Mob domination of the dock workers' union is the stuff of legend in New York. For more than half a century, the International Longshoremen's Association has provided a haven for a rogues' gallery of hoodlums, ranging from Alex "The Ox" DeBrizzi, who kept his local union's treasury in a jar at home, to the urbane Anthony Scotto, the exMafia capo who called mayors and governors his friends. With leadership like that, the ILA had a decades-long losing streak in the city's courtrooms, as scores of officials were convicted of extortion, racketeering, and worse crimes perpetrated from their waterfront roosts.
But that streak ended dramatically this month when a pair of high-salaried ILA officials won acquittal on fraud and conspiracy charges in Brooklyn federal court. "This case is about the Mafia's stranglehold on the ILA," prosecutors promised jurors when the case got under way in late September. But eight weeks later, the jury found Harold Daggett, the head of New Jersey's most powerful local union, and Arthur Coffey, the leader of its growing Florida chapters, not guilty on all counts. Jurors even voted to acquit a third defendant, an alleged captain in the Genovese crime family who disappeared and was believed to have been murdered midway through the trial.
"The jury was so disgusted they acquitted an empty chair," said Gerald McMahon, a defense attorney in the case.
The only conviction was of a man named Al Cernadas, the former leader of a large Newark local union who had the bad luck to have pled guilty before the trial began, admitting that he knew about, but failed to prevent, a mob plot to foist an expensive medical plan upon the members.
Immediately after the acquittals on November 8, the union issued a press release hailing the verdict. "Today is a wonderful day for our ILA," said international union president John Bowers, whose father and uncle once ruled the "pistol local" on Manhattan's West Side docks, so named because that weapon settled all disputes.
Two days later, Bowers's office announced that the union had taken additional cleanup steps. A new code of ethics that bars officials from associating with organized crime figures, among other prohibitions, was made a permanent part of the ILA constitution; an outside investigatorformer state appellate judge Milton Mollen was given an expanded, three-year term to look into corruption allegations, and a former top federal judge, George C. Pratt, was named to serve as a final arbiter on ethical matters.
"It is a checks-and-balances system to show that the ILA is serious about reform and protecting members' rights," said union spokesman James McNamara.
The union's other acknowledged goal is to short-circuit a civil racketeering case against the ILA filed in Brooklyn by the U.S. Department of Justice this summer. The lawsuit alleges that the union has long been controlled by the Gambino and Genovese crime families and calls for a court-im posed trusteeship and the ouster of Bowers and other top officials.
When the lawsuit was filed in July, Bowers accused the government of perpetuating "an outdated stereotype" of the union and focusing on "stale allegations of wrongdoing." Bowers said the feds had ignored its efforts to turn itself around, including adopting the ethics code and hiring Judge Mollen.
"The ILA's commitment to honest trade unionism and vigorous representation of its members' interests is second to none," said Bowers.
But not everyone's been convinced. Tony Perlstein, co-chairman of a group called the Longshore Workers' Coalition which has members at ports around the country, said the union has much further to go. "I don't believe having an ethics counsel is sufficient," he said. The coalition is demanding direct elections for members of the union's executive council and salary caps for officers. (At the Brooklyn trial, prosecutors made a point of introducing evidence of the high salaries paid Coffey, who took in $353,000 in 2003, and Daggett, who topped out at $475,000 the same year.)
Part of the government's problem was that the defendants were not accused of violent crimes, while its own witnesses had murder and mayhem on their résumés.
The prosecution's most compelling testimony came from George Barone, an ailing 81-year-old former top ILA leader and Genovese mobster. Barone, whose testimony helped convict a group of Gambino mobsters at an earlier trial, said he had committed more hits than he had counted. "I didn't keep a scorecard, y'know," he barked at one point. His tool of choice was a gun, and his deadly m.o., defense attorney McMahon pointed out, was one shot to the chest to stun the victim, followed by a kill shot to the head.
At some point in the early 1980s Barone had threatened to kill Daggett, then a young union official. Barone told the story in a matter-of-fact manner, acknowledging that Daggett's demise was discussed and that someone had pegged a shot in his direction during the confrontation.
But then an unusual thing happened. Guided by George Daggett, his attorney (and cousin), Harold Daggett took the stand and gave his own account of the incident.
He was in the midst of making plans to build a new headquarters for his union, Local 1804-1, moving it from the lower West Side docks to northern New Jersey, where the jobs had already migrated, when a mob messenger named Tommy Cafaro told him that Barone wanted to see him. Daggett said he agreed to get in the car, and it raced up the FDR Drive to East 115th Street. There, he was escorted into a large fruit and vegetable store, through a steel door to a darkened room at the rear. "It was dark, boxes all around, no windows," said Daggett. A single lightbulb illuminated Barone, who sat with his back to him. Two other men stood at the door. On the floor was a large, empty canvas bag with an open zipper. All of a sudden, Barone threw down the paper he'd been reading and snarled at Daggett: "You motherfucker, who the fuck are you to take this local away from me? I'm going to fuckin' kill you."
Daggett broke down sobbing as he told the story ("blubbering," as the Daily News' John Marzulli reported it). Judge Leo Glasser told him to relax and take a drink of water. Daggett soldiered on.
" 'This is my fuckin' local; I built this local,' " he said Barone screamed. " 'I'll kill you, your wife, and children.' He pulled out a gun and shoved it in my head. I said, 'Please, don't do this to me,' and he cocked back the trigger, and he said, 'I will blow your brains all over the fuckin' room. I'm going to kill you.' "
Barone didn't shoot. Instead, after some more growling, he told Daggett he could leave. But he couldn't. "I was so nervous I urinated all over myself," Daggett testified. "I couldn't walk. I said, 'I can't move.' I thought one of them was going to shoot me in the back of the head, and I opened the door, and I could hardly walk. I walked and I kept thinking, 'They're going to shoot me.' " At the door, Barone dismissed the staggering Daggett. "Take this guy back to his local," Barone instructed his emissary.
Pending the outcome of the trial, Daggett and Coffey were both suspended from their posts, albeit with pay. Since their acquittal, "they're unsuspended," an ILA spokesman said. But Judge Mollen, the union's ethical-practices counsel, still has jurisdiction over any violations he finds. "I have obtained the transcript of the trial and I have a big stack of it on the floor," he said. "I am reading."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.