By Nicholas Pileggi
This article appeared in the November 2, 1987 issue of New York Magazine.
Last month, when Mario Cuomo was in Anaheim, California, to address the National Association of Broadcasters, he was approached in a hotel lobby by a smiling, enthusiastic woman. As the governor listened in shock, the woman urged him to run for president — even though, she explained, she’d heard that a member of his family was “involved” with the mob. “That’s them, not you,” Cuomo recalled the woman saying.
“I asked her where she heard such things," Cuomo said in a recent interview, "and she said it was the scuttlebutt around her husband's office.”
And who was her husband? Douglas Edwards, the veteran CBS radio and TV anchor.
“I know it’s all around the place,” Cuomo said, “but what do you do about it?”
One of the things Cuomo did was complain to the New York Times. Twenty-two days after Anaheim and the day after CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl asked him about rumors of “skeletons in his family closet,” Cuomo called E.J. Dionne Jr. of the Times to say he suspected that an organized campaign was at work spreading malicious stories, particularly about his in-laws. The Times printed an article about the phone call (Cuomo belatedly claimed he'd been speaking off the record), but even that public exposure has done little to quiet the storm.
The governor is right on one count: The rumors about him and his family are everywhere. In fact, so many are in the air that several major news organizations have hired private detectives and former city cops to help investigative reporters sort out the stories.
No one, however, has yet turned up anything of substance against Cuomo, even though journalists have been looking, off and on, for several years. “We scrubbed him pretty good [a year and a half ago] and didn’t come up with anything,” said a reporter for one major out-of-town newspaper.
Of course, no one can be scrubbed completely clean. The best that can be said so far is that the most prevalent rumors about the “mob” skeletons in Cuomo’s family closet turn out to be misleading or false.
For example, Edward McDonald, head of the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn, said he’s received dozens of calls from reporters about a rumor that Cuomo met with a mob capo a decade or so ago after his appointment as secretary of state under Governor Hugh Carey. The rumor, McDonald said, can probably be traced to a report by agents who had been tail¬ing John “Sonny” Franzese, a capo in the Colombo crime family. At a big wedding in the mid-'70s, Franzese was one of a score of people who shook Cuomo’s hand. McDonald added that there’s no evidence that Cuomo even knew who Franzese was. "Aside from that," said McDonald, "I have never heard of Cuomo connected with any wise guys in any way whatever. It shouldn't be worth denying, but still, the calls keep coming in.”
The governor's suspicion that there’s an organized campaign of slander against him doesn't seem to be borne out, however. Many of the rumors are traceable to idle gossip, some of it coming from a Brooklyn bar that’s a hangout for cops and ex-cops. Some of the stories are linked to specific incidents in Cuomo’s past — the mysterious mugging of his father-in-law three years ago in Brooklyn, for example, and the bitter lawsuit that has developed between Cuomo and his former partners over the distribution of legal fees.
But reporters in search of Cuomo’s skeletons also come across political gadflies and adversaries of the governor who breezily pass out misinformation. One of these sources is a man who worked in public relations for the Right to Life candidate in the last gubernatorial campaign; another is a veteran, politically conservative legislative aide who has long been a source for the press on organized-crime matters. Neither man seemed aware that the information he offered was largely inaccurate, though neither sounded particularly upset when told of the inaccuracies.
Besides the story of the supposed meeting with Sonny Franzese, the other major rumors about Cuomo making the rounds these days are:
• That the mugging of Cuomo’s father-in-law, Charles Raffa, was a mob beating that grew out of a dispute over arson.
• That Cuomo interfered with the police investigation of the beating.
• That the record of a Raffa arrest for arson has been erased from the state computer.
• That early in his career, Cuomo represented organized-crime hoods in Queens.
• That mob capo Michael Franzese (Sonny Franzese’s stepson) gave Cuomo $30,000 during his 1983 gubernatorial campaign.
• That Cuomo’s former law firm paid money through an escrow account to a mobster who was later acquitted of murdering an undercover detective in Queens.
Several of these rumors can be dispelled with one or two phone calls. Others — particularly those involving Raffa — are more complex, though it should be emphasized that nothing substantial has come out to link Raffa with organized crime or, for that matter, with any wrongdoing more serious than a 1973 misdemeanor arrest for offering an improper gratuity. Except for an NBC report two years ago on campaign contributions, none of the rumors (or anything close to them) has yet been printed or broadcast. But the stories continue to be passed around by cops, media people, and others in a kind of shadow network of gossip and loose talk.
Here, for example, is what the legislative aide (who was speaking on a not-for-¬attribution basis) said when asked whether Cuomo was linked to the mob: “No question Cuomo [is] linked. He represented organized-crime guys when he was with his law firm. He also accepted campaign money from mob guys who ripped the Feds and state out of millions of dollars in a gasoline-tax scam. And his ex-law partners have the story that will show how the firm was used to pay off Carmine Gualtieri, the guy who got arrested for killing the undercover cop in Queens about a year ago. The law-firm payroll was used like a wash.”
None of that stands up to close scrutiny.
Though the rumors about Cuomo have been circulating for some time, the talk picked up dramatically last February, after he announced that he wouldn’t seek the presidency. To some people, his withdrawal was support for the notion that he had something to hide: Why else would an ambitious and popular politician refuse to go after the top prize? Paradoxically, Cuomo said that one reason he hasn’t made an absolute statement ruling out a candidacy is that such an announcement would “invite enemies who like to take shots at Italian-Americans in particular to say, ‘Oh, see, the reason he did that is because he has a skeleton in the closet.’
“Let me deal with [purported] skeletons in the full view of the American people,” the governor said. “Let me show them my father-in-law, let me show them my mother. Let me talk about my family, tell the story of my family, put an end to these rumors and the bums who are spreading them. My family would not only not be an impediment to my run¬ning, it would probably be my biggest asset.”
Certainly, Cuomo has made his humble roots a major part of his political appeal. His father, Andrea Cuomo, emigrated from Salerno as a young man and supported his family working long hours at his small grocery store in Queens. His mother, Immaculata, also emigrated from Salerno. Mario was the youngest of three children. Today his brother Frank is in the food-retail business, and his sister Marie is a librarian.
Cuomo got his undergraduate and law degrees from St. John's. After finishing first in his law-school class, Cuomo has said, he sent letters to 60 Wall Street firms asking for job interviews but got no responses. He then clerked for Judge Adrian Burke of the New York State Court of Appeals and went into private practice in Brooklyn. He came to public attention in 1970, when he saved the homes of 69 Italian-Americans in Corona, Queens, from demolition by the city. In fact, he got such good press for his conciliatory talents that in 1972, Mayor John Lindsay asked him to resolve a housing controversy in Forest Hills that pitted middle-income sites against a low-income housing project. In 1975, Governor Hugh Carey appointed him secretary of state. Two years later, he lost to Ed Koch in the Democratic mayoral primary, but in 1978, he was elected lieutenant governor, and in 198, he beat Koch in the gubernatorial primary and went on to be elected governor. He won reelection last year by the biggest margin ever for a governor in New York.
In 1954, Cuomo married Matilda Raffa, one of five children of Charles and Mary Raffa, who are both of Sicilian descent. The Cuomos have five children: Margaret, 32, is a doctor and is married to Robert Perpignano, an architect-engineer. Andrew, 29, is a lawyer. Maria, 25, is in public relations and recently married shoe designer Kenneth Cole; Madeline, 23, is a law student; and Christopher, 17, is a high-school student living at home.
The most persistent and serious rumors involve Cuomo’s father-in-law, Charles Raffa, now 83. The stories grow out of a real crime. On the morning of May 22, 1984, Raffa, who owns several buildings and vacant lots in Brooklyn, drove to an empty super¬market he owned at 804 Stanley Avenue, in the East New York section. Earlier, he had placed an ad in the Times to rent the building, and at 10 he showed the space to a man named Severano Estedes, who later told police he toured the building but decided against taking it.
At about noon, the owners of a dry cleaner’s and a food store across the street told police they saw Raffa emerge from his building onto the sidewalk in front. When they got there, they found Raffa so severely beaten that they recognized him only from his clothes. They told police that his head had been sliced open and his scalp was covering his eyes. The store owners, who had known Raffa for years, said he was mumbling incoherently but indicated that he wanted to drive home. Instead, he was taken to Bap¬tist Medical Center and later by helicopter to NYU Medical Center.
Raffa underwent plastic surgery and has made repeated trips to the hospital for treatment. Andrew Cuomo, the governor’s son, said recently that his grandfather has never completely recovered from the beating and has had difficulty speaking and focusing his mind ever since.
The case was investigated by detectives from the 75th Precinct and the Crimes Against Senior Citizens Unit. From the start, they were hampered because no witnesses to the assault turned up and because Raffa couldn’t speak coherently for the first ten days he was in the hospital. Even after that, his accounts were confused.
“Raffa was questioned by detectives on at least seven occasions, including July 11, when he returned to the crime scene with Patrol Lieutenant Michael Murray and other officers,” said Deputy Inspector Charles Prestia, who has been handling press inquiries on the case. “But his responses were confused, and he gave contradictory statements about what happened to him.” During various interviews, Prestia explained, “Raffa described his assailants as a white, Hispanic, and black. Sometimes he said there was one man and sometimes he said there were two. He said he was hit. Detectives did find Raffa’s blood at the top and bottom of the basement steps. But aside from that, he was confused about how he was beaten.”
Working the streets, the police came up with the names of several local toughs who were suspected of assaulting the elderly. “Several suspects were brought in for questioning,” Prestia said, “but there were no other witnesses to the beating, and Raffa’s description of his attacker was so inconsistent that the investigation eventually died.”
Stories about the incident soon began making the rounds of the city’s police stations and courthouses. There was talk that Raffa was an arsonist and his beating a mob hit; that five gallons of kerosene had been found in his car and had somehow disappeared from the station house; that “every cop in Brooklyn” knows the name of Raffa’s assailant but higher-ups refuse to arrest him; that the car containing the combustible evidence was driven away from the scene by Cuomo’s detective-bodyguard, who’s a relative of the Cuomo family; that the police reports (DD5s) on the case were missing from headquarters; and that the governor was at the scene shortly after the incident and had used state troopers to erase any evidence of his father-in-law’s possible criminality.
Prestia said that none of this is true. “I suspect the rumor about combustible materials being found in either his car of the building probably comes from the fact that detectives found a white plastic antifreeze can, three quarters full, in the building, and that the police lab report identified the fluid as a petroleum distillate, a solvent, like paint thinner.” This inspector said it’s not clear how the antifreeze got there or what it was for, but considering the size of the building, it’s unlikely that the liquid would have been used to start a fire.
Prestia also said that there were no flammable liquids found in Raffa's car and that the car was "safeguarded" by police during the day until it was removed by the governor's detective-bodyguard, Benjamin Pepitone — who is not related to the Cuomo family. Prestia also said that, far from there being no po-lice reports at headquarters, the file on the case contains over 300 DD5s covering the lengthy investigation.
Cuomo couldn’t have been at the scene because he was in Albany all day on May 22 and didn’t come to the city until the next day. Andrew Cuomo, however, did go to the hospital and then the precinct on the day of the attack.
“There was a very thorough police investigation, and they found nothing to substantiate the rumors,” he said. “Still, they persist.” The suggestion that his grandfather planned to burn the building is ridiculous, he claimed, since Raffa had scheduled meetings to show the building to prospective tenants. What’s more, Cuomo said, the supermarket contained valuable refrigeration equipment and the building was not insured for fire.
State police officials said that Raffa’s name has not been erased from the computer; indeed, officials said, the computer shows that Raffa was arrested in 1973 on a misdemeanor charge of offering an illegal gratuity. Details of the alleged crime aren’t clear, but police said charges of that sort typically involve giving small gifts or tips to city or state employees. In this case, the charge against Raffa was dismissed in 1974. Andrew Cuomo said he did not know of the arrest until told by reporters tracking Raffa rumors.
The state police officials added that there’s no evidence of any effort to tamper with the computer about Raffa. What’s more, all arson arrests are also placed in the FBI computer, and as of last week, the FBI had no record of Raffa be¬ing arrested for anything.
Prestia said that inquiries about the case died down not long after the mugging, but they were revived in late winter and have continued through the summer and fall. “The questions always seem to coincide with stories about Cuomo’s candidacy,” he said, “and the questions are always the same. They seem to be coming from the same source.”
One of the people passing on stories about Raffa is Harry Daley, a 51-year-old part-time writer and public-relations man. Last year, he worked in the campaign of Nassau County district attorney Denis Dillon, who ran for governor on the Right to Life ticket. Daley, who lives in Lynbrook, on Long Island, said he heard the rumors about Raffa at a bar near the 75th Pre¬cinct, which is frequented by off-duty cops who are friends of his. One sergeant (now retired) from the 75th Precinct told Daley that Cuomo's father-in-law was an arsonist and that Cuomo had personally interfered with the investigation by iso¬lating the father-in-law from detectives and by erasing his arson record from the state computer. Daley said his “source” — whom he refused to identify — worked in the precinct at the time of the incident and “swears that Cuomo was at the scene, personally squashing the investigation.”
The story so outraged Daley that he took the sergeant to Dillon, who at the time was running for governor against Cuomo and Andrew O'Rourke, the Republican Party candidate.
“Daley walked into the office with this sergeant who had information about Raffa,” Dillon said. “They had the information that Raffa’s mugging was related to an argument over an arson, that Cuomo was at the scene himself, and that he participated in a cover-up. Because of the awkwardness of the campaign, I didn't want to use my investigators at such a time. However, I did turn the information over to Peter King, who was the Republican Party candidate for state comptroller at the time. Peter checked it out and there was nothing to it. And that, for a while, was that.”
Last March, however, Daley showed up at Dillon’s office again. This time, Dillon said, Daley had got a copy of a tape recording made by a private detective who had been working on a civil case being investigated by Dillon’s office. On the tape, a confessed arsonist claimed that in the '50s and '60s, he and Charles Raffa had turned back utility meters, presumably to help people and businesses cheat on gas and electric bills. “It is totally uncorroborated,” Dillon said. “It’s just a guy boasting about knowing someone.”
Dillon said he had his office check the tape and talk to various parties in the case. When he realized he didn’t have jurisdiction, he turned the information and tape over to Andrew Maloney, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which covers Brooklyn, and to Brooklyn district attorney Elizabeth Holtzman. “And that’s all I know about it,” Dillon said.
Neither Maloney nor Holtzman would officially confirm or deny that Dillon had turned over information involving Raffa. But sources indicated that the material had indeed come in. What's more, the sources said they thought the material had come from Dillon in secrecy, but within a day, each office got several calls from reporters asking whether Raffa was under investigation.
Meanwhile, Daley had passed the material on Raffa to the Cable News Network. “I had the tape, and I took the tape to CNN,” said Daley. “Off the record, I’d been feeding the story piecemeal to keep them interested. They checked out the tape and found that there were no flaws in it at all. It’s an explosive tape.” He added, “CNN was inches away from using the story.”
But a TV reporter who worked on the story said, “So far, I’ve got nothing airable. The tape is basically hearsay. The standard of proof has to be exceptionally high. You need evidence that would stand up in court.”
Other journalists working on the story question the relevance to Cuomo — even if Raffa had been involved in illegalities 20 or 30 years ago.
Daley, who was interviewed three times for this story, said he was disappointed when Dillon turned the investigation over to Maloney and Holtzman, and he added that he was also disappointed that nothing came of the information he brought to Dillon’s office a year and a half ago. “It was great information,” Daley said. “It was worth checking out.”
In a final interview on October 12, he was asked if the sergeant, who was his source for the original Raffa story, was certain that Mario Cuomo had been at the scene. “Absolutely,” said Daley. When told that Cuomo had been in Albany that day, Daley paused momentarily and said that he would have to “check it out,” but that the sergeant was living out of state and was difficult to reach. Daley also admitted that the source had no firsthand knowledge of the Raffa beating.
“I’m not looking to smear anybody,” Daley said. “If there’s nothing there, fine. All I feel is that nobody’s really taking a look at this stuff. That’s why I’ve not only helped CNN but other reporters as well.”
Some of the rumors that link Mario Cuomo with the mob seem to come from the veteran legislative aide, who had been a background source for reporters working on investigations of organized crime. Traditionally, under the ground rules for his briefings, the aide can be quoted but not identified by name, and those were the terms under which he was interviewed for this story. To back his claims that Cuomo had once represented mob figures, accepted campaign contributions from mobsters, and used his law firm to pay a wise guy, the aide produced several documents to corroborate his leads.
But interviews with Cuomo, law-enforcement officials, FBI agents, Cuomo’s campaign committee, Cuomo’s former law partners, and the lawyers who were present at the congressional hearing suggest that none of these leads turns into anything substantial.
For example, the legislative aide claimed that as a young lawyer, Cuomo represented Joseph “Joey Narrows” Laratro, a capo in the Luchese crime family. Cuomo said that in the early 1960s, not long after he started to practice law, he took over the representation of an association of about 15 junkyard dealers after the group’s previous lawyer, Michael Castaldi, became a judge. The case involved fighting a condemnation order for the junkyard dealers in connection with the Shea Stadium development. At the time, Laratro, who was running the Luchese crime family’s numbers operation in Queens, was a part owner of one of the junkyard, police said. Today, the police said, he’s 71 and living in Florida, having sold his interest in the junkyard in 1967.
Cuomo acknowledged having met Laratro during the litigation. But, Cuomo said, he never represented him as an in¬dividual. “I remember I won the case for [the association], and I got stiffed on the fee,” he said. “They never paid.
“I never represented wise guys,” Cuomo added. “I was asked thousands of times to do appeals for this guy and that guy, but I never did one. I had friends who were prosecutors, detectives, and FBI men, and if I wasn't sure, I could go to them and they'd warn me about who anyone was.”
The aide’s lead on the campaign contribution was a copy of a transcript of a hearing on July 15, 1985, before the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. The hearing involved an investigation of gasoline-tax fraud, and one of the main government witnesses was a man named Lawrence Iorizzo, a former associate of Michael Franzese. Franzese, a member of the Colombo crime family, was convicted in 1986 in a major gas-tax-fraud case.
In the course of the questioning at the hearing, Representative Richard T. Schulze, a Pennsylvania Republican, told Iorizzo that he had heard that there were “several contributions made to Governor Cuomo’s campaign” from tax-scam funds. Iorizzo responded that contributions were made at the direction of “people above me.”
Andrew Cuomo, who has run his fa¬ther's two gubernatorial campaigns, said he first heard of the alleged Franzese contribution when he was called by NBC News in late 1985. “I checked our computerized contribution list,” Andrew Cuomo said. “We had 16,000 names. I couldn’t find any Franzese name. Then [NBC] said we took the money from Franzese's ex-partner, Larry Iorizzo, who was then a government witness. We checked that and couldn't find Iorizzo either. Then NBC came back with some corporate names, and we found that we had received five $1,000 checks from five corporations: the Northbrook Assets, Inc.; Lesez Petroleum Corporation; Houston Holdings, Inc.; Future Positions Corporation; and CMC Corporation; all of Long Island.”
Law-enforcement authorities have said these firms were paper companies set up to avoid paying gasoline taxes. The checks were for tickets to a fund-raising dinner for Governor Cuomo held November 26, 1984, at the Sheraton Centre.
“We had raised $1.2 million for the dinner alone,” Andrew Cuomo continued. “There was no way of checking out every corporate check we got. In fact, as soon as we found out what happened, we tried to send the money back, but it turned out the companies were already out of business. We sent the money to charity.”
On December 4, 1985, NBC Nightly News ran a story that said, “NBC News has found that at least five companies now identified by authorities as mob fronts have made contributions to a campaign fund for New York governor Mario Cuomo.” A transcript provided by NBC shows that the broadcast went on to say, “Federal witness Iarizzo [sic] told authorities he was ordered by his mob boss, Michael Francesi [sic] to write a check to the Cuomo campaign.”
“The implication was clear,” Andrew Cuomo said. “It was unfair, it was wrong, but there it was on national television.”
Finally, the legislative aide handed over a copy of the records of Corner, Finn, Nicholson & Charles, the law firm that Cuomo belonged to from 1962 to 1974. The records showed two checks listing the names LoBosco and Gualtieri, dated July 25, 1977. The aide said that the checks had been made out from LoBosco to Gualtieri and that the man listed was Carmine Gualtieri, a reputed associate of the Genovese crime family, who was acquitted in August of murdering an un¬dercover detective outside a diner in Queens.
When two of Cuomo’s former law partners, Diane and Michael Nicholson, were asked about this payment, they were surprised. Diane Nicholson explained that the checks had actually been from someone named Gualtieri, not to him, and that the payments had been made three years after Cuomo had left the firm. What’s more, Diane Nicholson said, there’s no way to know whether the Gualtieri on the check is the mob associate Carmine Gualtieri.
When the legislative aide was told that the Nicholsons could not substantiate the rumor about Gualtieri, he said, “Oh, I see.”
When told that Cuomo’s only link to Laratro was in connection with the 15 junkyard, the aide said, “You can’t hold [Cuomo] responsible for that.”
When told that none of the campaign-contribution checks had been made out by Franzese or his partner, but in corporate names, the aide said, “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m asking why Michael Franzese is writing the checks in the first place.”
Finally, when asked what he thought about reporters walking around with erroneous information that he’d supplied, the aide laughed. “I’m not talking to strangers,” he said. “Reporters come in here. That’s all.”