaro stepped down as chairman of the borough's Conservative Party in 2000 to run for borough president, he steered the position to Ragucci. As party chief, Ragucci was supposed to be a promoter of family values, but that was hardly the picture of him offered at the waterfront racketeering case.
Frank "Red" Scollo, former president of International Longshoremen's Association Local 1814, testified that he had watched Ragucci nervously pack up to $9,200 a month into brown envelopes. "Carmine said he wanted labor peace," Scollo said.
Ragucci was never charged in the case, but prosecutors dubbed him a Gambino crime family associate, a tag that brought a slew of questions for Molinaro, who had relied on Ragucci and other businesses at Howland Hook to finance his first campaign in 2001. Molinaro told the Advance that he had "no idea" anything was amiss at the facility but that he wasn't about to return any of the campaign money he'd collected there, including $10,000 from Ragucci and his family, $9,500 from Scollo and his union, and another $10,000 from other businesses at the terminal.
Sal Calcagno's role in the affair, however, raised even tougher questions for the borough president. Calcagno, who wore the formal title of campaign finance chairman for Molinaro, was making money in two separate businesses at the terminal. His construction firm had been hired by Ragucci to help build a vast warehouse, a project that led to massive cost overruns for the Port Authority, which sponsored the project. Even more embarrassing for Molinaro was that his son Steven was partners with Calcagno in a trucking company that handled much of the hauling at the facility.
As testimony at the trial revealed, the trucking contracts were doled out directly by Ragucci, and the gangsters took a proprietary interest in who received them. The owner of the other main trucking firm used at Howland Hook testified to a grand jury that he had to pay kickbacks to Ciccone, the Gambino crime family captain. And although Calcagno was never accused of similar payoffs, investigators reported that they'd watched him during a most curious encounter with the crime captain.
The incident occurred on August 23, 2001, at Brioso's, a restaurant in the island's New Dorp section so popular with the wiseguys that investigators bugged their regular table. Seated around it that day were Ciccone, Scollo, and a beefy Gambino thug named Primo Cassarino, who had earlier been recorded telling Ciccone that Calcagno (the gangsters uncharitably referred to him as "Chubby") wanted to see the captain regarding "a problem" at Howland Hook.
When Calcagno entered the restaurant, Ciccone stepped away from the table to speak with him at the bar. A few minutes later, the gangster returned, muttering to his pals about the contractor. "Who the fuck does this guy think he is?" Ciccone was heard to say, "You and your politician pals think you were there before us? We were always there."
No one ever explained exactly what the dispute concerned, but investigators said the episode clearly showed that Calcagno recognized Ciccone's hidden role in the terminal. But the borough president said he didn't have a problem with it. "I don't know what he's done that's wrong," Moli-naro told the Advanceafter the incident was reported. "There's nothing there that to me as a human being is disturbing."
Apparently not. Shortly after he took office in 2002, Molinaro disclosed for the first time, on a filing with the city, that he holds a half-interest in a $600,000 condominium in Siesta Key in Sarasota County, Florida, that is listed in real estate records as owned by Molinaro and Calcagno. In a series of tangled financial transactions involving the unit, former borough president Guy Molinari, along with his daughter Susan, the ex-congresswoman, and her husband, powerful D.C. lobbyist (and also ex-congressman) Bill Paxon, held ownership as well at one point. Records show that Susan Molinari and Paxon sold their shares for $300,000 to Calcagno in April 2002.
The Molinaris refused to answer questions about the property. Calcagno's attorney, Michael Rosen, said the transactions were based on "fair market value." He said a separate deal involving vacant residential property that Molinaro bought from a Calcagno-tied firm on Carteret Street on Staten Island's south shore for $10,000 and that was sold last year for $400,000 was also legitimate.
Molinaro has also shown no disappointment in his friend Ragucci. The executive was ousted from the container port, but with Molinaro's support, he has remained chairman of the island's Conservative Party. This summer, election records show, Ragucci helped gather signatures to secure the party's nomination for Molinaro's re-election. He performed an even more crucial favor for Molinaro's friend the mayor. When Republican Tom Ognibene sought the Conservative endorsement to challenge Bloomberg this Novembervowing to expose the mayor as a liberalRagucci voted as county chairman to deny him the nomination.
Bloomberg has shown his gratitude. On March 7, a couple of weeks after he called the embattled Molinaro the most honest man he'd ever met, Bloomberg threw a campaign fundraiser for the borough president at his lavish East Side townhouse. The party netted more than $100,000. The largest check written that night, for $3,850, came from the mayor himself. That made Bloomberg at the time the second biggest donor to Molinaro's campaign. Only Sal Calcagno and his family gave more.