The Mafia might not control organized labor as it did decades ago, but don’t tell that to the feds. On January 10, five persons, each a member or an associate of the Genovese crime family, were indicted in Manhattan federal court for racketeering offenses dating back to 2000. Two of the defendants, Frank Cognetta and Vincent D’Acunto Jr., respectively, are secretary-treasurer of the Brooklyn-based Local 1D and Local 2D of the United Food and Commercial Workers. The charges follow a probe by the FBI, NYPD and Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards and Office of Inspector General. Edwin Stier, a former federal prosecutor, noted: “Nobody should ever assume, given the history of the New York metropolitan area, that we’re going to be rid of organized crime influence completely, no matter what law enforcement does.”
The Genovese mob has a long tradition of milking New York City-area labor unions for profit, rarely hesitating to use intimidation or even murder to make its point. Decades ago, for example, the leadership of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 560 in northern New Jersey looted union benefit plans without interruption; local boss Anthony Provenzano, who doubled as a Genovese capo, by numerous accounts played a key role in the 1975 “disappearance” of Jimmy Hoffa. A federal investigation led to successful prosecutions for various offenses and the placement of the local under a court-supervised trusteeship in 1986 that would last a little over a dozen years. In a separate case, a federal grand jury in October 2008 indicted an already-convicted Genovese family hit man, Michael “Mikey Cigars” Coppola, on multiple racketeering charges related to business dealings of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1235, also based in northern New Jersey. The union had been seized and placed under trusteeship only a couple of months before.
The five indictments of this January, which partly overlapped with a multi-year investigation of New York City-area union corruption, likewise are by-products of Genovese family dominance. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 1D and 2D, each originally part of the Distillery, Wine and Allied Workers Union until the latter’s 1995 merger with the UFCW, is home to two of the defendants, respectively, Frank Cognetta and Vincent D’Acunto Jr. The indictment lists each as a Genovese family associate. Cognetta is secretary-treasurer of Local 1D, which has over a thousand members. He is charged with racketeering conspiracy; six counts of honest services fraud; and two counts of bribery in connection with employee benefit plans. D’Acunto, secretary-treasurer of Local 2D and son of a late local president, is accused of participating in an extortion conspiracy with co-defendants Vincent Esposito and Steven Arena. Each union represents employees of liquor and wine wholesalers. A fifth defendant, Frank Giovinco, was charged with one count of racketeering of an unspecified nature.
The accusations against Frank Cognetta, now 42, a resident of Staten Island, are based on hours of hidden audio and video recordings of his meetings with an unnamed financial adviser. According to the indictment, Cognetta “engaged in multiple schemes to defraud his union…by, among other things, soliciting and accepting bribes and steering union benefit plans into investments in exchange for kickbacks.” Specifically, during 2014-17 he allegedly steered nearly $500,000 from a union health plan to the financial adviser whom he had appointed as an insurance broker. Cognetta was arrested and pleaded not guilty at his September 10 arraignment. He then was released on $200,000 bond. If convicted, he faces up to 126 years in prison.
Vincent D’Acunto, the other indicted union boss, had serious outside help. Now 49, D’Acunto allegedly conspired with co-defendants Steven Arena, 60, and Vincent Esposito, 50, plus four reputed Genovese made men, in a racketeering scheme lasting during 2001-17 that involved “multiple acts.” In particular, for most of that period D’Acunto, Arena and Esposito extorted annual cash payments from an unnamed UFCW Local 2D officer by threatening that individual with violence and a loss of employment if the cash was not forthcoming. Each member of this trio faces up to 40 years in prison. The only defendant not cited as involved in union affairs, Frank Giovinco, faces up to 20 years of incarceration.
What makes the latter case especially noteworthy is that Vincent Esposito is a son of the Genovese boss of all bosses, Vincent “the Chin” Gigante. The late family patriarch, who had been sent packing to federal prison back in 1997 on eight counts of racketeering and conspiracy, for many years had won notoriety for publicly affecting a “crazy man” routine in which he would wander the streets of Greenwich Village in his pajamas and a bathrobe in broad daylight. It was a well-rehearsed act. Evidence showed that Gigante consciously enforced a regime of terror. Vincent Esposito – whose mother was Olympia Esposito, Gigante’s mistress – has carried the torch in his stead. Identified by prosecutors as “a person of influence” on the Genovese mob, Esposito left behind damning evidence of criminal involvement inside his $12 million East Side Manhattan townhouse – like two unlicensed guns, a set of brass knuckles, more than $1 million in cash, and most telling, a ledger of “made members of La Cosa Nostra.” In addition, the feds had six months’ worth of wiretapped conversations and the loyalty of an unnamed cooperating witness who, according to prosecutor Jared Lenow, is “very close with the defendant, who’s part of his family who will be expected to testify against him at trial.” The recordings reveal “numerous references to his [Esposito’s] high-level position” and “people doing his bidding.” Esposito was ordered held on $6 million bond.
It’s hard to see how the defendants are going to escape the hammer of justice. According to the indictment, “It was part of the conspiracy that each defendant agreed that a conspirator would commit at least two acts of racketeering activity…in the enterprise.” United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1D spokesman Casey Hoag hopes the defendants get punished. “We hold all our Local officers and staff to the highest ethical and professional standards,” he stated. “These serious allegations are deeply troubling.” Former prosecutor Edwin Stier, who for several years during the last decade had headed a Teamsters reform plan and since then has been a partner in the New Jersey-based law firm of Stier Anderson & Malone, cautioned that the mob is still a live force. “Organized crime figures are still looking to opportunities to make money from their ability to intimidate people,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg. “They tend to gravitate toward these low-risk, high-profit activities unless law enforcement keeps up constant, active vigilance. The danger is always that the federal government will shift its resources to other priorities.”