Malice's Restaurant

What Rao's and a gangster-run school bus drivers' union have in common

That might have been because, according to a joint state and federal probe of the bus industry in 1989, Grancio wasn't just a consultant, but Greene's silent partner. The arrangement allegedly allowed Greene to run many of his buses nonunion without interference from Local 1181.

The information on the scheme came to the investigators via another mob bus operator, an ex–transit cop named Robert Berring who doubled as a hit man. Berring became an informant after his murder convictions, and detailed how, a decade after Pileggi's exposés, the mob's influence remained pervasive in the industry. A copy of an application for a court-ordered wiretap, obtained by the Voice, shows that Berring spelled out how Grancio helped broker a deal for several large bus companies to avoid paying union-scale wages, allegedly by making payoffs to Spike Bernstein. The ex-cop said the bribes were paid twice a year, at Christmas and when school ended in June, and amounted to a portion of the savings the companies achieved. "Each time a payoff was due, Bernstein would call [Berring's] bus companies to arrange a time and place to meet," the affidavit stated.

At one point, according to the affidavit, Bernstein called Berring and his partner, another mobster, to say that he was getting heat from their employees to sign them up with the union. The workers had even filed a petition with the federal labor board to get an election. Berring said he, Bernstein, and Grancio worked out a solution: The bus matrons, who are paid far less than drivers, would be allowed to become members of Local 1181's sister local, 1061, which represents school escorts. The drivers would remain nonunion.

illustration: Thomas Fluharty

Investigators spent months tailing Bernstein, watching as he met with associates at the Golden Gate Motel off the Belt Parkway in Sheepshead Bay, and visited his close friend "Matty the Horse" Ianniello, then imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. There, Bernstein allegedly received directions on "collecting and dispersing payoffs from bus companies to corrupt union officials and the Genovese family," according to another industry source cited in the affidavit.

It wasn't the first time Bernstein had been tailed by law enforcement. In 1968, he was arrested in Brooklyn with three other men, charged with threatening a Church Avenue merchant that his "head would be put through a cigarette machine and his heart cut out" if he didn't fork over extortion payments. A few years later, he was targeted as Ianniello's alleged bagman in a garment industry corruption case. Spike beat both those raps, however, as well as the 1989 probe. The only charges that resulted from that investigation were against a federal prison guard who was charged with smuggling clean underwear and delicacies to Ianniello from Bernstein. The guard was acquitted, but prosecutors pointed out that Bernstein had gotten the guard's wife a job as a bus matron.

In early 2005, a few months after the Jo Lo lawsuit was dismissed, a group of drivers and matrons met at a Brooklyn diner to discuss the possibility of mounting an electoral challenge to Sal Battaglia's regime. Like legislators, union officials are more likely to die in office or be hauled off to prison than lose at the polls, but despite those long odds, the group decided the time had come. Warren Zaugg was impressed by how many of those who showed up and pushed to make the run were Haitians. "They seemed to be organized," he said. "They had this fever, this passion."

The only contested election anyone could remember was a lone driver who ran a losing race in 1993. But members noticed that even that quixotic campaign seemed to disturb the old guard. "I didn't think we'd get elected, but I thought we'd shake them up," said Zaugg.

Dubbing themselves Members for Change, the dissidents raised money among themselves and issued leaflets. The first item on their platform was "Quality representation for all members: No more refusing to represent members with work-related problems!" They also pledged to enforce overtime rules, and after listing the salaries of top officials, promised to cut their own pay by 25 percent if elected. "We can win and stop the ripoffs!" they wrote.

The dissidents got help from the Brooklyn-based Association for Union Democracy, which provides support for rank-and-file union members. They also picked up crucial aid from a veteran hospitals union organizer named Eddie Kay, and pro bono legal help from Carl Levine, an attorney with the firm of Levy Ratner.

But Battaglia and Bernstein's troops moved to block them at every step. At a chaotic nominations meeting, the dissidents were forced to run as a solid slate so that members cast a single vote, instead of for individual officers, a move that favored the incumbents.

"They wanted to create the impression we were stupid, like we didn't know what we were doing," said Winston Castillo, 37, a driver for five years. "Every time we tried to speak, the microphone went off. When they nominated their own people, it worked just fine."

Passing out flyers was also a challenge. Simon Jean-Baptiste took handbills early in the morning to a large bus yard on Brooklyn's Shore Road operated by Atlantic Express, one of the industry's biggest contractors. As he started handing them out, he said, a union delegate named Sal Ingoglia, who earns $104,000 a year, came and stood directly in front of him. "He was right in my face," said Jean-Baptiste. "Standing almost on my foot." When Jean-Baptiste moved to another gate at the garage, Ingoglia followed him. "You can see the matrons and drivers are scared to come over and take one so, after a while, it is no use. I just left."

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