Christmas comes but once a year, and the mob always tries to make the most of it.
That's the finding of a waterfront probe that has now spanned two holiday seasons. This week the investigation produced the indictment of a former top official of the scandal-tarred International Longshoremen's Association for extorting some $2 million from his union workers and passing the dough on to Genovese mobsters as Christmas "tributes."
Albert (The Bull) Cernadas, who was once on a short list of potential candidates for ILA president, allegedly extorted the funds from members of Local 1235 from 1982 until 2006 while he served as president of the Newark-based local that represents longshoremen. The local, which currently represents about 1,000 workers, had more members in the 1980s and 1990s.
Cernadas, who earned more than $500,000 a year from his dual posts as Local 1235 president and ILA vice president during his final years as a union official, was indicted on racketeering charges by a federal grand jury in Newark late Tuesday.
The pre-Christmas indictment is the first salvo from a task force of federal and state authorities in New York and New Jersey who recently combined forces and began working together in an effort to eliminate the Genovese crime family's stranglehold on the Garden State piers.
In addition to the crime family's control over Local 1235, sources say a federal grand jury in Newark is investigating the family's links to sister Local 1478 - whose longtime leader Nunzio LaGrasso was hit with corruption charges in March. The grand jury is also probing the murder of Genovese mobster Lawrence Ricci, who was killed while he was on trial for labor racketeering in 2005.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Taryn Merkl, who was prosecuting Ricci in Brooklyn Federal Court when he was killed, and prosecutor Jacquelyn Rasulo, have been assigned to head the Newark-based probe. Agents from the U.S. Department of Labor, FBI agents from Manhattan and Newark, the New Jersey Attorney General's office and investigators from the Waterfront Commission are also involved in the probe. Newark assistant U.S. attorney Anthony Mahajan rounds out the prosecution team.
The Bull was ousted from his lofty union posts after he copped a plea bargain deal to mail fraud charges in Brooklyn in 2005. He got probation in that case. But this week he pleaded not guilty to the new charges that could send him to prison for 20 years. Cernadas, 74, was released on $1 million bail that was set by U.S. Magistrate Judge Esther Salas. His attorney, Jack Arseneault, declined to comment.
According to the indictment, every December and January from 1982-83, until 2005-06, Cernadas, and unidentified members and associates of the Genovese family, extorted payoffs from two longshoremen, indentified in the indictment as John Doe #1, and John Doe #2.
The dollar amounts are not disclosed, but based on recently filed court papers in Brooklyn, each December, in order to maintain their jobs, Local 1235 longshoremen were required to pay $2,000 apiece to a designated union official who would in turn funnel that money to a Genovese mobster.
In late 2008 and late 2009, payoffs by the same two unidentified longshoremen, as well as payments they collected from other longshoremen, were given to Local 1235 delegate Robert (Bobby) Ruiz, according to an arrest warrant by Department of Labor agent Jonathan Mellone that was filed in Brooklyn Federal Court.
Last year, according to Mellone's affidavit, the tribute money went underground. Ruiz was supposed to hand it over to Stephen Depiro, the Genovese mobster who replaced Ricci as the crime family's go-to and give-to wiseguy. Depiro is a former 1235 longshoreman who was thrown off the docks in 1996 after the Waterfront Commission determined that he had a no-show job.
Instead, Ruiz gave the money, a total of $51,900, to another longshoreman for safekeeping. Identified only as John Doe #2, the docks worker buried it in his yard, where it was retrieved by Mellone and other agents in April, according to the arrest warrant.
"There was a lot of heat at the time, and everyone was afraid to make a move," recalled one usually reliable Gang Land source. "That's why he (Ruiz) gave it (the $51,900) back, and why Depiro and Tino (Fiumara) were feeling sorry for themselves last Christmas," the source added.
As Gang Land reported in April, during a hushed talk at a Long Island eatery that was watched by FBI agents, one of the gangsters was heard telling the other: "Christmas is long gone," a reference to the fact that they had not received their usual "tribute" from Local 1235.
Fiumara, the once feared Genovese waterfront racketeer, died from cancer in September.
Depiro, who served about two years in prison for a loansharking conviction in 1998, was arrested on corruption charges earlier this year. Subsequently indicted only for harboring longtime Fiumara crony Michael (Mikey Cigars) Coppola while he was a fugitive, Depiro is currently trying to negotiate a plea deal to resolve all his charges, according to the docket sheet in his case.
Ruiz, 51, became a Local 1235 delegate two years ago. He earned $235,000 last year. Released on a $500,000 bond after pleading not guilty, Ruiz is currently on paid leave from his union post.
"He knows historically that around Christmas-time money has been given up the chain, but he claims that he never was engaged in it," said his attorney Marc Agnifilo. "He never did it, and no one ever asked him to do it, and to the extent that the government takes a position that this is universal across the board, this is not true," the lawyer added.