The Clean-Up Man


At a quarter of a million dollars a year, the best part-time job in America may well be the one held by feisty criminal defense attorney Thomas Puccio. The superstar lawyer, who won an acquittal for millionaire Claus von Bulow in 1985 on charges he tried to murder his high-society wife, pulls down that salary for running a once heavily mobbed-up Teamsters union local at Kennedy airport.

Appointed by a federal judge in 1992, Puccio has collected a total of $2.25 million from the 3000-member local. But it’s not just the pay that makes it a good deal; the working conditions aren’t bad either.

Although he has full responsibility for the local, Puccio has devoted most of his time to his law practice, which has included representation of felons like preppie rapist Alex Kelly, giant corporations like TLC Beatrice Holdings, and major securities firms like Merrill Lynch.

He’s been able to do so by handling few union tasks directly.

Puccio, 56, doesn’t attend meetings with members (“Why would I? I’m not running for anything,” he explained). He doesn’t sit through tedious bargaining sessions with employers (“I put people in place who can handle these things”). He doesn’t conduct investigations (ex-FBI agents carry them out). He doesn’t even maintain a log of his work or his hours (“I don’t keep track of that,” he said).

In addition to Puccio’s salary as trustee, members shoulder the cost of all the outside lawyers and investigators he brings in. There is little to show, however, for all the expenses. To date, Puccio has brought no disciplinary actions against any members, and other than routine benefit fund claims against employers filed by outside lawyers he has hired, no lawsuits have been filed to recover union assets lost during the mob era. Even his mandated quarterly reports filed with the court arrive six months late and contain few details.

His aloof management style has left both members and those who deal with the local wondering just how the high-priced lawyer makes his contribution.

“I go to meetings regularly, I’ve never met Puccio,” said one truck driver, a member of the local for 11 years. “He’s never there. One time, years back, he came to a meeting, stayed maybe 10 minutes, then said he had a prior commitment and left.”

“He’s simply invisible,” said an attorney who represents employers with contracts with the union. The attorney said he tried repeatedly several years ago to reach Puccio regarding a pair of union shop stewards believed to be at the heart of a massive theft ring plaguing his client’s airport warehouse. Puccio never responded, the lawyer said, and the stewards were later charged by the Queens district attorney as leaders of a major mob-tied fencing operation. Puccio denied the claim, saying he has responded to every allegation of corruption.

Last month, Puccio received
a letter from the union’s
national office stating
that investigators
had identified a dozen
Local 295 members with
possible mob ties.

But the local Puccio oversees was once notorious for such gangland antics. Teamsters Local 295 is the one the mobsters in Goodfellas gloatingly refer to as “ours.” Its members—freight truckers and warehouse workers—supplied inside tips to the mob on valuable freight shipments that could easily be hijacked. When the FBI staged a 1987 raid on the local’s old offices in Jamaica near JFK, they pulled guns and a coded book of employer payoffs from behind ceiling tiles. Two prior presidents, one a Mafia capo, were convicted of racketeering and sent to prison.

Puccio, a former federal prosecutor, was given sweeping powers to clean house. Federal District Judge Eugene Nickerson authorized him to hire and fire officials, subpoena testimony, boot corrupt members, sign labor contracts, and go after any firm or individual believed to have cheated the union and its members over the years. To pull it off, Nickerson ordered federal and local law enforcement to assist Puccio at no cost.

But nine years after that awesome weaponry was placed at his disposal, problems remain. Last month, Puccio received a letter from the union’s national office stating that its investigators had identified a dozen Local 295 members with possible organized crime ties. The findings came as a result of a probe by a team of former FBI agents and ex-prosecutors working for national Teamsters president James P. Hoffa. The Teamsters have been under a government consent decree since 1989, and Hoffa is trying to make the case that his union can mop up whatever lingering corruption remains.

Puccio is skeptical about the allegations. “I sincerely doubt that when I finish, there are going to be any steps taken against these people,” he said.

A dramatically different record has been chalked up at a sister Teamsters affiliate, Local 851, which represents clerical staff at many of the same air freight firms that Local 295 has contracts with. There, another court-appointed monitor, named in 1994, has brought 33 disciplinary actions, barring 10 members permanently for continued associations with organized crime. At Local 851, lawyer Ronald DePetris also filed two massive civil racketeering cases against companies that had benefited from mob schemes, winning a total of $2.5 million in settlements—awards that paid the cost of his salary and then some.

Last fall, DePetris confirmed to the court that his union was ready for democratic elections, and they are being held this month. Elections also were conducted last year at two other once mob-tied Teamsters locals—the private sanitation workers and construction delivery unions, both of which were placed under court trusteeship after Puccio’s local.

The slow progress at Local 295 has caused frustration among leaders of the national Teamsters Union, which sent lawyers into Nickerson’s courtroom in January to ask for a schedule for elections.

“Basically, we are kind of at a stalemate [as to] whether or not the union is ready to proceed to elections,” said Teamsters lawyer Bruce Maffeo at the January 12 hearing.

Rightly or wrongly, the perception among Teamsters members, and even among some in law-enforcement circles, is that Puccio has a good thing going and is reluctant to give it up. It’s a perception that feeds an already widespread cynicism among union members, who see court-appointed watchdogs like Puccio as part of an old-boy network of ex-prosecutors and judges who are paid big bucks to oversee once crime-ridden unions but who themselves receive little oversight from those who appoint them.

In the case of Local 295, members note that Puccio makes more than double the $116,000-a-year salary received by Anthony Calagna, the convicted Luchese crime family member who used to run it. The local’s coffers, which dipped dangerously at one point during Puccio’s trusteeship, are currently at the same $2 million level as when Puccio took over. And the lawyer’s high-priced services have raised eyebrows throughout the union.

“‘He makes the wiseguys look like amateurs’—that’s the comment you hear most often among the members,” said a labor official who deals regularly with the local.

Puccio emphatically dismisses such criticism, saying he is fulfilling the government’s mandate and that the members are getting their money’s worth. “These people have been saying the same thing since day one,” he said. He said he hasn’t brought charges against members because the gangsters fled the local on his arrival. While he hasn’t filed his own RICO cases, he said he has helped recoup about $1 million for the benefit funds.

“You know what I’ve done?” he declared in a loud voice, leaning across a table in a restaurant near the Eastern District court in Brooklyn, where the order appointing him was signed. “I’ve run this union extremely well for 10 years. Is it worth many times the fee I get? You bet it is. What’s a good contract worth? What are good [benefit fund] investments worth? Will one of these guys who [eventually] gets elected do as well as me? Not likely.

“You want to get someone else to do it?” he continued. “Get someone less expensive? You get someone with less experience. Here they have someone with a tremendous amount of law-enforcement experience. Tremendous amount of legal experience, someone who knows management. It’s like anything else—you can get someone to do a job for whatever price you offer.”

No one questions Tom Puccio’s experience.

In the 1970s, he was a hard-working, ambitious young prosecutor who was the terror of Brooklyn federal court. His dogged persistence cracked the case of the $73 million in French Connection heroin that mysteriously disappeared from police storage. He made national headlines as the head of the Organized Crime Strike Force whose operatives posed as bribe-paying Arab sheiks in an elaborate sting code-named “Abscam” that brought down a score of politicians, including U.S. Senator Harrison Williams.

Turning to defense work in the early ’80s, he beat back a planned federal indictment for drug distribution against tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis. That case led to von Bulow, then facing a second trial after his first conviction was overturned on appeal. In a Rhode Island courtroom, Puccio put his microscopic attention to detail to work, winning a case many thought unwinnable. When Bronx political boss Stanley Friedman was charged with plundering the city’s Parking Violations Bureau by then U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani, Puccio represented him only to see his case go down the tubes after his client bragged on the stand of his vaunted political powers.

The perception among
Teamsters members,
and even among some in
law-enforcement circles,
is that Puccio has a good
thing going and is
reluctant to give it up.

But the loss didn’t hurt Puccio’s reputation as one of New York’s most sought-after lawyers. He kept John Mulheren, a millionaire investor accused of insider trading, out of prison. He was hired by the wealthy parents of Alex Kelly, the high school wrestler from Darien, Connecticut, who fled the country after being accused of raping a 16-year-old girl. Puccio’s tough talk about the teenage victim inside and outside the courtroom angered many people. But that’s what defendants in trouble pay for. They don’t want a dumb, sweet-natured labrador; they want a cagey pit bull. And Puccio is considered one of the best in the business.

He told most of these stories in his autobiography, In the Name of the Law (written with New York political reporter Dan Collins), which was published in 1995.

But the book never mentions Puccio’s trusteeship of the mob-tied union that for decades had a hammerlock on the the nation’s busiest freight airport. “The book wasn’t about this,” responded Puccio. “It wasn’t appropriate.”

Yet it’s hard to believe Puccio couldn’t have turned the story of former Teamsters official Patrick Dello Russo into good reading. Dello Russo, the Luchese crime family’s feared enforcer at the airport, was a former Local 295 shop steward who was alleged by the government to have had several mob hits under his belt. In front of several members, he beat bloody another Teamster steward who got in his way.

Dello Russo jumped the fence to work for management when the government moved to seize the local, a position that allowed him to continue orchestrating the mob’s airport enterprises. Puccio’s original deputy in the local, a zealous former federal labor investigator named Michael Moroney, launched a far-reaching investigation of Dello Russo, with legal help from Joel Cohen, another former prosecutor from Puccio’s federal strike force days. Dello Russo became the linchpin that led to the federal trusteeship of Local 851, whose officials were revealed to be Dello Russo cronies.

To make sure he could never again be a power in the union, Dello Russo was later barred from membership by a court-appointed national Teamsters administrator. This makes him the only Local 295 member removed since Puccio took over.

But the gangster is only a fuzzy memory to the defense lawyer. Asked about Dello Russo last week, Puccio, who still recalls minor players from his prosecutor days, expressed puzzlement. “The name sounds familiar,” said Puccio. “I think Mike [Moroney] may have done something with him.”

Mike Moroney, whose investigations led him into a public dispute about alleged organized-crime ties of then Teamsters president Ron Carey, was later replaced by Michael Tobin, a former Puccio investigator with no labor background.

Tobin, who receives $113,500 a year, is now the day-to-day overseer for the local. Members, however, describe him too as remote and often unavailable. (Puccio refused to let Tobin answer questions for this article, or to allow the Voice access to the union’s new offices in Valley Stream.)

Pressed to name his key contributions to the local, Puccio repeatedly cited his work with the union’s benefit funds, which are managed jointly with those of Local 851.

“I’ve made decisions on the pension and welfare funds that are worth millions,” he said.

Although he avoids membership gatherings, Puccio has been a regular attendee at quarterly benefit fund trustee meetings, which are held in an office on Dag Hammarskjold Plaza not far from his Park Avenue law offices. But according to several people who attended meetings with him, Puccio displayed little interest in routine matters involving member benefit payments, focusing instead on investment decisions for the $450 million funds.

At one point, Puccio introduced an officer of a multi-billion-dollar Connecticut-based hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management—a firm he had previously represented—to pitch a potential investment to the union. Board members recall Puccio recommending investment in the hedge fund, which was managed by prize-winning economists and wildly popular among major financial institutions. To do so entailed putting a minimum of $10 million into one of the fund’s offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. Puccio said he took no position other than making the introduction. “I maybe mentioned it to some board members,” he said. “They were interested in [hedge funds] and I said, ‘OK, I can bring these people in.’ ” He said he disclosed that the fund was a former client.

The rest of the trustees, including the investment adviser, rejected the proposal as too risky. Later, they had reason to believe they’d acted wisely. In 1998, the hedge fund collapsed and had to be bailed out by federal money regulators.

Puccio maintained the investment would have been “absolutely appropriate” and brushed off the near disaster. “They would’ve gotten their money back. All the newer investors did,” he said.

As for the local itself, Puccio said he has been “moving toward elections for the past two years.” The “bottom line reason” they haven’t been held, he said, is that he wants to merge Local 851 into Local 295. Combining the two locals is something Puccio has repeatedly advanced throughout his trusteeship. Such a merger would accomplish an economy of scale, give the union more clout, and keep the mob from filtering back in, he said.

The idea has been rejected, however, by the U.S. attorney’s office and by Local 851. Both have stated that 851’s clerical workers, who are already holding elections, would be overwhelmed by Local 295’s drivers and warehousemen.

Puccio remains adamant. “Nobody’s been able to convince me it makes sense to have two separate unions,” he said. “This is all about protecting turf.”

Meanwhile, in the wake of the allegations from the national union, Puccio is moving to defend his own turf. Rather than handle the investigation himself or use his deputy, he has hired a firm run by another of his former agents—one who worked with him on the Abscam case—to pursue the charges. The bills will be paid by the local.