By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Not that anyone would ever call Sal Catucci naive. He is 68, and like Gargano, keeps himself in trim shape. But while the ambassador exudes boardroom polish, Catucci is a scrappy, salty-talking businessman given to wearing black turtlenecks and a wide-brimmed black hat with a colored band that makes him look like an aging Zorro. After 40 years of making his living around the piers, he has fielded most everything that rough-and-tumble world throws at its denizens. The Red Hook terminal was virtually defunct when he took it over in the early 1990s, and he has turned it into a thriving port that handles more than 50,000 containers a year. Along the way, he acknowledges, disputes with the mob-ridden International Longshoremen's Association, which represents many of his workers, led to angry pushes and shoves.
Law enforcement officials have claimed that Sabato "Sal" Catucci owes his survival and success on the docks to his status as an associate of the Gambino crime family. Mob informants have also described him in familiar terms, and a business partner, also dubbed a mob ally, pled guilty to tax evasion in 2004. Given the mob's longtime hammerlock on the waterfront, such ties are hardly a stretch. But Catucci angrily denies them, citing his antagonistic relationship with the Mafia-friendly ILA, which has never gone to bat for him in his fight to remain in Red Hook. And authorities acknowledge that unlike many others who do business on the docks, Catucci has a clean record, and he hasn't personally shown up in their many surveillances of mob social clubs or wiretaps.
Whatever his associations, Catucci's name would instantly pop up on the radar of anyone checking big political campaign donors. Between 1995 and 2004, when he angrily stopped giving to anyone connected to then governor Pataki, Catucci and his businesses pumped more than $240,000 into the state's Conservative Party, making him the party's biggest single giver. The contributions started after party chairman Mike Long, arguing that the city needed more blue-collar jobs, began championing Catucci's efforts to win a long-term lease from the Port Authority. Catucci also was one of the largest givers to Pataki's push for a new environmental bond act in 1996, donating more than $50,000. In addition, he's doled out generous contributions to Nadler, Yassky, and other pols.
Given the overall heft of those campaign gifts, someone might reasonably conclude thatwaterfront wiseguy or nothere was a man who could well be a soft touch.
A few weeks after the ambassador's visit, Catucci got a call from another man named Gargano who introduced himself as "Charlie's nephew." Frank Gargano said he was an attorney who also ran a public relations office. "Maybe I can help you," Catucci remembers him saying.
Maybe he could, Catucci thought.
Frank Gargano, 36, soon appeared on the Red Hook waterfront in a sporty Mercedes-Benz coupe, ready for a tour of his own. He wore a wide grin and offered a steady salesman's patter about what he'd done and who he knew. He also brought along a pair of men he introduced as business associates, saying they could vouch for his talents and expertise. One was a Queens-based newspaper publisher from El Salvador named Rafael Flores who said he was trying to get the senior Gargano interested in Central American trade possibilities. The other was an aspiring Republican politician from Long Island named Robert Cornicelli. Catucci thought they made for an odd entourage, since the two business associates spent most of their time during the visit joking and laughing, so much so that Catucci later dubbed them "the two clowns." Still, the pair assured Catucci that the nephew was highly capable, that he had helped them, and, most important, could help deal with Charles Gargano.
"Frank's entire pitch was, 'I can handle my uncle,' " said Catucci.
Starting in June 2003, and over the next 10 months, Catucci's American Stevedoring Inc. paid the law offices of Frank Gargano in Melville, Long Island, an $8,500-a-month retainer. The work assignment was never clearly spelled out: The younger Gargano was asked to help with some minor legal mattersan arbitration, a default judgment from a creditorbut most of his efforts, Catucci said, went into trying to persuade his uncle and the Port Authority to extend American Stevedoring's lease.
No reports were filed that the nephew of the state's most powerful economic development official was seeking to influence his uncle's decisions. But then, no reports were required. The Port Authority, along with many of New York's quasi-public agencies over which Charles Gargano held sway throughout the Pataki administration, has long been a kind of free-fire zone for lobbyists with little disclosure. In a notorious instance that sparked reform efforts in Albany, former senator Alfonse D'Amato acknowledged a few years ago that he'd been paid $500,000 by a client just for making a call to Pataki's chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Authoritya fee that also didn't have to be disclosed.
New governor Eliot Spitzer has vowed to change all that, bringing oversight of the authorities into line with strict laws already covering the state's legislature where lobbyists are obligated to file regular disclosure reports. But at the time he signed on with American Stevedoring, Frank Gargano was free to come and go as he pleased among his uncle's agencies. And apparently he did.