The mob, the feds and the ILA

Federal prosecutors are ready to have another go at proving links between organized crime and the International Longshoremen's Association.

The venue will be federal court in Brooklyn, where reputed Genovese mobster Michael Coppola goes on trial next week for racketeering and conspiracy. Coppola’s alleged offenses include a 1977 mob murder, conspiracy to possess false identification during 11 years as a fugitive from that crime, and the use of extortion to control ILA Local 1235 in Newark from 1974 to 2007.

Most of the indictment against Coppola is devoted to the ILA racketeering charges. Prosecutors allege Coppola and his mob cohorts controlled three past presidents of Local 1235 and extorted money and favors, including jobs and contracts with mobbed-up firms.

Coppola was arrested in early 2007 after 11 years in hiding. The feds say that three days before his arrest, an FBI wiretap caught him apparently discussing payoffs with Eddie Aulisi, son of Local 1235's then-president, Vincent Aulisi. The elder Aulisi disavowed knowledge of the phone conversation but after the wiretap became public he was removed from office and his son was expelled from the ILA.

Aulisi’s two predecessors also left office under a cloud – Vincent Colucci in 1980 after being convicted of racketeering conspiracy along with Coppola and others, and Al Cernadas after pleading no contest to racketeering conspiracy in 2005.

Cernadas’s co-defendants in the 2005 case -- ILA officials Harold Daggett and Arthur Coffey and Genovese mobster Larry Ricci – were acquitted. Ricci, however, wasn’t around to celebrate the verdict. He vanished in mid-trial and his body was found weeks later in the trunk of a car parked outside a New Jersey diner. In court documents, prosecutors state that their informants say Ricci was murdered on mob orders to ensure his silence and that Coppola was involved.

In pretrial discovery motions, prosecutors have cast a wide net for wiretaps, financial records, testimony in past trials, and even invitations to years-ago testimonial dinners for Cernadas and Colucci.

But prosecutors may face the same problems they encountered in the 2005 ILA-mob trial – the complexity of the case and the checkered pasts of key witnesses. Defense lawyers said in pretrial filings that the government’s case is based on contradictory allegations and “historical lore” from government witnesses who “have a much longer history of violence and mass murders than is alleged against Mr. Coppola.”

Indeed, prosecutors have said one likely witness is octogenarian labor racketeer George Barone, who testified for the government in the 2005 case. Barone, a onetime ILA vice president, was convicted in 1979 for shaking down Miami port businesses and testified that he committed several mob murders during his younger days but couldn’t recall how many.

Prosecutors undoubtedly hope that success in the Coppola case will bolster the Justice Department's civil racketeering lawsuit, which seeks to place the ILA and its benefit programs under government supervision. That lawsuit, refilled after being dismissed in 2007, has been dormant for months.

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