Most nights Ron Straci helps run Rao’s, the city’s most exclusive restaurant, a place favored by society swells and hoodlums alike, where you’ve got a better chance at getting a table if your name is Frankie Brains than if it’s Madonna. But in his day job, Straci is a labor lawyer and the work is far less glamorous. For instance, one of his recent tasks has been to handle a group of dissidents who challenged their union’s recent election as undemocratic and unfair. In February, Straci sent a letter to the members explaining that the union he represents had considered and dismissed their protest.
“All of the challenges were investigated by the committee appointed by the Secretary-Treasurer,” wrote Straci. The committee had recommended, and the executive board had voted, that the challenges be dismissed. The decision was then ratified at a meeting of the general membership, “without questions or objections from the floor.” Case closed.Straci made no mention that the secretary-treasurer in question who oversaw this inquiry into democratic procedures was a spry 83-year-old, an alleged veteran mobster named Julius Bernstein, who goes by the nickname “Spike.” Nor that the meeting of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union had been presided over by president Salvatore Battaglia, 59, another reputed mob associate. Nor that both men, along with the woman overseeing the union’s $268 million in pension funds (the girlfriend of said Spike Bernstein), are currently accused by federal prosecutors of conspiring with an acting boss of the Genovese crime family to obstruct justice and extort a union medical vendor of $100,000.
“Those are still allegations. The case has not gone forward yet,” Straci said when asked about the matter recently. Indeed, the case filed in the Southern District of New York on July 28 isn’t due to go to trial until this fall. Assuming there is no prior resolution, the government’s prosecutors will then play tape recordings of conversations made at a restaurant called Don Peppe’s a few blocks from the local’s headquarters in Ozone Park, Queens, where these union officers allegedly discussed schemes with another aging Genovese hood named Ciro Perrone. They will also play tapes of telephone conversations of an 85-year-old Mafia legend named Matthew Ianniello, described by prosecutors as the acting boss of the Genovese crime family. Known as “Matty the Horse” for his hefty stature—six feet tall and some 300 pounds—Ianniello became famous as the mob czar presiding over the bars, restaurants, and porn palaces of pre-Disney Times Square. His reputation grew larger after Crazy Joey Gallo was gunned down in Umberto’s Clam House, Ianniello’s family-owned restaurant on Mulberry Street. The Horse was in the kitchen at the time. He saw nothing.
Those are stories that get told regularly and with gusto at Rao’s (pronounced Ray-ohs), the restaurant that constitutes Straci’s second job. Together with his better-known cousin, restaurateur turned actor Frank Pellegrino, Straci is co-owner of the much coveted East Harlem bistro, which they have made into a destination for everyone from presidents to movie stars and Wall Street tycoons. Bill Clinton has tucked in a napkin there, along with New Jersey’s Jon Corzine, George Pataki, and ex-senator Al D’Amato, who wooed a girlfriend or two over dinner. But the pols get fewer glances than celebrity regulars like Woody Allen, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Crystal, and Rob Reiner. And the stars make room for such corporate titans as Jack Welch and Ron Perelman, and the steady stream of moguls who dine with tough-talking ex-detective turned private eye to the stars Bo Dietl, who holds down a weekly table.
For sure, part of the attraction is a reputation for excellent red sauce, chicken limone, and seafood salad. There is also the fact that Rao’s is a charming and cozy little place, with just 11 tables, lit by perpetual Christmas lights. It is located on a remote corner at East 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, across from Thomas Jefferson Park and the old Benjamin Franklin High School.
But even more important than its ambience and clam sauce is the unmistakably strong aroma of Cosa Nostra. As the late author and Rao’s regular Dick Schaap wrote in his preface to Rao’s Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking, one of the lures is “the suspicion that every other diner is the Godfather of something or other.”
Actually, it’s more than suspicion. On a lovely spring evening last June, Rao’s co-owner Pellegrino leaned over Fran Drescher and Dan Aykroyd and crooned his version of “My Girl.” Pellegrino, who plays an FBI supervisor on The Sopranos, often serenades guests lucky enough to finagle a seat at his restaurant, and the Post‘s Page Six gave his warbling a boldfaced mention. Not that he or his place needed the plug. A couple of days earlier there was a much better item in the papers, one guaranteed to prompt more eager reservation requests from Wall Street types. That was the news that an aging mob loan shark named Frank Tramontano had tried to bribe police by splitting $160,000 in cash they found hidden in his Staten Island home, and then sweetened the pot by suggesting the matter be discussed over his table at Rao’s.
A few weeks before that, there was even better publicity when the FBI busted an organized crime ring headed by a venerable Gambino crime family capo named Greg DePalma, who had gotten doctors to give him huge quantities of Viagra and other free prescription drugs in exchange for Rao’s reservations. “You got to tell me if you need some tables,” the feds heard DePalma tell one doctor. “I gave up from May already. I still got the rest.”
That was only the most recent Rao’s boost by DePalma, whose gangland fame was sealed when he appeared in an arms-around photograph with Frank Sinatra and late godfather Carlo Gambino at the old Westchester Premiere Theatre. In a 2002 trial, prosecutors charged that DePalma, already doing six years for racketeering, had tried to hire a hit man to murder a rival who had tried to swipe his regular Rao’s table.
DePalma beat that case, but he wasn’t the only gangster allegedly driven to distraction by the threat of losing a reservation there. A few years ago, city detectives listened in as Steven Crea, the acting boss of the murderous Luchese crime family and a Rao’s regular until he was dispatched to prison, angrily dismissed a plea from other gangsters that he give up some of his nights there. “What the fuck is it they want?” Crea was heard to say. “They want the table,” answered mob soldier Dominick Truscello.
Then there was the time, as later revealed by federal prosecutors, that a crew of Albanian thugs jousting for territory with a weakened Gambino crime organization bullied their way into the restaurant and claimed a table that had been passed along like a cherished heirloom from John Gotti Sr. to his son and namesake and thence to acting boss Arnold Squitieri.
Topping all of those “allegeds” and “reputeds” was the Christmas Eve 2003 shooting by one pistol-packing Rao’s diner of another in a dispute over a patron’s singing talents. Luchese soldier Al Circelli was shot dead beside his bar stool. A friend dining with Straci caught a bullet in his foot. The incident prompted front-page tabloid spasms of delight and consternation among wiseguys with dinner reservations. “Listen, Rao’s closed?” a desperate-sounding Anthony Megale, a Gambino underboss, was heard to ask on his FBI-monitored cell phone the day after the shooting. “Because I got a table there tonight and I’ve been trying to call all day.” Ultimately, shooter Louis “Lump Lump” Barone pled guilty and ended up with a 15-year sentence. But it didn’t hurt business. Rao’s wound up with an episode of TV’s Law & Order about the incident, and a reservation list that went from unattainable to impossible.
When a 30-year friend and business associate called Straci recently to ask what the chances were he could get a table to celebrate his son’s birthday, the lawyer responded, “Not with a shoehorn.”
But all that mob romance gets lost somewhere between Pleasant Avenue and the sprawling bus yards of East Brooklyn and the South Bronx where members of Local 1181 park their buses. Even if they could somehow cadge a seat at Rao’s, the members would need the early-plate special. They are family men and women whose job it is to get up before dawn and transport the city’s children in big yellow buses to school. Some drive, and others serve as escorts or matrons on vehicles carrying handicapped kids or those enrolled in special-education classes. Each paid $300 initiation fees to join the union; another 1.5 percent of their wages is deducted every month in dues. In exchange, the members say they have asked only that their union treat them with respect and represent them when disputes arise with management. They say they have gotten neither.
The dissidents: Tommy Nero, Dina Nero, Brijida Pilgrim, Jonas Saint-Fleur, Marc Clergeau, Warren Zaugg, John Bisbano, and Eddy Megie.
The dissidents know the 70-year-old Straci as the handsome man who “wears nice suits and looks like an actor,” and who sits on the podium at union meetings with Battaglia and Bernstein, offering occasional whispered advice. Those members say that Straci and his clients run their union as a closed shop for themselves, with little concern for the drivers’ interests or welfare.
“What they say all the time is, ‘You are lucky to have this job,’ ” said Simon Jean-Baptiste, 50, a bus driver for 19 years who ran for a post as union delegate in the disputed elections held last June. Jean-Baptiste, a tall man with a quiet demeanor, was one of thousands of Haitians and other immigrants who began working in the school bus industry over the past two decades. They were part of the transformation of a workforce that was once predominantly Italian, Irish, and Jewish, composed largely of retired city cops and sanitation workers. The membership of Local 1181, which also represents drivers of para-transit and some commuter buses, is listed on filings with the federal Labor Department as 14,500. The union’s own officers acknowledge that the ethnic makeup of its membership is now almost three-quarters black and Latino. Yet all of the officers are white.
A few years ago, a friend of Jean-Baptiste’s named Marc Clergeau filed suit against the union and his former employer after he claimed he was wrongfully fired from his job as a driver with a Brooklyn bus company. Clergeau said the union refused to represent him, thus violating federal labor laws that say union members have a right to “fair representation.” In a jury trial held in 2002 before U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis, Clergeau won more than $100,000 in back pay and damages.
Straci represented the union, sitting alongside the employer’s attorney throughout the trial. Straci called as a witness union delegate Nick Maddalone, who was accused by Clergeau of ignoring his pleas for help. Maddalone testified that he regularly helped people like Clergeau, and that some “70 percent” of the members are minorities. When Clergeau’s lawyer, Noah Kinigstein, cross-examined the witness, he pursued the matter. The trial transcript reads this way:
Q: I want to ask you a question about that. How many members are there on the executive board?
Q: How many of them are black?
Mr. Straci: Objection.
The Court: Overruled.
The Witness (to the judge): Answer?
The Court: You may answer.
A: No, there’s not.
Clergeau had been driving for eight years when he was fired after asking to be paid overtime for several hours he had spent waiting in line to have his bus inspected. Most workers don’t even ask for overtime, Clergeau said, because it is widely known that most companies won’t pay, and the union reps back them up.
Clergeau said that once he reached the top wage scale in the contract, supervisors began giving him a hard time. “You become a target for them, especially if you make the top pay rate,” he said.
Even after his court victory, Clergeau was unable to find work for more than two years as a union bus driver. “Any company I went to they would kick me out. They would say they don’t have work for me, even though they are always looking for drivers.” Instead, he worked in the non-union end of the business, making half the wages he’d made in his old job. When he finally did land a spot in a union shop again, Local 1181 made him pay a new $300 initiation fee.
As he waited on a Bensonhurst street this month to take schoolchildren home, Jean-Baptiste reflected on the racial changes in the industry. “For me, the way I look at it, is that many years ago the school bus industry was mostly white,” he said. “At that time, it was OK to have a board that was 100 percent like them. But for the past 20 years, the membership has changed. It is not the same anymore. I think it makes good sense to have a board that represents the entire workforce.”
Jean-Baptiste and others say the separation between officials and members is even more dramatic at the raucous union meetings that are held at either its headquarters on Woodhaven Boulevard or a nearby school. When a member not in good graces with the leadership tries to speak from the floor, they say, the tumult begins. “You stand up to speak and their people start yelling, making noise so no one can hear what you are saying,” said Clergeau.
Jonas Saint-Fleur, a driver at a Bronx company for 15 years, said the meetings appeared to be orchestrated to prevent members from following the union’s business. “If you have common sense, you wouldn’t go,” he said. “In the back a bunch of people start screaming.”
“It is a family business,” said Jean-Baptiste. “A business going on with a bunch of friends, a clique. It is not open to outsiders.”
In Sal Battaglia’s case, it actually is a family business. Federal records show that his salary last year as president of Local 1181 was $194,100 and he received another $31,840 for expenses. In contrast, Transport Workers Union Local 100 president Roger Toussaint, whose membership is more than twice as large as Battaglia’s, received $102,000 last year. Battaglia’s son Anthony, an executive board member, made more than that, receiving $104,000 last year, although members say his major task appears to be guarding the entrance to the union offices and running its elevator. Another son, Salvatore Jr., was paid $54,650 by the benefit funds.
Battaglia’s co-defendants in the racketeering case also do well: Bernstein last year was paid $156,000, plus $19,000 for expenses; Anne Chiarovano, Bernstein’s friend who runs the union’s funds, was paid $135,000.
Two years ago, rank-and-file members of Local 1181 waged another bitter court fight in which they sat on one side, with the union and employers on the other. In that case, more than 80 employees of a longtime school bus vendor called Jo Lo Bus Company sued the firm after they lost their seniority status when the owner split his bus routes into three smaller units. Those workers, many of whom had worked at the firm for decades, were forced to handle the longest and most difficult routes. They sued Battaglia and the union as well for letting the company get away with it.
The lead plaintiff in the case was a driver named John Vecchione. “After 30 years, I couldn’t even pick the borough where I wanted to work,” said Vecchione, who lives in Long Island and ended up working in the Bronx. “I lost all my seniority.” Another driver, Maureen Henry, who had worked for the company for 28 years, saw her workday grow by three hours. “The employer gave us the shaft and the union let him,” she said. Henry, Vecchione, and the workers who filed suit were convinced the owner’s switch was a scheme to get as many senior drivers, who earn up to $979 a week, to quit so that the company could use newer employees making half as much. The same thing had already happened at two other major school bus vendors. The union had failed to intervene and it was believed that scores of older members simply quit.
“Sal wouldn’t even come to the yard to talk to us,” recalled Vecchione angrily. “He sent the delegates. They said, ‘Our hands are tied. Sal says there’s nothing to be done.’ ”
The union president did issue a memo, however, chastising the members for criticizing the union. “Change always creates problems!” he wrote. When several dozen protesters picketed the union’s headquarters, the task of explaining the union’s position to a Daily News reporter on the scene fell to Straci. “A couple of workers have misread the collective bargaining agreement,” Straci told the News‘ Donald Bertrand, who noted that an SUV kept circling the block as a man in the passenger seat snapped photos of the protesters.
Privately, Battaglia was livid. When the protesters held a meeting in the Bronx, Battaglia and Bernstein summoned a shop steward named Tommy Nero to the union
office and ordered him to attend, so that they could find out who was behind the protests and bring them up on charges. Nero, however, was also angry at the union’s default and tape-recorded his conversation.
“Take all the names. Make them see you standing there taking their fucking names,” Battaglia was heard to say on the tape, later introduced in the court case. “You got a couple of ball breakers you want to bring with you? Bring them with you.” The union president cautioned Nero not to “use your hands,” but said he needed to “get the crux of the disease . . . get them all out of the fucking union.”
As it happened, the courts dismissed the lawsuit, but not before the city’s department of education agreed to tighten rules under which bus company owners are allowed to break up their firms. “It was a pretty obvious fast shuffle by the owner using and abusing the seniority system to get rid of people they didn’t want,” said Paul Shoemaker, an attorney who represented the dissidents. “The union was in bed with management.”
The bus workers had many reasons to be suspicious about their union’s shadowy relationship with their employers, in fact a few decades’ worth. The mob’s involvement in the school bus industry has long been one of the city’s worst-kept secrets. Back in 1978, journalist and Goodfellas author Nicholas Pileggi detailed in a New York magazine series the unsavory characters who had snuck into the bus business. The scandal led city officials in 1979 to try and open up the bus routes to outside bidders. But that sparked a 13-week strike, one that drivers who were around at the time recall as being pushed by union officials hand in hand with the employers. Even a 1995 effort by mob-buster turned mayor Rudy Giuliani to smoke out the bad guys in the business led to a stalemate. While Giuliani helped drive the mob out of the private carting industry and the Fulton Fish Market, the school bus wiseguys endured.
One of them was Richard Logan, the owner of Jo Lo Bus Company, the firm targeted in the 2004 lawsuit. Logan, who died last year, was one of the most powerful players in the city’s school bus industry. He was also considered by law enforcement officials as an organized crime associate, affiliated with John Gotti’s Gambino clan. Logan’s original Gambino handler was said to be a hulking hoodlum named Angelo Ruggiero who died while serving prison time for heroin trafficking. A 1982 FBI wiretap picked up Ruggiero telling Logan, “You’re partners with Genie [Gotti brother Gene] and me.” In 1989, a surveillance team of city detectives spotted Logan, Gene Gotti, and another Gambino soldier walking out of Local 1181’s offices at the same time.
Tommy Nero remembers seeing Ruggiero swagger through Jo Lo’s bus yards. As for Logan, Nero said, “he spent more time in the union’s office than the delegates. I told him, ‘You should get yourself a union jacket.’ And he did.”
As late as last year, Logan’s companies were still playing games with their employees. A probe by Richard Condon, the school’s special commissioner of investigation, found that Jo Lo was using uncertified matrons who had not received special emergency medical training from the department of education. Those matrons were being paid $30 a shift, less than half the starting union wage. Condon’s investigators learned that Battaglia had been warned about the practice but had failed to act. Nero said he personally told the union chief. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Leave it alone.’ ” Last year, the education department fined Jo Lo $100,000 for the scheme and banned it from further work.
But Logan wasn’t the only bus company operator with powerful friends. At Pupil Transportation, a company owned by the late Walter Greene, who was long one of the largest providers of buses for the city’s schools, the enforcer was Nicholas “Nicky Black” Grancio, a Colombo crime family capo later shot to death by mob rivals. “When you’d go in for disciplinary hearings, he’d be standing there,” recalled Warren Zaugg, 63, a driver since 1978. “He wouldn’t say anything until you got to impasse. Then he’d say, ‘Here’s the way it is.’ And that was that.” Zaugg said Grancio appeared to be the one in charge. “One time I saw him tell Walter Greene to sit down and shut up.”
That might have been because, according to a joint state and federal probe of the bus industry in 1989, Grancio wasn’t just a consultant, but Greene’s silent partner. The arrangement allegedly allowed Greene to run many of his buses nonunion without interference from Local 1181.
The information on the scheme came to the investigators via another mob bus operator, an ex–transit cop named Robert Berring who doubled as a hit man. Berring became an informant after his murder convictions, and detailed how, a decade after Pileggi’s exposés, the mob’s influence remained pervasive in the industry. A copy of an application for a court-ordered wiretap, obtained by the Voice, shows that Berring spelled out how Grancio helped broker a deal for several large bus companies to avoid paying union-scale wages, allegedly by making payoffs to Spike Bernstein. The ex-cop said the bribes were paid twice a year, at Christmas and when school ended in June, and amounted to a portion of the savings the companies achieved. “Each time a payoff was due, Bernstein would call [Berring’s] bus companies to arrange a time and place to meet,” the affidavit stated.
At one point, according to the affidavit, Bernstein called Berring and his partner, another mobster, to say that he was getting heat from their employees to sign them up with the union. The workers had even filed a petition with the federal labor board to get an election. Berring said he, Bernstein, and Grancio worked out a solution: The bus matrons, who are paid far less than drivers, would be allowed to become members of Local 1181’s sister local, 1061, which represents school escorts. The drivers would remain nonunion.
Investigators spent months tailing Bernstein, watching as he met with associates at the Golden Gate Motel off the Belt Parkway in Sheepshead Bay, and visited his close friend “Matty the Horse” Ianniello, then imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. There, Bernstein allegedly received directions on “collecting and dispersing payoffs from bus companies to corrupt union officials and the Genovese family,” according to another industry source cited in the affidavit.
It wasn’t the first time Bernstein had been tailed by law enforcement. In 1968, he was arrested in Brooklyn with three other men, charged with threatening a Church Avenue merchant that his “head would be put through a cigarette machine and his heart cut out” if he didn’t fork over extortion payments. A few years later, he was targeted as Ianniello’s alleged bagman in a garment industry corruption case. Spike beat both those raps, however, as well as the 1989 probe. The only charges that resulted from that investigation were against a federal prison guard who was charged with smuggling clean underwear and delicacies to Ianniello from Bernstein. The guard was acquitted, but prosecutors pointed out that Bernstein had gotten the guard’s wife a job as a bus matron.
In early 2005, a few months after the Jo Lo lawsuit was dismissed, a group of drivers and matrons met at a Brooklyn diner to discuss the possibility of mounting an electoral challenge to Sal Battaglia’s regime. Like legislators, union officials are more likely to die in office or be hauled off to prison than lose at the polls, but despite those long odds, the group decided the time had come. Warren Zaugg was impressed by how many of those who showed up and pushed to make the run were Haitians. “They seemed to be organized,” he said. “They had this fever, this passion.”
The only contested election anyone could remember was a lone driver who ran a losing race in 1993. But members noticed that even that quixotic campaign seemed to disturb the old guard. “I didn’t think we’d get elected, but I thought we’d shake them up,” said Zaugg.
Dubbing themselves Members for Change, the dissidents raised money among themselves and issued leaflets. The first item on their platform was “Quality representation for all members: No more refusing to represent members with work-related problems!” They also pledged to enforce overtime rules, and after listing the salaries of top officials, promised to cut their own pay by 25 percent if elected. “We can win and stop the ripoffs!” they wrote.
The dissidents got help from the Brooklyn-based Association for Union Democracy, which provides support for rank-and-file union members. They also picked up crucial aid from a veteran hospitals union organizer named Eddie Kay, and pro bono legal help from Carl Levine, an attorney with the firm of Levy Ratner.
But Battaglia and Bernstein’s troops moved to block them at every step. At a chaotic nominations meeting, the dissidents were forced to run as a solid slate so that members cast a single vote, instead of for individual officers, a move that favored the incumbents.
“They wanted to create the impression we were stupid, like we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Winston Castillo, 37, a driver for five years. “Every time we tried to speak, the microphone went off. When they nominated their own people, it worked just fine.”
Passing out flyers was also a challenge. Simon Jean-Baptiste took handbills early in the morning to a large bus yard on Brooklyn’s Shore Road operated by Atlantic Express, one of the industry’s biggest contractors. As he started handing them out, he said, a union delegate named Sal Ingoglia, who earns $104,000 a year, came and stood directly in front of him. “He was right in my face,” said Jean-Baptiste. “Standing almost on my foot.” When Jean-Baptiste moved to another gate at the garage, Ingoglia followed him. “You can see the matrons and drivers are scared to come over and take one so, after a while, it is no use. I just left.”
On a separate campaign visit to the same yard, Marc Clergeau said, he also ran into Ingoglia. “He snatched my papers away. He’d say, ‘Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do?’ ”
When Warren Zaugg went to campaign at Maggie’s Paratransit on Atlantic Avenue, a woman shop steward confronted him. “She said, ‘You can’t do this here, it is illegal.’ I said, ‘You’re wrong.’ So she brings out a big guy, a Spanish fellow. She says, ‘This guy will take care of you. He’s crazy.’ But he just got loud. He didn’t do anything and I stood my ground.”
Other threats were more sinister. At an election meeting at the union headquarters, Tommy Nero, who was nominated by the dissidents to run for president, was approached by a pair of Battaglia loyalists. Nero recalled: “One guy says, ‘I don’t know why you are doing this. You might not make it home tonight.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, there could be some guy waiting for you on the corner.’ I said, ‘Well if I’m not going to make it home, tell the other guy not to waste his time.’ ”
On election day, Sunday, June 5, the dissident members confronted more mundane problems: Many members weren’t listed as eligible voters and had to cast challenge ballots. Others found that their names had been signed in as having voted already, even though they had just arrived. Meanwhile, scores of Battaglia supporters, many of them from his stronghold in Staten Island, rolled up to union headquarters in buses provided by employers. Union delegates met them at the door and ushered them inside. “They would say, ‘Come on, come on, let’s do it,’ ” said Jean-Baptiste. “The rules said no one can electioneer here, but they did whatever they wanted.”
The dissidents lost big, a 3-1 margin, logging some 600 votes—not including 300 more that were ruled ineligible. A few days later, the dissidents’ attorney, Carl Levine, filed a series of objections with Bernstein, the election overseer, detailing the misconduct. Included were charges that some members had been told that their photographs would be taken when they came to vote, and that the union had illegally enlisted friendly employers to supply transportation.
The union agreed to hold a hearing on the charges, but when Zaugg and Jean-Baptiste showed up, they were barred from entering the union’s offices. On another visit, a young man stood in the waiting room eyeballing Zaugg. When Zaugg and Jean-Baptiste drove away, they spotted the same man in an Audi convertible, following them and talking on a cell phone. When the dissidents made a sharp turn onto a side street, their pursuer paused, and then drove on.
Officially, the union insisted that none of those events had taken place. Straci wrote to Levine denying that anyone was barred from entering the union offices; Sal Ingoglia told the hearings that he’d never chased anyone from the Shore Road yards, and had never even met Jean-Baptiste. “Maybe he’s got me mixed up,” he said.
In the midst of the election hearings, the federal indictments came down. Battaglia, Bernstein, and Ianniello got their photos on the front page of the tabloids, the two union officials cradling their cuffed hands over their faces to ward off the cameras. Ianniello, who shuffled along with his head held high, was picked up at his home in Old Westbury, Long Island, where he had fallen asleep watching Godfather III.
Government attorneys didn’t offer many specifics about their case: Ianniello, they alleged, had run Local 1181 “for many,
many years,” as assistant U.S. attorney Timothy Treanor said at a hearing following the arrests. The instrument of his control,
prosecutors alleged, was Bernstein. Among their alleged scams was the 1997 shakedown of a medical center that rented space from the union. Bernstein was alleged to have extorted $100,000 from the center’s operators, including regular cash payments.
When the feds started subpoenaing records from the union, Battaglia, Bernstein, and funds director Ann Chiarovano were caught discussing the problem at Don Peppe’s, the Ozone Park restaurant where government video surveillance picked up the conversations. At one point, Treanor said, Battaglia was heard to say, “The order came from down South to stay away,” a cryptic reference to Ianniello, who was in Florida, according to the prosecutors.
The government pointed out one other interesting coincidence involving the union: The FBI had recently found a list of individuals to be proposed as Genovese members. Among them was Stephen Arena, a driver for Ianniello and a $35,000-a-year union organizer on Local 1181’s payroll.
Yet none of those disturbing revelations appeared to register with the union’s international parent body. A few weeks after the indictments, the Members for Change group wrote Warren George, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, asking him to conduct a hearing on the local. They later followed up with 40 letters, gathered with the assistance of organizer Eddie Kay, from local politicians urging the international to step in.
“My concern is I want them to open the books so we can know what money is there and that they haven’t misused it,” said driver Winston Castillo. “I am counting on that money when I retire.”
But the international said there was no reason to do so. “The officers and executive board members and stewards,” George wrote in response, “are continuing to effectively carry out their obligations and responsibilities on behalf of the membership they represent.” He then went on to feature Battaglia and his local as a union success story in the February issue of the international’s magazine, with no mention of the pending indictments.
One reason for the inaction may be that Local 1181 is the largest in the union and thus holds substantial sway when it comes to electing national officers. A labor official familiar with the players suggested another reason: This is New York, and these guys are with the mob. Why go looking for trouble?
Either way, it wasn’t something George or anyone else in the international wanted to discuss with the Voice, failing to return phone calls. Out on Woodhaven Boulevard in Ozone Park, the local union was even less receptive to inquiries. A Voice reporter who managed to make it to the union’s third-floor executive offices got a personal bum’s rush from Bernstein, who emerged from his office to take a look at the person asking to see him.
Wearing a tan sweater and appearing trim and in good shape for his 83 years, Bernstein waved from behind the glass reception window. “Goodbye,” he called out. “We got nothing to say to you. I had trouble with you people years ago.” When the reporter didn’t budge, Bernstein’s face grew dark. “Here, you want me to show you the way out?” he said, lunging for the door. For a moment, an octogenarian assault seemed a distinct possibility. Instead, the secretary-treasurer punched the elevator button and said, “Now get the fuck out of here.”
Ron Straci said he wasn’t surprised when told of his clients’ response. “Come on, they’re not going to talk to you,” he said. Straci also declined to sit down and talk. “Probably not,” he responded. “Really, at this stage it is a ‘No comment’ kind of a thing.”
Straci has often opted not to discuss his union clients. In addition to Local 1181,
he used to represent a small Teamsters local in the Bronx that, when national union auditors arrived, they found that the office had been turned into a betting parlor run by a longtime Genovese mobster. Another client was an independent Production Workers local whose president Straci represented when he was indicted and pled guilty to embezzlement. The lawyer lost his representation of Laborers Local 731 a couple years ago when the national union closed it down after discovering that the local’s president had siphoned off thousands to pay his personal bills, and to buy such items as a $3,000 football jersey signed by Joe Montana.
Straci’s firm still represents the Teamsters local for the city’s parking garage attendants. He’s had the account since the days it was run by Cirino “Speed” Salerno, the brother of late Genovese boss Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, the cigar-chomping mob prelate who chose national Teamster union presidents while perched on his chair on the sidewalk outside the Palma Boy Social Club on 115th Street, around the corner from Rao’s. A former Salerno lieutenant named Vincent “Fish” Cafaro, who defected to the government in the late 1980s, insisted that Speed Salerno and Straci had received $250,000 apiece in kickbacks when the union’s East 86th Street building was sold to a developer. Cafaro claimed Straci had been shorted $10,000 on the deal and “still wants” his money—a story Straci has dismissed as a fable.
Although he graduated from Fordham Law School and served as a JAG in the Air Force, Straci had a head start when it came to representing unions. The edge was courtesy of his father, an infamous gangster named Joseph “Joe Stretch” Stracci (the son dropped the second C). A major power in the garment industry, Joe Stretch was said to control the head of the city’s Teamsters joint council. But he made his biggest splash in 1950 when he and his brother-in-law “Tough Joey” Rao were used as strong arms by Frank Costello to keep city commissioners and Democratic Party leaders in line. Rao and Joe Stretch became the targets of a special grand jury convened by Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan after a group of Democrats said they’d been intimidated into dumping an anti-Costello official after Tough Joey and Joe Stretch showed up at a meeting. Hogan said that the presence of the two “notorious underworld characters,” as the papers routinely dubbed them, was like pointing “guns at the heads” of the politicians, but the D.A. brought no charges.
It was Tough Joey’s brother Vincent who ran Rao’s restaurant for years, the restaurant serving as a friendly outpost for wiseguys around the city, but mostly for the benefit of the tight-knit hoods affiliated with the Genovese and Luchese crime families who still kept a foothold in the old neighborhood. The place stayed low-key for years until Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton slipped into a seat one night in 1977 and wrote a column hailing it as “a genuine find.”
After praising “the tenderest squid and slivered scungilli” she’d ever tasted, the critic described the diners as “a mix of rough and ready habitués” of the neighborhood, and suggested readers consult a recent book called The Pleasant Avenue Connection “to get an interesting glimpse into the area’s history.” The book was written by David Durk, the former police lieutenant who, with Detective Frank Serpico, blew the lid off corruption in the NYPD. Durk’s co-author was investigative reporter Ira Silverman. The title referred to the fact that the avenue just west of the FDR Drive, running from Jefferson Park to 120th Street, was city central for heroin importation. Major dealers flagrantly marketed their goods on the strip. City anti-narcotics squads remained oblivious to the merchants until Durk, urged on by a local resident who didn’t want his son to become a junk salesman, pressured authorities to take action. Up to then, Durk and Silverman wrote, it was a place where, “if you knew the right people, you could go there at three in the morning to borrow $50,000, buy a machine gun, fix a judge, or pick up three kilos of heroin.”
Those were the years when heroin was flooding the ghettos, a plague that was ultimately to carry away several generations. While it’s easy to wax poetic about such mob escapades as running sports books, there’s little romance about needles and overdoses. But that was the main and highly profitable
industry of Pleasant Avenue. And the biggest names in heroin distribution at the time were local royalty. They included Carmine “Mr. Gribbs” Tramunti and Ralph “The General” Tutino, a pair of high-level Luchese hoodlums and Rao’s regulars.
In 1979, two years after the swell crowd from downtown started flocking to the restaurant in response to Sheraton’s rave, an embarrassing thing happened to owner Vincent Rao: He was arrested along with six other gangland figures, charged with laundering millions of dollars in cash, much of it from local H dealers. The elder Rao argued that he was simply cashing checks, helping out locals who had no nearby bank to use. But those who knew his operation had few illusions. “He had a room full of money there,” recalled one regular. “There’s no question what he was up to,” said another.
Ultimately, Vinnie Rao pled guilty to criminal facilitation. At his death, the restaurant passed to his widow, Anna, and then to his nephews, Pellegrino and Straci. After the cousins turned the restaurant into a phenomenon, they began marketing the Rao’s brand name, selling sauce, roasted peppers, even CDs of the tunes on Rao’s jukebox. “You may not get a table at Rao’s, but now Rao’s brings it home to your family,” goes the pitch.
In addition to the unions and the restaurant, Straci has another business as well, a bus company called Whitehall Transportation that has a contract with the downtown business improvement district to provide a free shuttle for tourists. Straci is president of the company and owns it together with family members of his original law partners. It operates nonunion.
Why would the lawyer for the school bus drivers’ union run a nonunion bus company?
“It’s a fair question,” Straci said. “But since I am a small minority owner and don’t have anything to do with the day to day, that’s why it’s that way.”
As for the Local 1181 dissidents he has been battling in and out of court for the past few years, Straci said they’ve gotten fair treatment. “They had their run, they got some votes, and lost,” he said. “Their challenges were really unsupported.”
Sitting in his bus in Brooklyn, Simon Jean-Baptiste said he wasn’t surprised at Straci’s comments. “The lawyer is not there to defend the members. He is there to defend his friends, the delegates,” he said. “They see us as outsiders coming into their business. They do everything they can to keep us from sitting at their table.”