The Magician's Nephew

The goods on Gargano: A seamy tale of nepotism on the Brooklyn waterfront

"I remember seeing him coming in to see Charlie every now and again," said a former state aide who worked at one of Gargano's agencies. "No one knew exactly what he was doing, only that his uncle was helping him somehow."

According to Catucci and others with business interests on the Red Hook piers, Frank Gargano quickly arranged meetings with his uncle for Catucci and other waterfront businessmen. One meeting was at Charles Gargano's state office on Third Avenue, where the ambassador ruled the powerful Empire State Development Corporation, which oversees New York's economic development agenda, doling out funds and approving projects. There, the men from Red Hook laid out a plan for expanding freight work on the piers. "This is great, great. We're going to do this," one of the businessmen recalled Gargano saying.

The nephew also obtained sit-downs with another high-level Pataki appointee, Port Authority commissioner Bruce Blakeman, the former majority leader of the Nassau County legislature and the Republican Party's candidate for state controller in 1998.

Charles Gargano
photo: Richard B. Levine
Charles Gargano

According to Catucci and others who were at the meetings, Blakeman was sympathetic when he met in his Long Island office with Frank Gargano and Catucci. "Oh, this is ridiculous," Blakeman allegedly exclaimed after Gargano described the problems American Stevedoring was having with the port agency. "This can be worked out," the commissioner was said to have told them.

Catucci said he got a second chance to pre-sent his case to Blakeman when Frank Gargano arranged for the three men to meet for a drink at a fashionable bar on the West Side. This time, according to Catucci, Blakeman had just one question: "He asked, 'Is the ambassador happy?' "

Blakeman told the Voice that he didn't recall the specifics of the conversations, or a meeting at his Long Island office. "I really don't recall that one. I could check my records," he said. But he did remember sitting down with Catucci and Frank Gargano—whom he knew from "Long Island politics"—somewhere in Manhattan at one point.

"My recollection is that Frank Gargano said that he would like me to meet a fellow by the name of Catucci from American Stevedoring, that there were a number of jobs at stake, and he wanted to talk about continuing his lease with the Port Authority. That was pretty much it," said the commissioner. "He asked would I give him 10 minutes of my time, and I gave him 10 minutes of my time. It didn't change or affect my decision in any way."

Blakeman said it was the only occasion he could remember Frank Gargano having approached him about Port Authority business but that he'd never pressed the lawyer about his connection to the matter. Nor was he bothered that the vice chairman's nephew was reaching out to him. "Basically, I thought it was legitimate," he said.

The nephew also opened a political front in his lobbying efforts. Like his uncle, Frank Gargano actively raised campaign funds for the Republican presidential ticket of 2004 (the Bush campaign listed both men as "Pioneers"—those who helped raise $100,000 or more in contributions). When the Bush-Cheney team held a fundraiser at the Sheraton New York Hotel on Seventh Avenue in June 2003, Catucci said that Frank Gargano persuaded him that it would be helpful to buy a pair of $2,000 tickets, saying his uncle would also be there. At the event, the younger Gargano showed up with his pals Flores and Cornicelli, Catucci said. When Frank brought them over to see his uncle, the ambassador greeted his nephew and his friends with hugs and kisses. Catucci got a warm handshake. The ambassador also made a point of noting the company Catucci was keeping. "He said to me, 'I see you are with my nephew here,' " Catucci said. "It was like he was telling me, 'Everything is going to be all right now.' "

There was a social front to the lobbying push as well. On several occasions, Frank Gargano brought Catucci along on trips to Upper East Side restaurants favored by his uncle. Catucci said he joined Frank Gargano at two upscale Italian bistros within a block of each other on First Avenue—Nino's and Campagnola—where the ambassador regularly holds court amid a well-heeled crowd that includes real estate tycoons, entertainment figures, glamorous women, and more than a few bona fide mobsters. There, the pair sat at the economic development czar's tables, swapping stories as Catucci recalls. The specific subject of leases didn't come up, but Frank Gargano assured him later, Catucci said, that they were making headway.

If so, it was hard to see where. While Frank Gargano was allegedly pressing Catucci's cause, the Port Authority, together with the city's economic development office, paid $400,000 for a widely publicized private consultant's study on the future of the Red Hook docks. Although the study was never officially released, the consultant wasted no time letting the South Brooklyn community know he believed maritime freight on the 80 waterfront acres was a waste of space and resources.

Government officials also told shipping-line owners who used the piers that they'd be better off taking their business elsewhere since American Stevedoring's days were numbered. A backup plan to eventually shift the freight operations to another deepwater port in Sunset Park, a move that had originally been endorsed by the Giuliani administration, also failed to get traction with the Port Authority or Bloomberg's City Hall. During those months, Catucci estimated, his business fell by almost half.

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