Mafia Inc.: The Long, Bloody Reign of Canada's Sicilian Clan - André Cédilot, André Noël (2011)
Chapter 15. ILLUSTRIOUS RELATIONS
VITO RIZZUTO WASN’T THE only man worried about the cascading revelations out of New York. They were extremely disquieting to a Canadian with a public profile of considerably more esteem: Alfonso Gagliano, member of Parliament for the riding of Saint-Léonard from 1984 to 2002, the Liberal Party of Canada’s chief organizer in Quebec, minister of labour and subsequently minister of public works and government services in the Jean Chrétien government, and Canada’s ambassador to Denmark until his forced repatriation in February 2004 in the wake of the so-called sponsorship scandal.
Rumours had swirled around Parliament Hill in Ottawa for some time about Gagliano’s alleged Mafia links. A web of suspicion had descended upon the powerful minister, from which he had tried to extricate himself more than once. The explanations were occasionally laboured. One opposition MP had even hummed the theme from The Godfather in the House of Commons at the mention of Gagliano’s name.
Up to November 17, 2004, Gagliano had answered a number of questions about certain people he knew and the reasons why he had provided services to individuals with somewhat tarnished reputations. But on that day, allegations of a far more serious association appeared in the pages of the New York Daily News. Frank “Curly” Lino, the Bonanno family captain–turned FBI informant, claimed that Alfonso Gagliano was a made member of the Mafia. Lino was the capo who had reluctantly witnessed the three captains massacre and who had pushed Sonny Black Napolitano down the basement stairs of the house in Staten Island where he was executed. He had also been a co-operating witness for the prosecution in the spring 2004 trial of Joe Massino.
In a deposition to the FBI, Lino stated that he had met Gagliano in a Saint-Léonard banquet hall in the early 1990s. Lino was part of a Bonanno delegation that had travelled north in the wake of boss Philip “Rusty” Rastelli’s death from liver cancer to inform the Montreal faction that Joe Massino was taking over as leader. FBI agents Christine Grubert and Jay Kramer noted in their report that, on the same occasion, Anthony Spero was introduced to the Montrealers as the new Bonanno consigliere. Accompanying Spero were Lino, Frank “Big Frank” Porco, Anthony Canale, Anthony Basile and Gerlando “George from Canada” Sciascia. Only made members of the family were authorized to attend the banquet; mere associates were personae non gratae.
According to the FBI summary of Lino’s deposition, Giuseppe (Joe) LoPresti introduced Alfonso Gagliano to the Americans. Like any secret society, the Mafia operated under strict rules of security. One of the most important of these rules is that a made member must never divulge the fact that he belongs to the organization. When one made member is introduced to another, the presentation must be made by another made member who is acquainted with both men, using the expression “this is a friend of ours.” LoPresti, born in Cattolica Eraclea like Vito Rizzuto, was the Montreal crew’s ambassador to the Bonanno family. Curly Lino told the FBI that he “socialized with Gagliano when he was hanging out with Vito Rizzutto [sic]” (the misspelling of Rizzuto’s surname is apparently an FBI transcription error). Lino identified Gagliano in a photograph shown to him by investigators during his questioning. He added that he had also seen the Canadian politician on other occasions.
While in Montreal, the Bonanno family envoys took the opportunity to attend a baseball game between the Expos and the New York Mets. The tickets had been supplied by Mets relief pitcher John Franco. The left-handed bullpen ace was a good friend of Frank Lino. His brother, James Franco, worked at Shea Stadium, the Mets’ home field in Queens, and was known to associate with Mafia members. He had given tickets to Lino and other Bonanno members on several occasions, and often invited mobsters to hang out with members of the team after games.
Following the game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, the Bonanno group got a tour of the Mets’ dressing room and spent the rest of the evening with some of the players, making the rounds of some Montreal nightclubs with Vito Rizzuto and Joe LoPresti.
The story of the mobsters’ visit with the ballplayers began to filter out in New York newspapers in October 2004. Franco was the first player forced to defend himself: Mets management and Major League Baseball officials demanded an explanation. The league regularly warned players against contact with disreputable individuals likely to tarnish their reputation and that of the sport, and they were obviously displeased to see reports in the sports pages of an athlete keeping such doubtful company. Franco, who had grown up in Brooklyn’s Italian community, issued a brief statement through his agent, in which he made no denials: “I am proud to be an Italian-American and have lived my life in a respectable fashion,” he said. Then aged forty-four, the reliever was in the twilight of his playing days; the Mets did not renew his contract, and he pitched for only part of the 2005 season, with the Houston Astros, before retiring. Franco’s socializing with mobsters may end up as a minor footnote to his career. But the scandal that was soon to erupt north of the forty-fifth parallel was something else entirely: it damaged the reputation of one of the most influential politicians in Canada.
Frank Lino said he could not recall the date of the trip to Montreal. It can be inferred from his statements, however, that it happened between June 24, 1991, the date of Philip Rastelli’s death, and April 29, 1992, that of Joe LoPresti’s murder. During that time, the New York Mets were the visiting team at Olympic Stadium twice: there was a four-game series on July 1 to 4, 1991, and a three-game stand from April 17 to 19, 1992. Joe Massino would not have waited almost a year after Rastelli’s death to tell the Montreal faction that he was the new boss, so it is likely that the trip occurred in July 1991.
The November 17, 2004, article alleging that Alfonso Gagliano was an inducted member of the Mafia caused consternation in Ottawa. In Parliament the next day, Stephen Harper, the future prime minister of Canada and the opposition leader at the time, demanded an explanation from Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. “The allegations are in the New York Daily News,” Harper said. “According to FBI documents, they link former Liberal cabinet minister and ambassador Alfonso Gagliano to organized crime. The report claims that in the 1990s he was a ‘made’ member of the Brooklyn-based Bonanno crime family. My question is simple. Since Mr. Gagliano was in cabinet and ambassador during this period, was the government aware of this information and when did it become aware of these allegations?”
Martin’s predecessor as prime minister, Jean Chrétien, was very close to Gagliano; the latter had helped him win the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. Martin opted for a prudent reply, even though he had few affinities with the former minister. “I have not seen the report and was not aware of the allegations until this morning, in fact,” he said. “Let me simply say that these are very serious allegations and everyone should be very careful about accepting or repeating such allegations.”
Verifying the credibility of the man with whom those allegations originated was indeed a tall order. Sixty-six-year-old Frank “Curly” Lino wasn’t exactly a choirboy. While Canada’s political leaders were debating in the House of Commons, Lino was preparing to testify in court, including at one trial involving the three captains massacre. In return for his co-operation with authorities, he was being granted lenient punishment for his role in six murders, including that of Sonny Black Napolitano. Lino had been a chief orchestrator of the Bonannos’ incursion into Wall Street trading, a venture that led to his being convicted for a three-million-dollar securities fraud. The transcription of his statement to the FBI ran to two hundred pages; only a summary had leaked to the media. In it, Lino had shown few scruples in ratting out his own son Joseph as well as several cousins and dozens of friends.
One may well wonder why it would have been in his interest to make up such a story about a Canadian politician. Mentioning Gagliano as part of his confession would have been of no benefit to him. In all likelihood, the FBIinvestigators asked him who had been in attendance at the banquet in Montreal, and he simply answered the question. That being said, it remains possible, of course, that this part of his account was the fruit of an overactive imagination.
That, at any rate, was how the man at the centre of the controversy saw it, and he said so repeatedly. Alfonso Gagliano categorically denied the accusation that he was a Mafioso. “That is utterly false!” he told La Presse. “I have no connection to any [Mafia] family. I don’t know anyone mentioned in the article [in the New York Daily News]. I don’t even know who those people are. I have never seen them. Just because it comes from the FBI doesn’t mean it’s the truth. It’s not the first time they’ve been wrong, and it’s not the last.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, I’m not a member of a Mafia,” he told the Montreal Gazette. “I never met these people. I never went to this so-called meeting. I really don’t know what it’s talking about … I’ve been fighting other things in the past, and one day, when you tell the truth, the truth will always win out in the end.”
In an interview with the CBC, he said, “This is … shocking to me and my family. It’s absurd. Everything. I never heard, met anybody. I read the article. I don’t know all the names mentioned in the article. I have no idea what they’re talking about.”
A statement issued by Gagliano’s lawyer, Pierre Fournier, read: “If Frank Lino identified [Mr. Gagliano], it can only be by error, as he has certainly never participated in such a meal, neither in Montreal nor anywhere else. He is now trying to find out more than what is contained in the New York Daily News article in order to rebut this information; without a precise date for this alleged dinner, it is extremely difficult for him to state precisely what he was doing at that time. As soon as he has more information, he intends to present as many of the facts as he will be able to. But he repeats, he has never attended a Bonanno family dinner, he has never been involved with this family, about which all he knows is what every one [sic] can read from time to time in the newspapers.”
Jean Chrétien flew to the rescue of his former cabinet minister. Speaking in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was attending the inauguration of former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s library, he laconically declared, “I don’t believe any of it.” He then added that all members of Parliament had to pass background checks before being appointed to cabinet and that, at the time of his appointment, Gagliano’s file was spotless (which wasn’t entirely true). Those in charge of the background check “never mentioned to me that he had any problems of that nature,” the former prime minister told the CBC’S French-language all-news network, RDI. “If there had been any, he would not have been appointed a minister.”
In New York, Joseph Massino’s lawyer, David Breitbart, seized on the affair to vilify Frank Lino. Curly’s devastating testimony at his client’s trial, six months earlier, was still fresh in his mind. In November 2004, Breitbart was unaware that Massino had confessed to all his crimes and decided to co-operate with the FBI to avoid facing the death penalty for the murder of Gerlando Sciascia; the news of the Bonanno boss’s defection would not emerge for another two months. Breitbart, well known for his colourful oratorical style, spewed his venom all over Lino, saying in no uncertain terms that no one should believe a word of what he said. The informant, he declared, was a mass murderer, a sad case who hadn’t made it past the sixth grade, a dope dealer, an addict, an extortionist, a compulsive gambler, and nothing less—or, rather, nothing more—than “one of the lowest pieces of garbage that ever walked the earth.”
A few days after his initial denials, Alfonso Gagliano qualified his remarks. It was possible, he said, that he had crossed paths with Mafia members during his lengthy political career. His activities as a member of Parliament, cabinet minister and prominent member of Montreal’s Italian community brought him into contact with all kinds of people from all walks of life. He continued, however, to refute allegations that he had ever had personal ties to organized crime. It was impossible, he added, that he could have met Frank Lino and the rest of the Bonanno delegation in Montreal: I wasn’t even in Montreal, so how could I even be at that meeting?” he said to The Globe and Mail, explaining that he had been in an apartment in Daytona Beach, Florida, at the time of the Bonanno gathering in Montreal. Apparently, then, he did know the date of that meeting—or had learned of it since the allegations were made.
Alfonso Gagliano was born in 1942 in Siculiana, the cradle of the Cuntrera-Caruana clan, in the province of Agrigento. Half of the town’s residents emigrated to North America after the Second World War; indeed, some say there are more Siculianesi in Montreal than in Siculiana. Young Alfonso arrived in Quebec in 1958, the same year as the Renda family, which included Calogero and his son Paolo, who would later become consigliere to the Rizzuto clan. It seemed inevitable indeed that he should sometimes run into Mafiosi, and from his home province to boot.
After completing studies in accounting, Gagliano was elected chairman of the Jérôme Le Royer School Board in east-end Montreal in the early 1980s, then in 1984 won election to Canada’s House of Commons as the Liberal member for Saint-Léonard–Anjou (now Saint-Léonard–Saint-Michel). His victory was notable in that Saint-Léonard was one of the few seats that the Liberals held on to in that election, which was a landslide victory for the Progressive Conservative Party under Brian Mulroney. Fellow Liberal Jean Chrétien retired from active politics that year but began a long battle to win the leadership of his party (a battle that began with a loss to John Turner leading up to the 1984 election). Chrétien was strongly supported by Gagliano as well as Senator Pietro Rizzuto, founder of the public works contractor Inter-State Paving, and another native of the Sicilian province of Agrigento—more specifically, the town of Cattolica Eraclea, also the birthplace of Nicolò and Vito Rizzuto, to whom he was distantly related.
The tandem of Gagliano and Rizzuto played a vital role in financing and organizing Chrétien’s campaign. Members of Montreal’s Italian community were delighted to see two of their most illustrious representatives play such an active role on the country’s political scene. The team held several strategy sessions at Pietro Rizzuto’s luxurious home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. After a second Liberal defeat in the 1988 federal election, the senator and the MP for Saint-Léonard orchestrated a rebellion against Turner. They were tremendously efficient and succeeded in undermining rank-and-file party members’ confidence in their leader, which forced his resignation in 1990. Further mobilizing their network in the run-up to the leadership convention in Calgary, Alberta, in June of that year, Gagliano and Rizzuto marshalled a majority of Quebec delegates in support of Chrétien’s bid. He crushed his rival, Paul Martin, on the first ballot.
The Liberals swept to power in the October 1993 election, and Chrétien realized his dream: he became Canada’s twentieth prime minister and went on to lead the country for ten years. He owed part of his success to Senator Pietro Rizzuto and to MP Alfonso Gagliano, whom he regularly described as “great friends.” Political observers were surprised when the member for Saint-Léonard was not appointed a cabinet minister. Chrétien simply named him chief whip, a job that entails ensuring that the majority party has enough members present in the House of Commons (or at a committee meeting) to win important votes.
There was a reason for Gagliano’s appointment, but Canadians knew nothing of it at the time. They learned about it the following year, following the work of investigative reporters at La Presse. “The Chief Whip for the federal Liberal government and MP for Saint-Léonard, Alfonso Gagliano, has done business for a number of years with at least one prominent member of Montreal’s Sicilian Mafia, Agostino Cuntrera,” the Montreal newspaper revealed in April 1994. “The Royal Canadian Mounted Police informed the office of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of this as he was preparing to form his cabinet, in November . Following standard procedure, the RCMP conducts checks, at the Prime Minister’s request, of MPS likely to receive cabinet appointments. The RCMP red-flagged Mr. Gagliano’s candidacy … The Mounties indicate that Mr. Gagliano is not a suspect in any crime. But they mentioned certain relations that they find disconcerting, to say the least.”
Back in the spring of 1985, the RCMP investigated, jointly with British police, a heroin smuggling plot orchestrated by the Cuntrera-Caruana clan. The drugs, concealed in teak tables, left Thailand and transited through Great Britain on their way to the Port of Montreal (see Chapter 6). A thorough search of the furniture on the docks at Felixstowe and Southampton, England, turned up hidden packages of the narcotic. The tables were destined for a Montreal import-export firm headed by Antonio Zambito and that had been founded by Pasquale Caruana and his brothers.
On the morning of June 4, an RCMP surveillance detail was following a suspect in the plot, Filippo Vaccarello, and an unidentified companion. To the officers’ surprise, the suspects’ car stopped in front of the home of Alfonso Gagliano, who had been elected to Parliament the year before. Vaccarello got out of the vehicle and headed for the basement office of the accounting firm owned in equal parts by Gagliano and his wife, Ersilia. The drug trafficker re-emerged some twenty minutes later. He was arrested the following month along with Luciano Zambito and Pasquale Caruana, and eventually convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Toward the end of the 1980s, Dima Messina, a financial adviser to Vito Rizzuto, was also seen at the Gagliano family accounting firm, which by then occupied offices at Place Saint-Zotique in Saint-Léonard. Messina was involved in a scheme to launder some $24 million. Police were unaware of the reasons for Vaccarello’s and Messina’s visits to Gagliano’s accounting firm (see Chapter 6).
The firm kept the books for two companies that belonged to Agostino Cuntrera: a food wholesaler called Distribution John & Dino, and the numbered company 115685 Canada Inc. Gagliano’s office was also the mailing address for the numbered company, which managed a Mikes restaurant franchise on Pie-IX Boulevard in Saint-Léonard. The company had been set up by Cuntrera and his brother-in-law Giovanni DiMora soon after both were released from prison. (Four years previously, in 1978, the pair had pleaded guilty along with accomplice Domenico Manno—Nicolò Rizzuto’s brother-in-law—to charges of conspiring to murder Paolo Violi.)
In 1990 and 1991, Montreal police were busy probing several cases of arson and a bombing at the newly opened Pizza Hut franchise on Jean-Talon Street, just a few hundred metres from the Mikes restaurant. The investigators suspected that Cuntrera sought to discourage the competition. On November 19, 1990, they obtained a warrant to place listening devices on the phone lines at Mikes. The Pizza Hut was bombed on February 12, 1991; two weeks later, police heard Cuntrera’s daughter tell her mother about the Pizza Hut owner “not wanting to understand” (see Chapter 12). Acting on that information, police searched the Mikes restaurant, looking for the owners’ financial statements. Cuntrera’s wife informed them that the documents they were seeking could be found at the office of their accountant, Alfonso Gagliano.
On the morning of May 3, 1991, police went to Gagliano’s office. They were greeted by his son, Vincenzo, who telephoned his father in Florida. The elder Gagliano told him to surrender the documents. The officers left with account statements, two financial statements of 115685 Canada Inc., and weekly sales reports from the Mikes franchise. No charges were laid. These events took place two months before the Montreal Expos’ four-game homestand against the New York Mets, which has been established as the time of the Bonanno family delegation’s visit and Gagliano’s alleged meeting with them.
Alfonso Gagliano and Agostino Cuntrera are both past presidents of the Associazione Siculiana di Montreal, a non-profit organization whose membership has at various times included up to three hundred Montrealers originally from Siculiana, Sicily. Its offices were located on Chamilly Street in Saint-Léonard, in a building that belonged to Gagliano and his brother-in-law Mario Gidaro. Gagliano founded the association in 1979 and was its first president, holding the position for a few years. Cuntrera was elected its president in 1990.
During his interview with La Presse, the member of Parliament admitted that he knew the mobster. “Mr. Cuntrera is an acquaintance,” he said. “We both come from Siculiana, which has a population of five thousand. He arrived in Montreal after I did. I met him during a premarital class in church. He came back to see me in the 1970s when he wanted me to do the accounting for his restaurant. We have since seen each other from time to time, at weddings and at Associazione Siculiana functions.”
Cuntrera’s businesses, Gagliano added, were “legitimate companies.” “Now, if there are issues to be raised,” he went on, “I am neither a judge nor a policeman.” When asked whether he was bothered by the fact that he had a client involved in the killing of Paolo Violi, he responded that yes, Cuntrera had been a client before the murder, and added: “Afterward, we wondered about it … In reality, Mr. Cuntrera was never found guilty. He made an arrangement with the justice minister to stop the trial. He ended up with a few years [in prison]. We said to each other: ‘we’re going to limit ourselves to commercial activity, completely legitimate’.”
Throughout his career and even after his retirement, Gagliano has maintained that such meetings with Mafia members were chance encounters. But there were many such events. Italian police found the telephone number of Gagliano’s riding office in the pocket of one Antonio Enzio Salvo after he was killed by a lupara blast in Cattolica Eraclea on December 14, 1991. Aged thirty-four, Salvo had lived for a number of years in Laval and Saint-Léonard. While in Quebec, he had worked in construction. Before being deported to Sicily, he had asked his member of Parliament to put in a good word for him with Immigration Canada authorities.
So, upon his election as prime minister in 1993, Jean Chrétien wanted to name his loyal supporter to a cabinet position, and the RCMP conducted its standard background check. Some officers, well aware of the member for Saint-Léonard’s unconventional fraternizations, believed it would be appropriate to ask him a number of questions. Senior RCMP officials were against the idea of an interview, but the ranking officer in charge of investigations in Montreal, Rowland Sugrue, green-lighted it. The interrogation was conducted by officers Yvon Thibault, of the RCMP, and Michel Gagné, with Montreal police. Neither police officials nor Canada’s Privy Council have disclosed the post-interview report.
La Presse reporters asked Gagliano why, in his opinion, he had not received a ministerial portfolio. “Well, let’s say, there were certain things,” he said. “Mr. Chrétien told me that there were doubts. But all that was cleared up. The cabinet appointments are done very quickly, and there wasn’t time to clarify everything before the swearing-in. I said to Mr. Chrétien: ‘In the meantime, it’s better if I remain whip.’ Since the Prime Minister appointed me whip, that means he had confidence in me. In late January , I was informed by the Chief of Staff, Jean Pelletier, that the Prime Minister had received a new report and there was no longer anything preventing me from eventually becoming a minister.”
In February 1994, police in the United States examined notes and documents that had been abandoned in a San Diego, California, hotel room by a suspect under investigation. The young man, a resident of Saint-Léonard, Quebec, had left behind records of securities and real estate transactions worth $342 million, as well as documents concerning the Vatican Bank. Gagliano’s name appeared on a handwritten note, next to those of four known organized crime bosses. “Alfonso Gagliano, friend. Whip and Minister of Finance of Canada,” it read. The U.S. investigators conveyed the information to their Canadian counterparts. The young man later resurfaced in Montreal. Police would not reveal his name, and it has proven impossible to learn anything more about the mysterious hotel room find.
Gagliano was never in fact made minister of finance, but after a two-year purgatory as chief whip, he was appointed to a cabinet post by Chrétien as minister of labour. He was also given responsibility for the Canada Lands Company and Communication Canada, and was eventually named minister of public works and government services. The successive promotions did not spell an end to the controversy surrounding him, however.
In February 2001, La Presse broke the story that Gagliano’s riding office in Saint-Léonard had sent a letter to Citizenship and Immigration Canada inquiring about the status of a request for permanent residency filed by the wife of Gaetano Amodeo, a Sicilian contract killer.
Despite being on Interpol’s five hundred most wanted list, Amodeo had been able to settle in Canada with his wife and children several years earlier, and was living a tranquil life in Saint-Léonard, where he had bought a jewellery store. A notorious member of the Mafia in Cattolica Eraclea, he was wanted for two murders, one in Italy and the other in Germany. He was also suspected of having taken part in the assassination of carabinieri marshal Giuliano Guazzelli, who headed an anti-Mafia squad and had been shot dead on the outskirts of Agrigento by killers wielding machine guns. The RCMP and Immigration Canada finally bowed to pressure from the Italian government, arrested Amodeo in east-end Montreal and began extradition procedures. The matter soon wound up on the floor of the House of Commons: opposition members wanted to know why it had taken so long for Canadian police to collar a mobster wanted on murder charges in his home country.
Days later, La Presse revealed the contents of the May 2000 letter sent from Gagliano’s riding office to Immigration Canada’s client services department. The writer inquired about “the status of the residence file” of Maria Sicurella di Amodeo, the killer’s wife. “I know that the Government of Quebec selection certificate is valid until June 2000, and the visitor visa is valid until 2001,” added the author of the missive, which bore the MP’S letterhead. “Have the audits come in? And what about the medical results? Do you think the visas will be issued shortly? Thank you for your kind co-operation.”
It is not known whether that request for information was followed up in any way. Even so, Maria Sicurella di Amodeo and her two children were granted permanent residency in July 2000. The publication of the excerpts from the letter led to further commotion in the House of Commons. It was on this occasion that an opposition MP began humming the Godfather theme. When Gagliano heard about this, he was livid. He said he “was the victim of false and vicious attacks” by La Presse and opposition MPS because of his Sicilian roots. “If my name were Lapierre or Arcand, this sort of thing would not happen,” he added. In his opinion, there was nothing at all wrong with the approach taken by his office with Immigration Canada.
Amodeo was extradited to Italy, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He died some years later. In spite of all the secrets kept from Immigration Canada, his wife was allowed to remain in Montreal.
The “false and vicious” insinuations did not cease, however. Drug trafficker Oreste Pagano, who had been indicted at the same time as Alfonso Caruana, made a number of unsettling revelations after agreeing to submit to questioning by RCMP investigators. When he explained how, in Italy, the Mafia have close links to powerful politicians that, among other things, allow them to secure lucrative public works contracts, an RCMP officer asked if to his knowledge the Mafia had any similar relationships in Canada. Had Alfonso Caruana ever mentioned any such cases to him? “We once spoke about it,” Pagano replied. “There was a person who was going into the [Canadian] government and was from the same village as Alfonso [Caruana] … I don’t know this person.”
Later, Gagliano’s name was closely linked to Canada’s so-called sponsorship scandal (known in some quarters as “AdScam”). In the mid-1990s, after the narrow defeat of the “yes” side in the second referendum on Quebec sovereignty, the government of Canada devised a sponsorship program designed to counter the Quebec independence movement via subtle propaganda in favour of the federalist option. Gagliano was the senior member of government in charge of the program, as minister responsible for Quebec and minister of public works and government services. Before long, the federal government was subsidizing a wealth of cultural, economic and social initiatives that aimed to carpet Quebec with Canadian flags and convince the province’s residents of the benefits of remaining in the Canadian Confederation. More than $300 million was showered on advertising agencies whose managers, conveniently, made hefty contributions to the Liberal Party of Canada’s electoral war chest. The Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser, found that approximately $100 million had been granted for services that involved little or no actual work. In one case, the government had paid an ad agency three times for identical studies.
The scandal led to Gagliano losing his ministerial post. He then reportedly angled for the position of ambassador to the Vatican but was eventually named ambassador to Denmark, where daily newspapers delighted in informing their readers about the new appointee’s woes. Jean Chrétien’s successor as prime minister, Paul Martin, appointed Justice John Gomery to lead a commission of inquiry into the sponsorship scandal and recalled Gagliano from his Denmark post. The RCMP launched new investigations. The scandal played a large part in the Liberals’ defeat in a November 2005 confidence vote, and in the January 2006 election of a minority Conservative government with Stephen Harper as prime minister. Gagliano filed a civil suit against the government and retired to Dunham, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where he bought a winery. La Presse readers offered several sarcastic ideas for the name of his wine: Le Puy sans Fonds (roughly, “Bottomless Pit,” although fonds, “bottom,” also means “funds”), Les Raisins de la Colère (“Grapes of Wrath”), Le Clos du Scandale (“Scandal Vineyard”), Cuvée Commandito and Pot-de-vin (literally, “jug of wine,” but also the French slang for “bribe”). The vintner of Dunham, evidently not fond of any of these suggestions, simply called it Gagliano.
There is no hard evidence that Alfonso Gagliano ever collaborated with the Sicilian Mafia, much less that he was a made member of the Bonanno family. There is a lesson to be learned, however, from the many incidents that punctuated his long political career: in Canada, and elsewhere, the Mafia seeks to broaden its influence among politicians and business-people. It may succeed or fail in such efforts, but one thing is certain: it does not give up. Often, honest but naive politicians are taken in, believing there is no risk of dirtying their hands by shaking those of mobsters. In Gagliano’s opinion, Agostino Cuntrera had paid his debt to society following the murder of Paolo Violi, and was therefore a businessman like any other. So there was no sin in rendering a professional service to him—in this case, keeping his books. Such reasoning is unsound. Except in the rarest of cases, there are only two ways to leave the Mafia: by lying down in a coffin or by co-operating with police. Did Gagliano really believe Cuntrera had repented after his years in prison and quit the ono-rata società? Perhaps, but such naïveté suggests very mediocre knowledge of Mafia culture.
Inquisitive minds have only to look to Italy to understand the workings of that culture. If there ever was a country where the Mafia wields true political influence, it is the motherland. For decades it has maintained a web of “illustrious relations” with Italian politicians, bureaucrats, judges and police officers, sometimes through intermediaries and sometimes not. There, more than anywhere, the Mafia is at war with the state and siphons its resources with formidable efficiency. Like an army, it uses espionage and counter-espionage to gather intelligence on the enemy’s movements. The assassinations of judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino provided harsh proof of its familiarity with its adversaries’ habits. The beast knew where and when to strike.
It also knows where to feed. And no larder is better stocked than the public procurements market. Whether it be the Neapolitan Camorra, the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, or the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Mafia in Italy has highly imaginative ways of tapping this inexhaustible source of revenue—which, moreover, offers them a royal road for the laundering of their mountains of dirty money. One government plan in particular has made their mouth water in recent decades: the building of a bridge from Italy’s mainland to Sicily, across the Strait of Messina. The pharaonic project has also whetted the appetite of an Italian-Canadian: Vito Rizzuto. In 2005, by a cruel reversal of fortune, it came back to haunt him in prison.
Mariners of antiquity who crossed the Strait of Messina believed they had to steer between a rock called Scylla and a whirlpool called Charybdis—in trying to avoid one danger, they could well fall prey to a greater one. In the Odyssey, six of Odysseus’s sailors are devoured by Scylla, whom Homer represented as a nymph who had metamorphosed into a monster. On the other side of the strait from Scylla lived Charybdis, the beautiful daughter of Poseidon and Gaia, whom Zeus changed into a sea monster that swallowed and then regurgitated vessels and sea life.
Two thousand years ago, Roman engineers came up with a plan for a bridge across the strait made up of boats lashed together, but the force of its currents soon dissuaded them from implementing that daring design. Before the Second World War, Benito Mussolini dangled a bridge project like a carrot before Sicilians, all the while brandishing a stick to repress anyone who challenged his regime. Once the war was over and Il Duce was strung up by his feet, the project became little more than an electoral pipe dream.
It would take no less a personage than Silvio Berlusconi to revive the idea. The maverick prime minister has insisted on the need to open up Sicily, made up mostly of agricultural provinces and handicapped by poor infrastructures. His government has pointed out, with good reason, that slow ferry service across the strait is a hindrance to both trade and tourism. In summer, thousands of passengers must wait on the docks, sometimes as long as ten hours, to make the short crossing. The minister of transport, Pietro Lunardi, unveiled the plans in June 2002. The structure would be the world’s longest suspension bridge, with a central span 3,360 metres in length, 64 metres above the water level, and a total length of 3,690 metres. There would be four traffic lanes and two railway tracks, with rail, route and port infrastructures upgraded on both the Sicilian and Calabrian sides. The traffic forecasts were staggering: 100,000 vehicles and 200 trains would cross the bridge each day. Studies conducted in 2001 had pegged the cost of the project at €5.6 billion, more than Can$7 million at the time. That preliminary figure was later eclipsed by a €6.5 billion estimate. The government would contribute two-thirds of the cost, with the remaining third put up by Italian and European firms according to a public-private partnership model. The private-sector contractors were to recoup their investment through a share of toll revenues. The prime contractor was supposed to be named by spring 2005, with work to begin at the end of that year, for completion in 2011.
Hoping to circumvent controversy, Minister of Transport Lunardi acknowledged that it would probably be impossible to prevent Mafia involvement in such a huge project: “In southern Italy there is the Mafia, and we need to come to terms with it,” he said. The bridge has yet to be built, but the minister’s prediction certainly proved correct.
On February 11, 2005, Italian police arrested Giuseppe Zappia, an eighty-year-old engineer, at his luxe villa in Rome. He was charged with attempting to win the bridge construction contract on behalf of Vito Rizzuto. The Direzione Investigativa Antimafia (DIA) announced it had issued four other arrest warrants. The first targeted Rizzuto, but he was already in prison in Laval, Quebec, awaiting the decision on his extradition to the United States. The other warrants targeted three middlemen: Filippo Ranieri, sixty-eight, described as a manager of buildings in downtown Montreal; Hakim Hammoudi, forty-two, a resident of Paris, accused of having been a liaison between Zappia and Rizzuto; and Sivalingam Sivabavanandan, fifty-two, a Sri Lankan businessman living in London.
At a press conference in Rome, Colonel Paolo La Forgia announced that the group had planned to launder billions of dollars. A few months earlier, the conspirators had participated in a preliminary bid on the bridge contract through Zappia International. This front company had submitted an expression of interest to Stretto di Messina S.p.A., the public company created to oversee the project. According to La Forgia, the group had already sunk some $6.4 million into the venture. “The anti-Mafia police investigation confirms what we have been saying for a long time: the Strait of Messina bridge is a magnet for the Mafia and organized crime,” commented Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, president of Italy’s green party, which opposed the bridge project on environmental grounds. “Going from drug smuggling to the bridge is only a small step for the Mafia,” added Claudio Fava, a member of the European Parliament with the Democrats of the Left party.
Canadians were getting to know Vito Rizzuto, whose name had been in the headlines for months. But they could have been forgiven for not recalling the name of Giuseppe (Joseph) Zappia. It may have stirred vague recollections for those old enough to remember the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and the scandalous budget overruns that crippled Quebec’s provincial finances for years afterward. Zappia was born in 1925 in Marseilles to Calabrian parents and immigrated to Canada. He sweet-talked Montreal’s mayor, Jean Drapeau, providing assurances that the Olympic village required to house the Games’ 9,500 athletes, coaches and delegates could be built in no time and at a rock-bottom price. His sketches of the project, inspired by an advertising flyer for the Marina Baie des Anges near Nice, France, called to mind Egyptian pyramids. The mayor was delighted. He ignored the advice of municipal bureaucrats, who were concerned about the lack of discussions on how the project would be financed, and awarded the construction contract to Zappia’s company, Les Terrasses Zarolega. No call for tenders was issued.
In November 1974, less than two years before the scheduled date of the Games’ opening ceremonies, work had still not begun. Along with the Olympic Stadium, the Olympic Village construction project was mired in delays. Fearing disaster, in late 1975, the provincial government took over responsibility for organizing the Games from the City of Montreal. In the end, the Village’s twin pyramids cost close to $100 million—three times the original estimate.
Zappia quietly left Canada. A police investigation led to him being charged on twenty-six counts of fraud, extortion and payment of secret commissions, to the detriment of the Olympic Games Organizing Committee and several contractors. An international warrant was issued for his arrest. The globe-trotting engineer was finally nabbed in Switzerland in 1985 and spent two months in prison before an SQ officer was dispatched to bring him back to Montreal. Two key witnesses died before his trial could enter its final phase. Zappia was acquitted in 1988, capping a legal saga that had lasted twelve years.
In the meantime, Zappia had acquired film rights to a play by one Karol Wojtyla, The Jeweler’s Shop—a work that had gone totally unnoticed until its author became better known as John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope since Adrian VI in 1522 to 1523. For reasons lost to history, though, the engineer’s foray into film production never bore fruit. Zappia subsequently refocused his energies on a trade with which he was slightly more familiar: construction. He did business in the Middle East, but it seemed that he had a knack for attracting trouble. The government of Abu Dhabi seized his passport—an original but effective method of forcing him to finish a project in the oil-rich emirate, from which he stood to earn an estimated one billion dollars. The engineer-turned-real-estate-developer also boasted of having built residential complexes in Saudi Arabia, Libya and Kuwait.
In 2001, Alexander Norris, a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, managed to track down Zappia in Rome and phoned him. Zappia told him that he had recently made a new acquaintance: Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian press magnate and prime minister—a politician who had himself been investigated for tax evasion, money laundering and corruption. The reporter prodded him to confirm: “You know Mr. Berlusconi?”
“Really?” a skeptical Norris asked. “Are you good friends, or …?”
“What’s your relationship with him?”
“Well, I know him.”
“You know him?”
“How long have you known him?”
“For some time.”
“Mm-hmm … Have you had a business relationship or is it more just friends?”
“No, no, no, no, no, no. It’s nothing that way. It is a situation whereby I met him and we discuss matters together,” Zappia replied, still enigmatic. “We formed a certain friendship.”
The developer, it seemed, was well connected with the prime minister. Though he was unaware of it at the time, he was also well known in the offices of the DIA. The department had heeded the transport minister’s warning and was convinced that gangsters were aiming to get their dirty hands all over the bridge project. They bugged Zappia’s phone. On June 13, 2003, he was heard conversing with a lawyer, explaining how he dreamed of becoming the man who would finally succeed in building the world’s longest suspension bridge. He would realize his dream, he said, not simply because he was a brilliant engineer, but because he had access to huge sums of money. “You know that I want to do the bridge of Messina, and if I do that bridge of Messina, I won’t do it because of politicians,” he said. “I’ll do it because I have €5 billion.”
On August 1, 2003, police listened in as he spoke with Filippo Ranieri, later to be named by the DIA as a Montreal middleman for Vito Rizzuto. “We can do this bridge,” Zappia reiterated. “I’ll do the bridge and you know that I can do it.”
In Italian organized crime circles, plenty of mouths salivated at the potentially colossal profits in the offing. There would be enough money to satisfy hungry maws on both sides of the strait. Like Scylla and Charybdis, the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta and the Sicilian Cosa Nostra waited eagerly. Both criminal organizations had proven themselves to be masters at infiltrating the construction industry, corrupting bureaucrats, threatening competitors, terrorizing work sites, muscling in on contracts, inflating costs and pocketing the profits. That a Canadian, Vito Rizzuto, was the chief architect of this massive campaign to plunder Italian government funds and European Community subsidies spoke volumes about his reach and influence. This was power that not even the bosses of New York’s Five Families had ever dreamed of possessing. In 2003, as his Rome-based proxy Giuseppe Zappia wove the threads of the scheme, Rizzuto could sit back and dream of a triumphant return to his native Sicily. The wealthy baron of Antoine-Berthelet Avenue might soon be able to flee Montreal’s frigid winters—and stop worrying about the growing defections within the Bonanno family ranks. Through an intermediary, Zappia promised him the opportunity to retire peacefully to a Mediterranean climate and rounds of golf all year long.
“If everything goes well,” Zappia told Ranieri, in the same conversation, “I will build the bridge and when everything is finished, the friend can return to Italy … On one side, there is the Mafia, on the other side is the ’Ndrangheta. We will make both of them happy and we will do the bridge.”
Four days later, police picked up another overseas phone call. Ranieri was filling Zappia in on a meeting that had taken place in a Montreal restaurant. He told Zappia that Vito Rizzuto was worried about the health of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and the founder of the United Arab Emirates. His concern had nothing to do with some improbable friendship with the sheikh; it was financial in nature. Sheikh Zayed owed Zappia a lot of money—money that Rizzuto was counting on to invest in the bridge construction project. Vito, Ranieri told Zappia, had said, “If he dies, we will have a problem. We hope that the old man doesn’t die.” Zappia agreed: “Yes, we’re fucked because if the son replaces him, he doesn’t want to pay.”
On September 19, 2003, Zappia and Ranieri were heard wondering how they might go about persuading the sheikh to pay up. Rizzuto could always dispatch a biker squad, Zappia ventured. “What about our friend? I think our friend should send someone to get this money. He should send those people on motorcycles,” he said, referring to the Hells Angels. “He has to send the French people, with the bikes.”
The DIA managed to intercept two brief conversations between Zappia and Rizzuto. In the first recording, Zappia says he is sure he will win the bridge contract. In the other, Rizzuto advises his agent in Rome to persuade their Arab partners to cough up further millions.
Zappia: “I’m waiting for their phone call.”
Rizzuto: “They’re going to give us something, but it’s not enough. I think we can ask for more.”
Zappia: “I agree.”
Nevertheless, Zappia was worried. He feared that the authorities might somehow connect him to Rizzuto.
“We have to understand one thing,” he told Ranieri one day. “I cannot be seen with him. Nobody can see me with him. You understand?”
“But he sent me,” Ranieri countered.
“I can come to Montreal, but I can’t see him,” Zappia went on. “If they see him—if they see me with him, my reputation is over. You understand?”
“You know what you have to do, Mr. Zappia,” Ranieri replied.
“Yes. I have to do the bridge of Messina,” Zappia said, as if reciting a mantra.
On January 19, 2004, Ranieri had some news for Zappia that set the engineer on edge.
“Have you spoken with the friend?” Zappia asked.
“I couldn’t do that because in the local paper was news about an investigation in the United States for some murders that took place fifteen years before,” Ranieri answered (he had the date wrong; the three capos’ massacre had taken place twenty-three years earlier).
“You’ve got to understand, if something happens, I’m finished,” Zappia gulped.
Two days later, Ranieri called Zappia. Rizzuto had been apprehended the day before. “You know, our friend was arrested. It’s because of the murders in 1981. Three people were shot to death in 1981.”
“I know,” Zappia replied. “I’m aware of the story.”
“A crazy guy started to talk with the FBI.”
“Yes, some crazy people.”
Shortly thereafter, police intercepted a conversation between Zappia and an unidentified woman.
“The story is over, they arrested all of them,” the woman said.
“Yes, there are twenty-seven,” Zappia said. “Don’t forget, he’s [Vito Rizzuto’s] like Saddam Hussein. When the police arrested him, that’s the end of the world.”
“But if he went to Italy, do you think they would have arrested him?” the woman asked.
“Yes, they would have arrested him.”
“This story makes me nervous,” she said.
Nine days later, on January 30, 2004, Zappia and Ranieri spoke again, trying to gauge the impact of the arrests on their bridge plan.
“What’s going on?” Zappia asked.
“What they’re trying to do is avoid extradition,” Ranieri explained. “If they send him [to the United States], we won’t see him any more.”
Despite the setback, the two men did not abandon hope. On October 26, 2004, Zappia was heard telling Ranieri not to worry: he would not say anything incriminating at a meeting that he had scheduled a few days later with some Italian government officials. “I’m not so stupid as to tell them where my money comes from,” he said. However, money did become cause for worry one week later: Sheikh Zayed died on November 2, 2004. Apparently, his heir was much more interested in camel racing than in paying back a debt to the Mafia or entering into a joint venture with them.
Anti-Mafia prosecutor Adriano Iasillo and DIA investigator Silvia Franzè gave a few interviews after the arrest of Zappia and the issuing of warrants against Rizzuto and his co-conspirators in February 2005. They could not hide their surprise at the scale of the Rizzuto clan’s network. “His organization relies on contacts in the political realm as well as the criminal realm,” Iasillo told Isabelle Richer of Radio Canada television, who had travelled to Rome to interview him. “Without Rizzuto,” he continued, “it would have been impossible for a criminal organization from outside to invest in one of the biggest projects of the century. And it was here [in Italy] that this project of the century was supposed to see the light of day.” Franzè said she thought Rizzuto showed considerable skill in using an old man like Zappia to place his pawns: “He [Zappia] didn’t arouse suspicion because he is an eighty-year-old man and seemingly had no contact with organized crime. He has dual citizenship, Italian and Canadian. That made him the perfect intermediary for the organization.”
The Italian investigators said they were surprised at Canadians’ naïveté. “Canadians are again asking us what is so illegal about this investment in the Messina bridge,” Iasillo sighed. “Well, if organized crime injects billions of dollars into the economy, we can say that there is an impact, no? Especially when it gets the approval of politicians.”
Sivabavanandan, the Sri Lankan partner, was arrested in France, then extradited to Italy. He pleaded guilty to charges of Mafia associations and served half of a two-year term. Hammoudi, the Algerian-born associate who had once lived in Montreal, turned himself in to Italian authorities and was given a two-year suspended sentence. Ranieri remained in the city of his birth, Montreal. Zappia’s trial became bogged down in legal wrangling. As for Vito Rizzuto, having to answer charges from the Italian authorities was the least of his worries. He had more immediate concerns; namely, fighting his extradition to the United States.
In July 2005, Italian judges decreed that a senior adviser to Prime Minister Berlusconi, Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, had provided “a concrete, voluntary, conscious, specific and precious contribution to the illicit goals of Cosa Nostra, both economically and politically.” Dell’Utri was sentenced to nine years in prison for Mafia associations. The following year, Berlusconi was toppled by a centre-left coalition, and the plans for the Strait of Messina bridge were shelved. Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition retook power after a snap election in 2008, however, and revived the project.