Power play on the waterfront

Power play on the waterfront

Harold Daggett wept as he recalled the terrifying incident. He said he was driven to an East Harlem storefront and escorted into a dim back room, where mobster George Barone put a pistol to his head and screamed, "This is my (expletive) local. I'll kill you and your wife and children if you take my local away from me." Daggett, a beefy six-and-a-half footer, said he was so frightened that he wet his pants.

Daggett, assistant general organizer of the ILA and president of its New York-New Jersey maintenance local, said that after that experience in the early 1980s, he went out of his way to avoid Barone, an admitted Genovese mob murderer and former ILA vice president who has twice been convicted of waterfront extortion. "I hate this man," he testified last week.

Federal prosecutors tell a different story. They say Barone and other mobsters schemed to put Daggett in position to become ILA president because they knew he could be counted on to follow Mafia orders. They also say Daggett and his co-defendant, Arthur Coffey, ILA vice president from Miami, conspired to steer contracts for union members' pharmaceutical and mental-health coverage to firms that paid kickbacks to the mob.

This week, a U.S. District Court jury in Brooklyn is expected to decide which story they believe. Jurors will have to sift through seven weeks of sometimes-complex testimony they have heard from law enforcement officials and from four former mobsters who are either in jail or in the government's witness-protection program awaiting sentencing.

The mobsters have told lurid tales of criminal activities and of Mafia customs. FBI agents and other law enforcement officials have attested to evidence produced by surveillance teams, wiretaps, phone logs and videotapes that they said links the two defendants to the mob.

The jury's verdict in this criminal case could influence a parallel civil lawsuit that the Brooklyn U.S. attorney's office has filed against the ILA and its top officials under the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act. The RICO lawsuit seeks to put the ILA under government control to weed out mob influence, just as the government did when it took over supervision of the Teamsters union in 1989. The allegations in the criminal trial form part of the basis for the RICO suit.

The trial of Daggett and Coffey took a mysterious turn when a third defendant, Lawrence Ricci, a reputed Genovese family captain, disappeared without explanation over the Columbus Day weekend. Ricci's lawyer, Martin Schmuckler, said his client's absence was "not voluntary," fueling speculation that he had been murdered, but others suggested he might have used the long weekend to flee. Ricci is being tried in absentia.

The week before the trial opened on Sept. 19, a fourth defendant, Albert Cernadas, who had been the ILA's executive vice president, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and agreed to resign his ILA posts in exchange for possibly avoiding a prison sentence.

Daggett and Coffey are charged with extortion conspiracy and wire and mail fraud conspiracy. Ricci and Cernadas were charged with wire and mail fraud conspiracy.

The mobsters who testified - Barone, Primo Casserino, Michael D'Urso and Peter "The Crumb" Caprio - said they had worked for the Genovese or Gambino crime families. Some of their testimony supported the government's charge that the two families had reached an "accommodation" to allow Daggett to be elevated to the ILA's Executive Council without election so that he could succeed John Bowers, 82, as union president. The FBI wiretaps recorded sketchy conversations about the alleged plot.

Daggett took the witness stand last week in a calculated risk that the jury would find his story - of a career dedicated to helping members of his local - more convincing than the lurid testimony of government witnesses. His attorney and cousin, George Daggett, elicited his account of how he returned from a stint in the Navy, got an ILA job on the waterfront through his dockworker father, and climbed the ranks through ability and hard work to become president of Local 1804-1. That ILA local, the largest in the Port of New York and New Jersey, represents nearly 2,000 members who repair containers and chassis.

Daggett also told the jury of one evening when he was about to conduct a union meeting in New Jersey, but was interrupted by "cop cars that came up with flashing lights." He said the cars contained FBI agents who said, "Federal wiretaps said you're going to be assassinated after work, and we can give you security." He said he was taken to the North Bergen, N.J., police department in a blizzard and then to his home, which the police "watched for a couple of weeks." He said he was sure the threat came from Barone.

Daggett's testimony was designed to counter the picture presented by the government's lead witness, Barone, who testified that he couldn't remember how many people he murdered during his career as a Genovese hitman. Barone, 81, who said he has cancer, diabetes and congestive heart failure, is partially deaf and sometimes had to wait to answer until he could read the questions put to him on a teleprompter. His hearing appeared selective at times; he responded more readily to questions by the U.S. attorneys than to those asked by defense lawyers.

Barone testified that Daggett was an associate of the Genovese crime family, working for him and for Andrew Gigante, son of imprisoned mob boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante. Barone said he had summoned Daggett to the meeting at the back of a fruit store in East Harlem in the early 1980s because he had heard Daggett was involved in a plot to kill him and take over his local. "We had a very strong berating of Mr. Daggett," he said. "He was definitely afraid of what was about to happen to him."

Barone supported prosecutors' claims that the Mafia used containerization as an opportunity to expand its influence over the ILA by taking over maintenance and repair of intermodal equipment. "Containerization presented a tremendous opportunity for the Mafia to make a lot of money - much, much more money, because containerization now needed repair companies," Barone said.

The mobster testified about a key meeting in 1999 with ILA President Bowers that is at the heart of the government's case against Daggett and Coffey. Barone said he had asked Coffey to "bring him (Bowers) to me" at Smith & Wollensky's restaurant in Miami, where Coffey and Bowers were attending union meetings. Bowers did not testify, but was quoted in a deposition as saying he was surprised to encounter Barone. Barone said he delivered a message from Genovese mobsters Ernie Muscarella and Patty Falcetti that they were "very, very disturbed" by reports that Bowers was supporting Benny Holland, the ILA's general vice president from Galveston, to be successor to Bowers. Holland has never been linked with any criminal activities. Barone said he told Bowers, "We want you to consider a relationship with Harold Daggett as your successor."

Barone said Bowers replied that Daggett was "a loose cannon . . . a real clown," and that Holland was more competent. Barone said he told Bowers that his group would be responsible for Daggett, and added: "We do not want an outsider taking that position. I said, what would your father say if he were alive and he heard you were taking on somebody from Texas to fill a New York job as far as we were concerned?"

Coffey's lawyer, Gerald McMahon, described Barone as "a mass murderer" who is "living large in Florida" on more than $100,000 in federal payments during the last two years in addition to his Social Security and ILA retirement. Barone insisted he is nearly broke, with only $7,000 in assets.

Barone, who in the 1980s served seven years of a 15-year federal sentence for shaking down Miami port businesses, became a government witness after a second extortion conviction in 2001 and after a falling-out with Andrew Gigante. Barone said the Genovese family had put him "on the shelf" and let others deal with the ILA.

Following Daggett's testimony last week, his cousin, Peter Clark, a retired New York police inspector, testified that he works as the sergeant-at-arms for Local 1804-1 and that he often travels with Daggett. Asked why he does this, Clark replied, "To protect him from bad guys." Asked if George Barone was one of the bad guys, he replied, "Yes."