The Magician's Nephew

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

According to Catucci, Frank Gargano's response to these setbacks was to ask for more money. He said the nephew urged Catucci and other businessmen on the docks to chip in together for a joint lobbying push that would include his public relations firm, Gargano Associates, as well. "He was going to be our lobbyist, attorney, public relations, everything rolled into one," said one of the port businessmen who heard the new pitch.

The fee that Frank Gargano said he would require for this enhanced effort, said Catucci, was $300,000. "I thought, 'Isn't that interesting. That's the same number his uncle came up with.' "

Others were already highly skeptical. A former waterfront business executive said he got "a terrible vibe" after dining with Catucci and Frank Gargano. "It was all, 'I can get Charlie to do this,' then hitting Sal on the arm. And 'We can work on Charlie for this.' It was one step short of being illegal. The guy was creepy. I told Sal to stay away from him."

Charles Gargano
photo: Richard B. Levine
Charles Gargano

Mike Long, the influential Conservative Party leader who had tried to help Catucci, also had a negative reaction when he learned that Charlie Gargano's nephew was representing American Stevedoring. "That clearly was a mistake," Long told the Voice, adding that Gargano's hiring sent "the wrong message."

But Catucci said that Frank Gargano insisted that the stevedoring company needed his services more than ever. The nephew called him several times a day, ostensibly updating him about events within the Port Authority. "He seemed to know what was going on there, knew what was going to be brought up at board meetings," said Catucci. "He would say, 'You stay away from Charlie. Let me handle everything.' Over and over, he'd tell me, 'Don't worry about it, it's being worked on.' "

Sal Catucci, however, started to believe he was being had. Despite Charles Gargano's friendly words to them, Catucci and the other businessmen from Red Hook saw no apparent effort on the ambassador's part to change the agency's position on ending the marine container terminal in Red Hook, or, for that matter, helping to launch a new port in Sunset Park. In fact, the word that got back to them from inside the giant agency was that when the subject came up internally of what to do about Red Hook, the elder Gargano was their biggest opponent.

Nor, Catucci maintained, was Frank Gargano much help as a lawyer. He failed to show up at one court hearing, Catucci said, and had also failed to submit court filings required for another minor legal chore the nephew had agreed to handle.

For a while, Catucci said he simply put off Frank Gargano's demands for a higher retainer. Then, in late 2003, he informed him that he would be dropping the $8,500 a month altogether early in 2004. The younger Gargano was irate, Catucci said. He left a 7:30 a.m. message with Catucci's office. "I don't know how my uncle is going to take this," he said in the message.

As it happened, Frank Gargano wouldn't have had much time for lobbying over the next year anyway. A few months after he was dropped by American Stevedoring, he declared his candidacy for a seat on Suffolk County's legislature, the body that decides most local spending. A win in that race would be a stepping-stone to higher office. He was considered a sure thing since he brought a well-known last name to the race, and Republicans had held the seat he sought—representing Deer Park, Melville, and Dix Hills—for more than 25 years. He also had four separate ballot lines to run on: GOP, Conservative, Independence, even the Working Families Party.

And he also had the support of many of his uncle's friends and business associates who donated generously to his campaign. Port Authority commissioner Bruce Blakeman gave $750 for the race. Michael Koffler, the successful private schools entrepreneur whose MetSchools received a $500,000 grant from the Empire State Development Corporation, gave $1,000. Pataki transit chief and real estate baron Peter Kalikow also gave $1,000. Steve Witkoff, whose properties include the landmarked Woolworth building, and who has also received aid from ESDC, kicked in $500. Steven Ross, CEO of Related Development, which won ESDC's backing to build the new $800 million Moynihan rail station, gave $500 as well.

Even a wealthy chiropractor who is a regular dining companion of the ambassador chipped in. Dr. Joseph Mirto, who helped persuade the Pataki administration to mandate insurance coverage for chiropractic services, gave $1,250 for the campaign.

But in the midst of the race, Newsday reported that Frank Gargano had received 18 months of free rent at his Melville office, courtesy of a local chamber of commerce—which was funded by grants from his uncle's agency (the misspending has since become the subject of a scorching audit by the state comptroller's office that demanded the agency repay more than $100,000 to the state). The candidate got more bad ink when he mailed out a pre-election flyer claiming several endorsements, including those of the Suffolk County district attorney and the head of the county's ethics commission, both of whom angrily denied making any such endorsements. On election day, Frank Gargano was defeated by his Democratic opponent by more than 10 percentage points.

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