Tough road for feds

Tough road for feds

All agree that it's an ambitious lawsuit. Too ambitious, say attorneys for the International Longshoremen's Association and its officers and benefit funds. They argue that the government's civil racketeering case against the ILA is flawed, and are asking U.S. District Judge I. Leo Glasser to dismiss it.

At a hearing last Tuesday in Brooklyn, Glasser peppered Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Hayes with questions about the lawsuit, filed under the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act. Does the lawsuit properly allege a waterfront racketeering enterprise? Could some of its participants be members as well as victims? Did the enterprise have a structure? Should the government be allowed to "patch" allegations from past cases onto the current lawsuit?

Hayes endured a rough couple of hours as he struggled to dispel the judge's apparent skepticism about some aspects of the case. Glasser didn't immediately rule on defense motions to dismiss the lawsuit, but the questions he raised suggest that the government faces difficulties if the case goes to trial.

Defense lawyers have contended all along that the government's case is a stretch - that the Justice Department stitched together numerous separate incidents over many years and labeled it a "corrupt waterfront enterprise" in which the Mafia called the shots for the ILA and companies that deal with the union in New York-New Jersey and Miami.

Glasser acknowledged what everyone knows - that organized crime remains a presence on the waterfront, at least in New York-New Jersey. But has the Justice Department produced a solid enough case to justify allowing the lawsuit to go forward?

The entire industry has a stake in the answer. The Justice Department alleges that companies and consumers, along with ILA members, pay a "mob tax" for extra costs that result from Mafia influence on the docks. Government oversight of the ILA and its benefit programs also would impose costs, including slowed decision-making and hefty legal fees.

It's still too early to predict how the ILA's RICO case will play out. But if last week's hearing is an indication, the government faces a difficult task. RICO cases tend to be sprawling and complex - they're based on the idea that the sum of their allegations is greater than the individual parts (which is another way of saying that the government files a RICO case when it can't file anything else).

The government's challenge appears to be complicated by its lawyers' propensity to include everything but the kitchen sink. At last week's hearing, Glasser observed that government lawyers seemed to have violated guidelines that court pleadings should be clear and concise.

If a judge with 25 years of experience finds a lawsuit complicated and obtuse, imagine what it will be like for a jury.