Bugging Mr. Big
After 15 years of investigations that fizzled in dead ends, federal investigators are now confident they have enough evidence to prosecute former Brooklyn Democratic boss Meade Esposito. Sources in the FBI and the Justice Department say they can prove conspiracy, stock fraud, and possibly mail fraud against the legendary 79-year-old political figure. For the past five months, the FBI has had bugs and wiretaps in Esposito’s offices, authorized by four federal judges. The FBI’s code name for the investigation was “Runnymede.” Perhaps it will lead to a Magna Carta for Brooklyn politics.
Esposito’s machinations around two corporate enterprises are the focus of the investigation. One company is Coastal Drydock, a ship-repair firm based at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Coastal is the biggest client of Esposito’s insurance brokerage company, Serres, Visone & Rice. SVR is the sole broker for liability insurance for ships being repaired by Coastal — insurance valued at about $1.8 million a year. Last month, Coastal declared bankruptcy after a long fight with the Department of the Navy over millions of dollars in disputed funds.
Federal investigators contend that Esposito improperly used his influence to try to bail out Coastal. Coastal owed SVR $613,000 in commissions at the time it went bankrupt.
A television report last week said that Bronx congressman Mario Biaggi was also being investigated for accepting a free vacation at a Florida spa in return for helping Coastal. But Biaggi has made available to the Voice an American Express bill and cancelled checks that show he paid for the vacation himself.
Biaggi acknowledges interceding on Coastal’s behalf to help solve some of the company’s problems, but says he did so because of his friendship with Coastal’s president, Charles Montanti, not because of Esposito.
Esposito is also under investigation for his dealings with LoPat, a New Jersey chemical company which was marketing an environmental cleanser that it claimed could remove asbestos and other pollutants. Investigators are inquiring into allegations that Esposito tried to manipulate LoPat’s stock and use his influence to obtain government contracts.
Two weeks ago, federal judges Leonard Sand and Leo Glasser signed search warrants for FBI agents and New York City police officers to raid three of Esposito’s business offices to seize financial records. Normally, federal judges do not sign search warrants without credible evidence of possible crimes being presented to them first.
Perhaps of equal significance to any possible crimes, the federal probe has documented Esposito’s 40-year friendship with gangster Fritzie (Carbo) Giovanelli. Giovanelli is now in jail, accused in the murder of plainclothes police detective Anthony Venditti on January 21 in Ridgewood, Queens. Venditti was the father of four daughters, including a one-month-old baby. Esposito, who has made 60 or 70 judges in his political career, spoke with Giovanelli several times every week and socialized with him on a regular basis. Giovanelli was involved in the LoPat stock deal with Esposito, and Giovanelli’s son worked for Esposito’s insurance company.
According to testimony given in court by FBI and police intelligence experts, Giovanelli is a member of the Genovese crime family and controls a gambling and loan-sharking cartel with a gross annual income of “more than $20 million.” Giovanelli has a record of 11 arrests and three misdemeanor convictions. He had $4700 in cash in his pockets when he was arrested for Detective Venditti’s murder.
In April, Queens Supreme Court Justice Sidney Leviss outraged the law enforcement community by setting bail of more than $1 million each on Giovanelli and two co-defendants. Previously, Judge William Earlbaum had ordered Giovanelli held without bail. According to the Queens DA’s office and the police department, no accused cop killer in the last 20 years had been granted bail.
Within three days, Giovanelli’s friends came up with $3.7 million to set him free. At a subsequent court hearing, evidence was presented that much of the bail money came from criminal rackets controlled by Giovanelli.
After the hearing, Judge Leviss changed his mind and revoked bail for Giovanelli and his co-defendants. Last week, FBI agents questioned Judge Leviss about whether anyone had approached him about giving Giovanelli bail. Leviss said no one had spoken to him.
Esposito’s intimate connections with organized crime have been known for more than 20 years. They are part of his myth and maybe part of his power.
For years while he was Brooklyn Democratic leader, Esposito met regularly with mob boss Paul Vario. Henry Hill, Vario’s protégé, and the federal informant who is the subject of Nick Pileggi’s best-seller, Wiseguy, told the FBI that Esposito was the only person Vario insisted on meeting alone, often on a bench in Marine Park. Hill was in on all of Vario’s other meetings.
The 71-year-old Vario is now in federal prison for four years as a result of Hill’s testimony. But during his career as a mob boss, Vario twice received suspiciously lenient treatment from state judges close to Esposito. In 1967, Vario was arrested for conspiracy and bribery. The maximum sentence he could have received was 15 years. But Justice Dominic Rinaldi allowed Vario to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and let him go with a $250 fine.
In 1976 Vario was convicted by a jury of conspiracy and “rewarding official misconduct” as part of the famous “Gold Bug” investigation into a Canarsie junkyard. Justice Milton Mollen sentenced Vario to the maximum four years in prison. But in February 1977, the conviction was reversed by an appellate panel that included Esposito’s friend, the late Vincent Damiani. Not only was Vario’s conviction reversed, but the indictment was dismissed for “insufficient evidence.” Justice Mollen had rejected a defense motion to dismiss the case on the same grounds before it went to jury.
In the January 3, 1974, Village Voice, I wrote an article called “Meade, the Mob, and the Machine” that sketched Esposito’s ties to organized crime.
Meade Esposito is a cunning and self-centered con man. He has outwitted prosecutors and journalists for a generation. He has a routine of illusions that has worked. He intimidates the well-bred with vulgarity and he plays the primitive with a heart gold for the masses. He has been a survivor.
For example, when his then friend and political ally Alex Liberman got caught extorting millions of dollars in bribes from landlords as director of leasing for the city, Esposito told everyone that he knew all along Liberman was a crook, and had “warned” mayors Beame and Koch about him. The fact is that Esposito had recommended Liberman for a high-level job in writing during the Koch transition and later sought pay increases for him. And Esposito quietly arranged for letters to be written by religous leaders asking for leniency for Liberman. At the same time, Esposito told me that Liberman “should rot in jail.”
My first exposure to Esposito the con artist came in 1972. I had written two articles accusing his friend, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Dominic Rinaldi, of going easy on drug dealers and mob defendants, including Paul Vario. Esposito had an intermediary invite me to lunch with him at Foffe’s restaurant near the Brooklyn courthouse.
At lunch, Esposito made an emotional appeal for mercy and human sympathy. He said Rinaldi and his wife were suicidal because of my articles. He said Rinaldi’s son was in a mental hospital, and that was contributing to the grief in the Rinaldi family. He said that if I had any decency at all, and if I didn’t want a suicide on my conscience, I ought to find another subject to write about.
I was sufficiently troubled by Esposito’s pleading that I went straight to the chambers of a judge I knew and told him what Esposito had said to me. The judge, a good friend of Esposito’s, started to laugh uproariously. He then informed me that Judge Rinaldi’s son was “a little strange” but that he was not in any mental institution. He was, in fact, a peace officer, with a gun, in that very courthouse, courtesy of Esposito patronage, and he was furious at me, and looking for me — and I had better leave immediately, with the judge as a personal escort.
Esposito played a decisive role in Ed Koch’s winning the run-off for mayor against Mario Cuomo in 1977. Esposito threw the support of the Brooklyn clubhouse organization behind Koch, as part of a deal in which Koch promised to make Brooklyn hacks Anthony Ameruso and Jay Turoff city commissioners. Subsequently, Koch’s own screening committee found Ameruso unqualified, so Koch disbanded the screening panel and appointed Ameruso anyway.
In his book Politics, Koch described the deal in more general terms: “… we made it clear that the one thing we didn’t want him [Esposito] to do was to endorse me in any public way … he agreed to pull strings very discreetly.” This meant Esposito delivered money, palm cards, and workers from the machine.
Koch went on to add that Esposito “has always been helpful to me.” Koch more than reciprocated this generosity by giving jobs to dozens of Esposito’s friends. And last week, when news of this new scandal first began to seep out Koch jumped to Esposito’s defense. Attacking the messenger, Koch told the Citizens Crime Commission: “Do you think that’s fair? Let’s assume that he is never indicted. Do you think that he will ever recover from that story?”
Esposito, the artful con man, was able to flatter Koch, and made Koch feel like a regular guy. And Koch, who prefers gazing into the mirror rather than out the window, chose not to see Esposito for what he really is — a venal intermediary between the world of judgemakers and the world of bookmakers.
But the mayor is not the only person Esposito has fooled. Because of the six grand juries that Esposito outsmarted over the years, he has received a predominantly positive press.
On December 10, 1972, The New York Times Magazine ran a favorable cover profile of Esposito by Rick Hertzberg.
When Esposito retired as county leader in January 1984, the New York Post paid tribute to him in a sentimental editorial that concluded: “They don’t make politicians like Meade anymore, and we can’t imagine the prospect of being without his earthy wit and wisdom. Politicians, mere mortals, come and go. The Meade Espositos, for whom a man’s word is his bond, go on forever.”
The same week, Roger Starr wrote a signed editorial farewell to Esposito in The New York Times. With some naivete, Starr wrote: “Many are incredulous that Mr. Esposito was content with the rewards of power, prestige, and friendship, instead of wealth … this boss was not brought down by scandal.”
Starr wrote a valedictory to a disguise. The fact is that Esposito has a vast appetite for wealth and has accumulated four homes, a yacht, an insurance company, and a printing business. Esposito has associated in a secretive way with vicious criminals, while at the same time placing some men of no merit and doubtful integrity on the bench. As party boss, Esposito promoted the ambitions of corrupt black politicians like Sam Wright and Vander Beatty, and ostracized independent and honest black leaders like Major Owens and Al Vann. Esposito’s insurance bond was his bond; his word was unreliable.
When he held party office and controlled elected officials, Esposito did some good things. He was a complex man of occasional underdog sympathies. He backed George McGovern for the Democratic nomination in 1972. He helped John Lindsay defeat Mario Procaccino for mayor in 1969. He supported the gay-rights bill for years before it became law.
Meade Esposito is a shrewd manipulator who has worn many masks. Even the trademark cigar he always held in his hand was a mere prop for the role of Boss. He never lit the cigar.
Now, at 79, the bill is coming due. The FBI knows Esposito was in business with a hood who killed a cop. And they think they have enough proof to prosecute him.
Over the last few months and years, we have discovered how many of our leaders have lived secret lives, pretending to be statesmen or lovable rogues in public, while behaving like gangsters in private. After hearing Watergate tapes of Richard Nixon and John Mitchell, who among us should be surprised by what politicians do in secret? After hearing the tapes of “labor leader” Anthony Scotto taking payoffs in a men’s room to reduce workmen’s compensation claims, or seeing the Abscam videotapes of congressmen stuffing cash into their pockets and suitcases a few hours after quoting Jefferson and Madison, who can be shocked?
Most recently we have seen, this phenomenon with Donald Manes.
Meade Esposito is probably just one more leader who has lived a double life. ■