Staten Island Politician Does Odd Deals with ILA; Mayor Doesn’t Mind

howland-hookMore than once they’ve been called “the odd couple” of New York City politics.  But an investigative report published in the October 25 edition of the Village Voice by Tom Robbins suggests the tight alliance between New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, politically both Republicans but culturally worlds apart, goes well beyond typical City Hall back-scratching.  In fact, the author alleges, it has the blessing of a supporting cast of shady businessmen and local unions.  And this partnership has allowed certain elements of the Gambino and other crime families to operate with a freer hand than otherwise.


Bloomberg, whom Forbes magazine recently listed as worth $5 billion, is obviously too rich to be bought.  He has asserted repeatedly that he doesn’t govern on the basis of patronage.  But given that Staten Island went 4-to-1 for Bloomberg in his initial election in 2001, well…he accepts support where it comes from.  Among other problems, his coziness with Molinaro indirectly may have contributed toward the not-guilty verdicts in the recent International Longshoremen’s Association criminal trial (see above).


Molinaro, 74, is at the center of a complex web of questionable dealings.  He won the borough presidency in 2001, and previous to that he ran Staten Island’s Conservative Party for some 25 years.  Along the way, he’s made lots of friends – in real estate, for instance.  Molinaro is 50-percent owner of a $600,000 condo in Siesta Key, just south of Sarasota along Florida’s Gulf Coast.  His partner, builder Salvatore Calcagno, is not your typical developer.  He’s under federal indictment for tax fraud, a charge to which he recently pleaded not guilty.  Prosecutors say Calcagno laundered millions of dollars, making out phony checks to subcontractors.  Calcagno and Molinaro were close in other ways as well.  Calcagno was Molinaro’s campaign finance chairman.  Molinaro’s son, Steven, in turn, was Calcagno’s business partner.  The two owned a trucking company that handled hauling at Staten Island’s Howland Hook Terminal.


Howland Hook, a 200-acre container port located on Staten Island’s Arthur Kill, until 2001 had been run by Carmine Ragucci, a close Molinaro friend and fundraiser.  Three years ago, at a massive federal racketeering trial, a government witness said Ragucci, who’d been fired by the port’s parent company, had made large cash payments to notorious Gambino captain Anthony “Sonny” Ciccone.  It wasn’t hard to see the connection.  Howland Hook was a major employer, with more than 300 Longshoremen on Ragucci’s payroll.  A government witness, ex-ILA Local 1814 President Frank “Red” Scollo, testified that he watched Ragucci each month stuff $9,200 worth of bills into brown envelopes.  “Carmine said he wanted labor peace,” said Scollo.


Molinaro seemed unfazed by all this.  When he stepped down from his position as head of Staten Island’s Conservative Party in 2000 to run for borough president the following year, he made Ragucci his successor.  Ragucci was never charged in that RICO case, which resulted in convictions for Gambino boss Peter Gotti and other key family operatives.  But federal prosecutors did tag him a Gambino associate.  Molinaro, claiming lack of any knowledge of ongoing corruption at the terminal, refused to return campaign donations of $10,000 from Ragucci and his family, $9,500 from Scollo and his union, and $10,000 from other businesses at the terminal.   


Calcagno and Ragucci also were tight with each other.  Ragucci hired Calcagno’s construction company to build a vast warehouse at Howland Hook.  The project generated enormous cost overruns for the project sponsor, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  The racketeering trial revealed that Ragucci personally doled out trucking contracts.  The owner of the terminal’s main rival trucking firm testified to a grand jury that he had to pay kickbacks to Ciccone – or else.  And Calcagno knew Ciccone, too.  Federal investigators planted a bug underneath the table at Brioso’s, a restaurant in the New Dorp section of Staten Island.  Seated at the table conversing on August 23, 2001 were Calcagno, Ciccone, Scollo and a Gambino enforcer, Primo Cassarino, the latter the government’s star witness at the recently-concluded ILA criminal trial.  Calcagno, upon entering the restaurant, wanted to see Ciccone about “a problem” at Howland Hook.  A few minutes later, Ciccone returned, announcing: “Who the fuck does this guy think he is?  You and your politician pals think you were here before us?  We were always there.”  Molinaro later remarked of the exchange, “There’s nothing there that to me as a human being is disturbing.” 


Molinaro has other skeletons in his closet, too – like developer Ralph Garguilo, a Genovese crime family associate-turned-government witness.  Nearly a year ago Garguilo, after secretly pleading guilty in a racketeering case, told FBI agents that Molinaro accepted $70,000 in secret cash payments in a pair of 1998 real estate deals.  He added that Molinaro had helped put his (Garguilo’s) daughter in a city job and, in return, he steered work to Molinaro’s son.  That case involved allegations that mob-connected officials of the International Union of Operating Engineers, with the cooperation of certain contractors, installed friends in high-paying no-show jobs at several construction sites.  About 40 organized crime figures, contractors and Operating Engineers Local 14 and Local 15 members eventually pled guilty. 


Three among them were Colombo crime family underboss John “Jackie” DeRoss, a Local 15 member, and two of his sons, John and Jamie.  Molinaro vouched for the character of each before U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson.  The elder DeRoss was among the defendants using the threat of labor trouble to force contractors to accept $100,000-a-year ghost jobs.  Almost any major project on Staten Island was mob-controlled, charged New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.  Investigators insisted DeRoss Sr. was the mob’s main man on Staten Island.  The crew also reportedly got help from Molinaro’s late executive assistant, Albert De Lillo.  At one time a law partner of former Rep. Guy Molinari, R-N.Y., De Lillo provided a letter of character reference on Nicholas Lupari, another mob associate who was nailed.  De Lillo’s Mafia associations go way back.  In 1982, then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani subpoenaed records of real estate deals he’d handled, including one for the Ravenite Social Club in Lower Manhattan’s Little Italy, the Gambino mob’s favorite hangout.


As for ex-Congressman Molinari, who represented Staten Island (and who was Borough President before that), there’s a connection there, too.  His daughter, Susan Molinari, took over his seat, serving as a Republican Congresswoman during 1990-97.  Records show that she and her husband, former Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y. (1988-98), now a lobbyist for the Washington law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, held a 50 percent-stake in that Siesta Key condo – until selling it to Calcagno in April 2002.         

In this context, one has to wonder why Mayor Bloomberg in the past year has been lavishing praise upon James Molinaro, at one point calling him “the most honest and trustworthy person I have ever met.”  Bloomberg backed up his words by holding a major fundraiser at his East Side townhouse.  It seemed a gamble with more risk than payoff.  Staten Island is fast-growing, and now has more than 450,000 residents.  Still, that figure accounts for only a little over 5 percent of New York City’s total population.  And Bloomberg’s reelection on November 8 (over Democratic challenger Fernando Ferrer by a 59-39 percent margin) was practically a foregone conclusion.  The best explanation for Bloomberg’s recent alliance with Molinaro is that he, like any politician, has his share of IOUs.  And in this case, the debt is to Ragucci, who remains in charge of the borough’s Conservative Party.  Ragucci did Bloomberg a major campaign favor this year by denying the party’s endorsement to his Queens-based GOP primary challenger, Tom Ognibene.  An unfortunate by-product of this pact is that any number of mobsters and allied labor leaders could be sleeping more comfortably over the next four years.  (Village Voice, 10/25; other sources).