Mob Influence Remains Threat to Unions, Former Prosecutor Says

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By John Herzfeld

The United Food and Commercial Workers will cooperate with federal law enforcement authorities in a case alleging that the Genovese organized crime family has held influence over one of the union’s New York City locals for years, the UFCW said.

The Jan. 11 statement came in response to a racketeering indictment unsealed the day before in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Reputed mob figures are alleged to have committed a range of crimes from 2000 to 2017, including conspiring to extort an official of UFCW Local 1D for annual cash payments to keep his post.

The charges are the latest sign of the persistence of allegations of organized crime control over various unions in the city, despite decades of anti-corruption prosecutions and civil actions.

“I’m glad to see that the federal government is still active in labor racketeering enforcement,” Edwin H. Stier, a former prosecutor and a veteran of drives against union corruption, told Bloomberg Law Jan. 11. “Nobody should ever assume, given the history of the New York metropolitan area, that we’re going to be rid of organized crime influence completely, no matter what law enforcement does.”

Unions Merged in 1995

The indictment alleges Local 1D Secretary-Treasurer Frank Cognetta is a Genovese family associate and charges him with taking nearly $500,000 in kickbacks to steer union benefit fund business to an investment adviser.

Another defendant and alleged mob associate, Vincent D’Acunto Jr., is listed as the secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 2D on that local’s website and is the son of its longtime president, who died in 2000. He is accused of joining in the alleged extortion conspiracy with co-defendants Vincent Esposito and Steve Arena.

A fifth defendant, Frank Giovinco, was charged with being a member of the racketeering conspiracy, but the nature of his alleged involvement wasn’t specified in the indictment.

The Brooklyn-based Local 1D and Local 2D were part of the Distillery, Wine, and Allied Workers Union until that labor organization merged with UFCW in 1995. They represent employees of liquor and wine wholesalers, with Local 1D having 1,100 members.

The Local 1D probe was part of a broader continuing investigation of labor union corruption in New York, looking in particular at benefit-fund kickbacks, according to separate Jan. 9 complaint against Cognetta.

The kickback charges were based on hours of audio and video recordings of Cognetta’s meetings with the investment adviser, who became an informant, the complaint said.

UFCW Pledges Cooperation

“We hold all our Local officers and staff to the highest ethical and professional standards,” Casey Hoag, a spokesman for the local, said in a statement emailed to Bloomberg Law. “These serious allegations are deeply troubling. If proven true, they are an affront to the values of our entire Local Union family, particularly the members we have the privilege to serve.”

The union’s cooperation will extend to all aspects of the federal investigation “to ensure the accused are held accountable for any illegal behavior and our members’ and unions’ assets are protected,” Hoag said.

“To be very clear, we will not tolerate attempts by any individual or criminal group to exploit our members or diminish the contributions our union family makes to our community,” Hoag said.

Rich Targets

Union benefit funds continue to offer mobsters a piggy bank they find hard to resist, said Stier, a partner in the law firm Stier Anderson & Malone LLC in Skillman, N.J. He oversaw a court-ordered trusteeship of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 560 from 1986 to 1999 and still chairs the local’s benefit fund committee. His trusteeship was a prelude to sweeping court-ordered supervision of the entire international union.

White-collar crime is safer than violent crime and harder to detect, he said.

“Organized crime figures are still looking for opportunities to make money from their ability to intimidate people,” Stier said in a phone interview. “They tend to gravitate toward these low-risk, high-profit activities unless law enforcement keeps up constant, active vigilance.”

“The danger is always that the federal government will shift its resources to other priorities,” he said.

Cognetta and D’Acunto pleaded not guilty at a Jan. 10 arraignment. Defense attorneys for Cognetta, Esposito, Arena, and Giovinco didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment. D’Acunto didn’t respond to a request for comment sent to his email address at Local 2D.

The case is United States v. Esposito , S.D.N.Y., No. 1:18-cr-00014, indictment unsealed 1/10/18 .

To contact the reporter on this story: John Herzfeld in New York at jherzfeld@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bloomberglaw.com

For More Information

The indictment is at http://src.bna.com/vBA. The complaint is at http://src.bna.com/vBD.

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