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Mob still present in area

Defections, prosecutions and aging slow activity

Monday, November 06, 2000

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 7, 2000) An explanation of an investigation involving Teamsters Local 211 was omitted from a story in yesterday's editions concerning organized crime. Under a 1989 federal consent decree, an Independent Review Board monitors and investigates mob influence and corruption in the Teamsters. In August, the review board recommended action be taken by Local 211 against member Mark G. Houmis, an ex-convict who was hired as a driver for the former Pittsburgh Press on the recommendation of former Teamsters President Ted Cozza. The review board said Houmis, who admitted to associations with Pittsburgh mob members, refused to answer questions about gambling or loan-sharking operations at the Press, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Brookline Young Men's Club.

The Pittsburgh mob still has its fingers in a few pies, according to the FBI, but prosecutions and age have whittled away at what once was a powerful family.

The unprecedented defections of two high-ranking members -- Lenine "Lenny" Strollo and Charles "Chucky" Porter -- may finally end its influence in Western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

Last year, Strollo, a Pittsburgh La Cosa Nostra member in charge of the Youngstown rackets, testified for the government and described a history of extortion, murder and payoffs.

At a federal trial in Cleveland, Strollo described how he bought justice through bribes of police, prosecutors and a judge, planned killings and mediated disputes, including one between New York mob boss John Gotti and a Boardman, Ohio, fireworks dealer.

Strollo said he had been chosen by the Pittsburgh mob to take over Mahoning County because of his control of politicians and police and his ability to earn money from illegal gambling.

In court, he also identified the boss of the Pittsburgh family as Michael Genovese, 82, of West Deer.

The Strollo testimony may finally have broken the decades-old mob stranglehold on Youngstown. His defection put him in league with Alfonse D'Arco, former acting head of the Lucchese crime family in New York, who is called upon to testify at organized crime trials whenever needed.

Now Porter has joined Strollo as a defector. Last month, the U.S. attorney's office revealed that the Pittsburgh underboss has been talking to the FBI from prison for eight years.

According to a motion for a reduction in sentence filed by U.S. Attorney Harry Litman, Porter has helped the FBI investigate loan-sharking in New York by the Bonanno family in 1992, a gambling ring in Harmarville in 1993, narcotics and loan-sharking in Pittsburgh from 1994 through 1998, a 1994 dispute over a landfill operation between the DeCavalcante family of New Jersey and the Genovese family of New York and the Pittsburgh mob's infiltration of the Rincon Indian tribal casino near San Diego.

Porter also provided information for other investigations of mob influence in Florida, New Castle and Youngstown and told the FBI about at least seven planned mob hits against informants in Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities.

FBI Agent Roger Greenbank will testify about Porter's cooperation at a hearing Nov. 29 in federal court to determine if Porter should be released from prison early. He has served 10 years of his 28-year sentence.

Beyond Porter's revelations, authorities have been looking into other local mob activity.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Leon Rodriguez would not discuss specifics, but he said his office continuing to investigate "criminal conduct associated with traditional organized crime, such as gambling, loan-sharking, narcotics and violent crime associated with them."

State authorities have also been active. Two weeks ago, state police arrested Pittsburgh mob member Thomas "Sonny" Ciancutti with 14 associates on charges of running a gambling ring in Fayette County.

Investigators are also examining mob influence in labor unions including Teamsters Local 211, which represents the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette truck drivers, and Laborers International Local 1058, whose members include John LaRocca Jr., son of the late mob boss John Sebastian LaRocca.

Like the Teamsters, the Laborers International Union has a long history of mob ties. In 1966, for example, Local 1058 used union funds to buy an Uptown lot from LaRocca. But it shelled out twice the market value in what amounted to a payoff for the mob boss, according to news accounts at the time.

As for Genovese, these days he keeps an extremely low profile.

When his wife died last year, the death notice said only that she was survived by her son, Michael, and others. There was no mention of her husband.

Greenbank thinks Genovese wrote the death notice that way on purpose to throw off agents who might have wanted to set up surveillance at the funeral. Agents also believe that Genovese did not attend his sister's funeral this year to avoid FBI scrutiny.

So is the old man still actively in charge?

"I have no reason to believe that he's not," says Greenbank.

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