One sure sign that Rudy Giuliani is feeling pretty comfy as a presidential frontrunner is that he’s still doing his Marlon Brando Godfather shtick.
This is the one where he hunches his shoulders, juts out his jaw, and does Don Corleone’s strangled mumble. “Thank youse all for invitin’ me here tuh-day to this meeting of the families,” he growled at a California audience recently. This is played for big laughs, and the ex-mayor has been doing it for years. In 2001, he did a song-and-dance number for the annual Inner Circle roast dressed as a Rockette in Godfather getup. Photos from the event show him roaring at his own gag.
Not everyone chuckles. “It’s not funny,” says Rosario Iaconis of the Italic Institute of America. “It’s like a mantra with him. Whenever Italian-Americans voice complaints, he says, ‘Don’t go looking for an insult.’ ”
What is supposed to make this tasteless little routine acceptable are Giuliani’s allegedly impeccable mob-busting credentials. As a federal prosecutor, he famously sent major Mafiosi to prison. As mayor, he targeted mobsters who preyed on the city, creating a new public-integrity commission to screen out wiseguys from the old Fulton fish market, the private carting business, and the city’s public markets. Those with past scrapes with the law and too many visits to known wiseguy locations were out of luck.
But Giuliani’s watchdogs can’t explain how he skipped over one of the most notorious nests of Mafia corruption, and one that’s a bit nearer and dearer to the public heart than putrescible waste: the city’s huge school-bus industry. Like waste carters and fishmongers, the bus operators include many honest, hard-working entrepreneurs. But there have been
an awful lot of wrong numbers as well.
There was a major operator in Queens who enjoyed the company of John Gotti’s heroin-dealing brother. There was the big school-bus firm in the Bronx that had a captain in the Colombo crime family handling its employee grievances. There was the Brooklyn bus outfit whose proprietors were a father-and-son team with
dual membership in the Bonanno crime family.
Then there was an ex–transit cop who owned a couple of school-bus companies and began singing to the government after his conviction on a murder rap. His song’s refrain was about kickbacks to a crooked union official named Julius “Spike” Bernstein. The financial secretary of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Bernstein made sure some shops never got organized. For others, he made sure the contract wasn’t enforced.
Bernstein, whose rap sheet included an offer to put a debtor’s head through a cigarette machine, was usually seen with Matthew “Matty the Horse” Ianniello, a lumbering Genovese captain who ruled an empire of bars and porn palaces. His sideline was school buses.
None of this was exactly a secret. A lengthy exposé on the bus industry’s cozy mob ties appeared as early as 1978 in New York magazine. In 1995, during Giuliani’s first term as mayor, Newsday and
The New York Times ran their own detailed reports. These were the kind of publicly available records that Giuliani’s integrity commission would hold up in front of an applicant for a carting license who insisted he never knew his partner Frankie No-Nose was in the Mafia. “Don’t you read the papers?” the commission’s people would ask. Then they’d stamp “rejected” on the application.
But while this test was applied to those who sold fish, picked up trash, and ran market stalls, those in charge of delivering the city’s children to school every day—and who received millions in city payments—continued with business as usual.
Veterans of the Giuliani administration are at a loss to explain why the mob detectors were never loosed on the school-bus crowd. “I don’t remember that it ever came up,” said one. “That would have been someone else’s department,” said another. A call to Randy Mastro, the former deputy mayor who served as Giuliani’s top gun on his mob cleanups, was returned by a sprightly spokeswoman for Giuliani’s campaign. “Alrighty, I’ll get back to you,” she said. The wait continues.
The subject of school buses arises now because of a remarkable report released this month on Local 1181, which represents some 15,000 school-bus workers. The report was requested, somewhat reluctantly, by the parent national union, which placed the local in trusteeship last November after a string of indictments against top local officials.
The report’s author is attorney Richard Mark, who happens to be a former Giuliani administration investigator. Mark got right to the point: “Organized crime,” he wrote, “has infiltrated and controlled ATU Local 1181, and has used the local union to conduct criminal racketeering.”
This wasn’t great news for the national union, which has long been loath to challenge the local’s leaders. Although completed in January, the report was kept under wraps until a group of local rank-and-file dissidents called Members for Change got hold of it and made it public.
The report states that the local’s $199,000-a-year president, one Salvatore “Hot Dogs” Battaglia, is apparently a soldier in the Genovese crime family. Battaglia is currently fighting charges of extortion, labor racketeering, and bribery.
“Battaglia and others,” the federal indictment says, “collected money from owners of bus companies that contract with the New York City Department of Education in exchange for, among other things, agreeing not to organize those companies’ bus drivers as members of Local 1181.”
Industry officials insist that the companies were the victims here. Some may well have been. Charges against Spike Bernstein state that he had his extortion down to a formula: Operators had to pay $1,000 per bus route. One school-bus executive told the FBI that he had shelled out between $200,000 and $300,000 to Spike since the early 1980s.
All of this went on under the noses of several city administrations, including that of ace mob-buster Giuliani. Last week, Richard Condon, the city’s special commissioner for schools investigations, asked for and received a copy of the report. He was too busy reading it to say why none of this had been investigated in the past.
Meanwhile, the worst news for the industry is that Spike Bernstein, who is 84, has apparently decided to spill what he knows (the feds are keeping his plea agreement secret). One of the stories he will tell is how he and Battaglia shook down the owner of a medical center located in the local’s headquarters on Woodside Boulevard in Queens. Clinic owner Mark Antin has testified that he made monthly payments to the local’s mob overseers. When his lease came up for renewal in 1997, Bernstein demanded $100,000. Antin paid.
After the FBI questioned Antin in 2005, Battaglia came to ask him what was going on. The union president wasn’t taking any chances. Battaglia, Antin said, “started to feel my body. I said, ‘Sal, I don’t blame you.’ And he started to check me for, what you see in the movies—that someone is checking you for a wire. As he was talking to me, he was patting me down, and then he what they call ‘goosed you.’ He went and touched my testicles and everything. I said to him, ‘Sal, I don’t blame you.’ ”
Investigator Richard Mark tried to goose the 11 remaining members of the local’s executive board, demanding they tell whatever they knew about these goings-on. The union executives blew him off. Today, they are back at their desks. The local has been a little racially off- kilter in recent years: The board is all white; about 70 percent of the members are minorities, many of them Haitian.
“What we need right now is a secret democratic ballot for a new election,” says Brijida Pilgrim, a member of the dissident caucus who dug out the report. “We need to put an end to this nonsense.