The Man Who Got Away


In the early evening of December 9, 1998, a longtime Democratic Party district leader, a slim, gray-haired man named James McManus, walked into a fashionable Italian restaurant on Seventh Avenue near Times Square. As he entered, he was greeted with a hug and a kiss by a labor consultant named Michael Crimi, who had been seated at a table with the owner of the restaurant.

“This is the man that runs the West Side,” said Crimi proudly as he brought McManus over to the owner’s table.

As the three men sat chatting, two detectives nearby tried to listen in. They were there to investigate corruption in the roofing industry, an effort that resulted two years later in charges against 13 individuals, including top contractors and union officials. It was one of a series of probes by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, which has long specialized in such cases. As in a lot of investigations, information picked up on wiretaps took prosecutors into some unexpected areas, and this was one of them: a midtown meeting at a ritzy café between a mob-tied business broker and one of the city’s most venerable political leaders.

Also, as in many investigations, some targets emerged unscathed. No charges were filed against Crimi, who was a key focus of the probe for 18 months. Neither Crimi’s dealings with McManus nor his dealings with other influential New Yorkers were ever made public until now. Prosecutors said they just didn’t have the goods. Nevertheless, the picture that emerges of their investigation, as laid out in dry affidavits filed with the court as the case progressed, provides one of those brief glimpses behind the curtain into how power in this city sometimes operates, as well as a look at some of the the shadowy figures who often wield it.

At the age of 68, Jimmy McManus has been a power broker in Manhattan politics for so long that a lot of people would agree with Crimi’s flattering remark about his running the West Side. He has been a Democratic district leader since 1963, the third generation of a family of political leaders that dates back to 1892, and the head of the McManus Midtown Democratic Association on West 44th Street, the borough’s last bastion of old-school, Tammany Hall-style politics. His endorsements have often been enough to help propel senators, mayors, and judges into office. His annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast draws names like Pataki, Schumer, Clinton, and Spitzer.

Mike Crimi, 66, is a power broker as well, though a far less well known one and from a different wing of city influence. A former national official of the roofers union, Crimi is described by those who have watched him over the years as a fixer, a man to see for help with ticklish, labor-related business problems. For more than 25 years he has floated in and out of investigations of high-level, mob-tied labor racketeering. Law enforcement officials list his job description as “organized crime middleman,” a broker for corrupt payoffs from contractors to union officials selling sub-par wage rates and labor peace. Those who know him describe Crimi as smooth and articulate, able to move easily in circles that include wealthy and prominent New Yorkers, always working the crowd at industry banquets.

More ominously, he also provides what investigators refer to as “forceful support” for contractors engaged in disputes with other firms.

The nature of his clout became apparent after an embarrassing episode in 1985 when The New York Times‘ Selwyn Raab reported that the Battery Park City Authority, then in the midst of a $4 billion building binge, had put Crimi on the payroll as a $20,000-a-year consultant to smooth labor relations on its projects. He was, law enforcement officials said at the time, an associate of the Genovese crime family with some grisly history. Crimi was accused of the 1978 murder of a loan shark whose bullet-ridden body was found stuffed in a car trunk at Kennedy Airport. Crimi was acquitted of that charge, but not until after one of his co-defendants, a Teamster official, also wound up dead in a trunk, this time at LaGuardia. A separate 1979 conviction of Crimi for loan-sharking was later overturned after an appeals court ruled the Queens judge at his trial had improperly instructed the jury.

After the Times story, the authority quickly let Crimi go, but the State Investigations Commission held hearings on the matter and, records show, discovered that Crimi was handling at least a dozen consulting clients at the time, each of which, like Battery Park City, had him on retainer for at least $20,000 per year.

Crimi’s connections were again in evidence a few years later when he orchestrated the merger of two employers’ associations representing the largest drywall contractors in the city and on Long Island. In 1990, Crimi was named executive director of the new group, the Association of Wall-Ceiling and Carpentry Industries of New York, several of whose member firms had been cited in federal and state investigations for bid-rigging and organized-crime ties.

Mob defectors have explained to authorities that part of Crimi’s muscle stems from his marriage to a niece of an old-time Mafia don named Frank “Funzi” Tieri, a small, dapper man who held sway over the Genovese crime family in the 1970s. Tieri, whose tough-guy image was enhanced by the mechanical voice box he was forced to speak through due to throat cancer, was the first crime boss convicted under RICO statutes of running a mob family.

All of which made Mike Crimi an excellent target when he fell into an ongoing probe into construction corruption by Morgenthau’s office and the School Construction Authority in 1998. After investigators picked up Crimi on wiretaps talking about deals with large roofing contractors, they were quickly able to secure additional eavesdropping warrants for his home telephone and multiple cell phones. They watched him regularly, even surveilling his mother’s wake at a funeral home in Ozone Park in September 1998. They followed his sleek black Jaguar, affidavits show, as he repeatedly drove to the Bronx to meet with the then acting boss of the Genovese crime family, a reclusive figure named Dominick “Quiet Dom” Cirillo, who has managed to avoid legal jeopardy, mob experts say, because of his immense caution.

They also listened as Crimi talked tough with a wealthy East Side developer about helping his construction project use non-union labor.

“I told you I’ll make your job go non-union; it’ll cost you seventy, eighty thousand. For me! OK?” Crimi was heard to say to developer Mark Perlbinder in a February 1999 conversation.

And they noted that Crimi made multiple calls to the office and home of one of the city’s largest real estate owners and biggest campaign contributors, Leonard Litwin, whose Glenwood Management Corporation owns some 4500 apartments. Other calls went to the offices of the carpenters union, the Teamsters, the lathers, the electricians, and sheet-metal workers.

Crimi’s labor touch was so deft that he was overheard talking about how he had helped an unnamed contractor rid himself of “the rat”—the big rubber blow-up rodent used to taunt non-union contractors.

The investigators also heard vivid descriptions of the fear quotient that underscored Crimi’s business dealings. “I want Mike not to call me anymore,” lamented one of the owners of a major roofing firm, who was allegedly secretly paying Crimi $500 in cash each week for his assistance in using cheaper labor. Anthony Caggiano of Princeton Restoration, who was later indicted in the case and pled not guilty, said he was looking for a way to get Crimi “and his gangster friends” out of his life and business.

“I’m not worried about myself so much,” said Caggiano to a neighbor. “But I am worried about my kids and my wife, who are definitely home alone at times.”

Ensuing events proved Caggiano was right to be concerned. One of the people the roofer said he wanted off his back was a man named George Scherer, whom Crimi had placed on Princeton’s payroll but who spent much time serving as a go-fer for the labor consultant. In the midst of the investigation, Scherer, apparently heavily coked up at the time, drew two guns on a pair of men during an argument in a Long Island bar, killing one and leaving the other badly wounded. After the shooting, Scherer left a boastful message on Caggiano’s voice mail, calling himself “Billy the Kid.” Scherer was later arrested and convicted of manslaughter.

One of Crimi’s labor consulting clients, investigators had learned, was Romeo DeGobbi, the owner of Limoncello, an elegant restaurant located inside the swank Michelangelo Hotel, which has replaced the old Hotel Taft on 51st Street. DeGobbi, wiretaps showed, was looking to evade his obligations under a union contract.

Which is why the two detectives were watching curiously when Crimi gave McManus his effusive greeting and brought him over to DeGobbi’s table. The next day, listening in on Crimi’s cell-phone conversations, detectives heard DeGobbi complain to Crimi that he was desperate to obtain a city catering license.

“If we don’t have a license in four days . . . we have to close the place and cancel all the events that we have booked,” DeGobbi told Crimi. DeGobbi said he had sent “Jimmy . . . some paper” and he was waiting to hear. Crimi responded that he was on his way to see McManus and that he would swing by the restaurant afterward.

An hour later, Crimi called McManus at his political club to tell him DeGobbi was going to pay $5000 for their help.

“OK, I did that deal for five, and you’ll get it tomorrow morning,” he said.

“Oh, great,” responded McManus.

“OK?” said Crimi.

“OK,” answered McManus.

Crimi went on to explain that he had conned DeGobbi into believing that all the money was going to someone else and that McManus had asked for an additional $1000 for himself, but that Crimi had turned him down. “I told him that it has nothing to do with you, and you lost on it, but I said no. OK?” said Crimi. “In other words, he owes you something. He owes you a favor—that’s what I did.”

“And he’s gonna pay me five?” asked McManus.

“Tomorrow morning,” said the consultant. “You make the appointment . . . and he’ll meet you and he’ll have the money.”

“And then, I’ll give you two . . . two and a half,” said the district leader.

“Yeah, next week,” said Crimi. “I’m gonna have lunch with you.”

“OK, great,” answered McManus.

Five days later, shortly after midnight on December 15, 1998, detectives watched as Crimi walked into the McManus Midtown Democratic Association. He was there about 15 minutes, and then departed.

In a wiretap affidavit submitted to the court on December 17, 1998, investigators noted that McManus had recently resigned his longtime position as a senior administrator with the city’s Board of Elections and, despite serving as an elected district leader, was essentially a private citizen.

They summed up their observations this way: “Although the above referenced conversations with McManus suggest that Crimi is brokering a payoff to McManus to expedite the catering license for DeGobbi, McManus is no longer a public servant, and thus, payment to him, standing alone, would not appear to be criminal.” The conversations certainly suggested that McManus might be using his influence with a city official, the affidavit stated, but without further evidence, “whether payment to a public servant might be involved and whether McManus’ acts are criminal, cannot be determined at this time.”

Whatever the criminal implications, investigators were apparently unable to learn anything else about the incident. Although detectives continued to spot Crimi at Limoncello and overheard him telling other mob pals to meet him there, that aspect of the investigation never went any further.

“We had scant evidence,” said one law enforcement official familiar with the case, who added that an examination of McManus’s phone records produced no leads. “There are no further phone conversations about it. You have to flip somebody or have someone tell you what it is all about. McManus and Crimi aren’t about to tell you. We never confronted them with this because we never learned more about it.”

Last week, McManus sat at a long table in his political club, going over expenses from the funeral home he operates and preparing to handle the flow of neighborhood residents who come twice a week to the club looking for help. McManus grinned when reminded of the phrase Crimi had used to introduce him. “That’s what they say,” he said, shaking his head.

“I have known him a long time,” he said, referring to Crimi. “I go to all the labor dinners. That’s probably where I know him from. He was always a nice guy.” Some time ago, McManus said, he had received a formal notice from the D.A.’s office, informing him that he had been overheard on the wiretaps. “I didn’t worry,” he said. “I had no dealings with Mike.”

McManus said he had no clear recollection of the matter involving the Limoncello. DeGobbi is now a member of his club, he said, having joined the same year that the wiretapped discussions took place. “I could have tried to help him,” acknowledged McManus. “That’s a normal thing to do. Look, paper lays on a desk sometimes.”

In fact, McManus had plenty of friends at City Hall who might have been eager to help. Despite his generations-old party affiliation, the district leader engineered an endorsement from his club for the re-election of Republican Rudy Giuliani as mayor in 1997. “I knew [Democratic candidate Ruth] Messinger couldn’t win; that’s what it was,” he explained. There were also benefits. McManus’s brother, Denis, won a high-level patronage post at the city’s Off-Track Betting Corporation from the Giuliani administration, and the mayor was a regular attendee at McManus’s annual birthday party and fundraiser.

The district leader said he had no memory either of the $5000 payment, but suggested it might have come as a contribution to his club. Later, however, he changed his mind. “If I’d gotten that money, I’d remember it. People are always saying they are going to pay me for favors. I don’t take a dime.”

McManus was more certain, however, that the matter had never come up in conversations with his friend, District Attorney Morgenthau. “I know him since he ran for governor,” said McManus. “In what? 1958?” It was 1962 when Morgenthau ran a futile race against incumbent Nelson Rockefeller, before going on to become the city’s premier prosecutor. McManus said the two men lunch together about every six months, usually at Forlini’s, the D.A.’s favorite spot, on Baxter Street behind the criminal courts.

“I’m from the old school,” said McManus. “You never ask your personal friends to jeopardize their positions.”

Limoncello’s need for a catering license also apparently ended. Neither the restaurant nor the hotel hold the permit, although catering is offered on a regular basis to guests. City consumer affairs department officials said they had no record of the permit or any past violations. DeGobbi, who is well known for having worked at Le Cirque and other restaurants, ducked several efforts to interview him, refusing to respond to numerous messages. As for his labor relations at the café, officials at Local 6 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union said arbitrators have cited DeGobbi for shortchanging employees on wages.

The restaurateur wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to talk about Mike Crimi. Developer Mark Perlbinder is a society-page regular, an avid gardener at his estate amid the Sagaponack dunes, and a collector of rare French porcelain. He has built several expensive high-rises on Manhattan’s East Side, but said he had no idea who Mike Crimi was when initially asked. Reminded about Crimi’s work for his business in 1999, Perlbinder said, “I haven’t spoken to him in four years.” Whatever dealings he’d had with Crimi, the builder insisted, he had no memory of them. “I must talk to 100 people a week,” he said. When the Voice offered to share with him a transcript of his conversations with Crimi, Perlbinder said he had no interest and hung up the phone.

According to the version in the wiretap affidavit, it was the kind of discussion most people don’t easily forget.

“What’s happening, buck? You’re not paying this guy his fucking money?” was Crimi’s opening conversational gambit.

Perlbinder said that he hadn’t made the payments to someone named “Steve” because he didn’t like his attitude. “I’m not going to pay him out of pocket, advance him, like he’s a contractor entitled to the money,” said Perlbinder. “He’s gonna have to wait.”

Crimi strongly disagreed. “Mark, let me tell you a little story, OK? Very seriously. My ass is in trouble. Alright? . . . I told you I’ll make your job go non-union, it’ll cost you seventy, eighty thousand. For me! OK?”

“Alright, alright, Mike, I get—,” Perlbinder began before Crimi interrupted, saying something forceful, but unintelligible. Whatever it was, Perlbinder quickly backed down. “Alright Mike, I hear you, OK,” said Perlbinder. “I guess what I was turned off by was their attitude—”

“Please!” said Crimi, cutting him off again. He agreed with the developer that the men demanding payment were “cocksuckers” but, nevertheless, had to be paid.

“OK, buddy, I want to be your friend, alright?” Crimi added. “I just want you to honor the commitment you made with me. Fuck them, they’re not worth it.”

The discussion ended with a considerably meeker Perlbinder pledging to pay up. “I’ll take care of it next week,” he promised.

“Thank you very much,” said Mike Crimi. “I really appreciate your cooperation.”

Real estate magnate Leonard Litwin, who received at least four calls at his home number in Great Neck, and another nine to his office, according to wiretap affidavits, also didn’t want to discuss Crimi, failing to respond to repeated messages.

The two-year-long secret phase of the roofers’ investigation ended in early November 1999, when search warrants were executed at 22 locations, including a dozen construction firms and the office of Local 8 of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers, and Allied Workers on Dean Street in Brooklyn.

The indictments came down a few months later, in July 2000, and defense attorneys were provided with two large boxes of records from the investigation, as required by law. A trial for several of the defendants is expected to begin next month. Crimi’s attorney, Lawrence Hochheiser, the same man who successfully defended him back in the early 1980s on murder and loan-sharking charges, said the records were never disclosed to him or his client. “So why wasn’t he indicted?” asked Hochheiser, going on to answer his own question. “It’s because he is a consultant. He takes fees. Just as I take fees for what I do. It’s perfectly legal.”

Maybe so. “A labor consultant is the functional equivalent of a building expediter,” said one prosecutor. “When you catch them passing on the money to officials, that’s illegal.”

Some of those arrested in the case also scratched their heads about why Crimi wasn’t rounded up as well, particularly after they got a look at the paperwork in the case. Law enforcement officials insist it wasn’t because Crimi was helping them in any way. “We just didn’t have the evidence,” said one.

Not long after the case was wrapped up, Crimi and his wife sold their home in Hauppauge, Long Island, and bought a new one in Boynton Beach, in Palm Beach County, Florida. He describes himself as retired, although people on the union and construction-industry dinner circuit say he remains a steady presence. Crimi was in Florida last week when he was reached on his cell phone, a new number acquired after the probe.

“You’re going to run something on me? A retired guy in Florida?” he said. “I was painted unfairly as a target. That I wasn’t indicted shows I had nothing to do with it. With all the years they chased me, they never found anything. If I had done anything I would be someplace else now, not sitting here talking to you.”