By Albert Samaha
By Amanda Dingyuan
By Anna Merlan
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By Roy Edroso
The traditional American Mafia was supposed to have run out of gas and guns at least a decade ago, right around the time those two Hall of Famers, John Gotti and Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, were packed off to prison. But if that's true, how then to explain the enduring phenomenon of Joseph Pontoriero and his successful company, Worth Construction?
Pontoriero, known as "Joe P." in the trades and on the streets, has managed to keep his firm in the top 20 of the metropolitan region's biggest contractors for years. Worth Construction, based in Bethel, Connecticut, has built roads, schools, sewage treatment plants, hospitals, corporate offices, even police headquarters and courthouses (talk about your gall)and not badly either, according to its customers. Last year, according to New York Construction, Worth's revenues totaled $186 million.
The problem, according to a growing list of law enforcement agencies and government regulators, is that Worth president Pontoriero is alleged to have long and close links to Gigante's Genovese crime family. Documents filed in federal court in Connecticut, where Pontoriero played a fascinating supporting role in the sex-and-corruption scandal surrounding the former mayor of Waterbury, describe him straight-out as a "member" of the Genovese clan. As any mob buff will tell you, that's a big step up from plain-old mob "associate," which is how the FBI rated Pontoriero back in the early 1980s when he was regularly spotted paying homage at the East Harlem clubhouse of the late Genovese big, the fedora-topped and cigar-chomping Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno.
Pontoriero and his firm have steadfastly denied any illicit contacts, and he has not been charged with a crime. But the Waterbury episode and the Salerno encounters were just two of the items in a lengthy catalog of reasons cited by New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi this month when he turned thumbs down on Worth's bid to undertake a $46 million contract to build a new highway interchange in Orange County for the New York State Thruway Authority.
"We want to avoid vendors who are crooks," Hevesi put it bluntly.
Hevesi stepped in after the Thruway Authority, whose staff had originally rejected Worth as unfit, later buckled after the firm threatened to sue.
In a 12-page explanation of his office's findings, Hevesi noted that Pontoriero and Worth remain the subjects of ongoing bribery and corruption investigations in Connecticut. There, ex-mayor Philip Giordano told investigators back in 2001 (before the mayor himself was nailed for having sex with children) that Pontoriero had plied him with $5,250 in cash, free suits, trips to Italy and the Super Bowl, and campaign contributions, all in exchange for giving Worth preferential treatment for city contracts.
Hevesi said he was troubled as well by Worth's financial statements, which he said disclosed large amounts of cash moving through various related companies for no apparent reason.
And then there was the Fat Tony issue. When the comptroller asked him about his meetings with Salerno, Pontoriero insisted they had just talked about the weather. As it happened, the FBI was listening in when Pontoriero dropped in at Salerno's Palma Boy Social Club on East 115th Street on February 13, 1985. Salerno was heard moaning about another Mafia honcho whose car had been bugged by the feds, capturing reams of mob secrets.
"Jesus Christ," commented the builder. "You know you gotta be careful where you talk . . . you gotta be careful."
Salerno said he was sympathetic: "You can't blame the guy . . . you talk in the car, I talk."
"Oh yeah," Pontoriero said. "A lot of people think that's the best spot sometimes."
The comptroller's reps read Pontoriero the transcript and asked him what that was all about. "Mr. Pontoriero could not explain the conversation or its meaning," the comptroller reported.
What he might have said, if his lawyers had let him speak his mind, is that it's not as though any of this is news to anyone. Government regulators have been pestering Worth about its wiseguy associations for years. It started in 1995 in New Jersey after Worth won a $154 million award to build the Atlantic City Convention Center. The state attorney general ran up a red flag, citing the Palma Boy tapes (Pontoriero was an unindicted co-conspirator at Salerno's 1987 racketeering trial), and Worth's penchant for using allegedly mob-controlled subcontractors.
Three years later, the New York City School Construction Authority, for which Worth had built four schools, also started asking questions. By that time, the dossier had grown. Among the queries was why a powerful Genovese family figure named Liborio "Barney" Bellomo had been seen driving around in a car registered to Worth.
When Pontoriero refused to answer its questions, the agency yanked the firm's approval to carry out further schools work.
That move, in turn, highlighted Pontoriero's generous political contributions. The builder poured $20,000 into Governor Pataki's 1998 campaign, and his firm gave another $24,000 to former U.S. senator Al D'Amato. When a pair of Daily News reporters asked Pataki and D'Amato why they would take money from a contractor who didn't pass muster with the School Construction Authority, they promptly returned the cash. (As it happened, they needn't have bothered. Newseditors, in their wisdom, decided the story wasn't worthy to print.)