Tue, Sep 14, 2021 7:00 PM
By MICHAEL R. SISAK, AP
NEW YORK (AP) — Members of a New York City crime family threatened violence, pressured workers and pocketed phony “pension” payments in a two-decade plot to seize control of a city construction union and its lucrative employee health insurance program, prosecutors alleged in an indictment unsealed Tuesday.
Ten members of the Colombo crime family, including 87-year-old boss Andrew “Mush” Russo, were charged in connection with the scheme, which prosecutors said had all the major trappings of Mafia-type shakedowns seen in TV shows like “The Sopranos” and movies.
Prosecutors said crime family members pressured the union to steer health plan business to pals, sought at least $10,000 per month in kickbacks and threatened to kill a union official if he didn't comply, telling an associate on a recorded telephone call in June: “I’ll put him in the ground right in front of his wife and kids."
Acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn Kasulis said the charges “describe a long-standing, ruthless pattern” by Colombo crime family leaders and underlings to exert control over the union, which was not identified in the indictment or by prosecutors.
Four other people were also charged, including a Bonanno crime family soldier accused of falsifying government workplace safety certifications for hundreds of construction workers.
Several defendants were accused of other crimes, including loan sharking and conspiring to distribute large amounts of marijuana.
Most of the defendants were arrested Tuesday in New York and New Jersey and arraigned by videoconference before U.S. Magistrate Judge Taryn Merkl in Brooklyn federal court. One defendant was arrested in North Carolina and was scheduled to be arraigned there. Another remained at large, prosecutors said.
They each face up to 20 years in prison, prosecutors said.
Russo appeared at his video arraignment from a hospital bed, with an FBI agent by his side. He pleaded not guilty as medical equipment beeped periodically.
The Colombo boss was taken to the hospital after his arrest Tuesday for a medical evaluation prior to being jailed, in part because of concerns about his age and injuries he suffered in a car crash about three weeks ago.
After being deemed medically fit to be detained, Russo was expected to be sent Tuesday night to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. He's been locked up several times before, including a 33-month stint in federal prison after a 2011 racketeering arrest, court records show.
Russo's lawyers did not immediately seek his release on bail Tuesday. A message seeking comment was left with Russo's lawyers.
According to prosecutors, the scheme to infiltrate the union dated to 2001, when Colombo mobster Vincent Ricciardo, known as “Vinny Unions” started squeezing a union official to fork over a portion of his salary as a “pension" he falsely claimed was owed.
Online court records did not list a lawyer who could speak on Ricciardo's behalf.
Russo and other Colombo leaders, including the underboss and consigliere, got involved in 2019, overseeing a plan to force the union to make decisions beneficial to the crime family, including driving contracts to vendors associated with the family, prosecutors said.
Ricciardo and another Colombo mobster went to the union official's home in January 2020 to threaten him and his family, while Vinny’s cousin followed up with threatening text messages, prosecutors said.
A few months later, police stopped Ricciardo and the other mobster after they went to the union office and repeatedly banged on a locked door, prosecutors said.
They told the officers they were there to collect a check, prosecutors said.
In the recorded telephone call in June, Ricciardo was heard fantasizing about killing the union official, no matter the cost.
“You laugh all you want pal, I’m not afraid to go to jail,” he said, according to prosecutors.
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