Some families are synonymous with certain qualities or events. The Jacksons and musical ability, the Kardashians and vanity, the Purdues and the opioids epidemic. Similarly, the Scopo family has become famous for their participation in organized crime with a distinct skill towards union racketeering. The three individuals I want to talk about were all named Ralph Scopo. Yet what they lacked in naming creativity, they more than made up with their prowess as powerful labour “leaders” who instilled terror in New York concrete contractors for over four decades.
King of the Hill
Ralph “Little Ralphie” Scopo Sr. saw his star rise quickly in the criminal underworld. He began his career as an associate in John “Sonny” Franzese’s crew, a powerful caporegime with the Colombo Crime Family. Having only been made in 1977, Ralph would soon find himself mingling with Bosses and working together with top echelon members of La Cosa Nostra in New York. How did a mere soldier amass so much influence? This all came from his dual position as the President of LIUNA Local 6A of the Cement and Concrete Workers Union as well as the larger District Council, which represented over 4,000 workers. In other words, he was a contractor’s worst nightmare. This in combination with the Gambino’s control over Teamsters Union Local 282, the concrete drivers union, gave the Mafia a complete stranglehold on the construction industry of New York. How can you build if the cement is not delivered? What’s the use in the structural wire mesh if the concrete is not poured? Ralph was designated by the Bosses to be their point man in the “Concrete Club” and would use his position to shakedown millions from construction firms over the course of almost a decade.
The Concrete Club, to me, signified the peak of La Cosa Nostra’s control of America. Just as a refresher, the Colombo Crime Family controlled all jobs in Manhattan worth less than two million dollars. Witnesses who were victims of Scopo’s extortion claimed that they were required to pay Ralph 1% of the gross contract and two dollars for every cubic yard of concrete used. Yet the scheme did not end there. You see, if Ralph was going to plead a construction firm’s case as to why they should receive a particular job, it would be advantageous for the company to take him on as a partner. As such in the case of one business with four partners, Scopo and the Colombo Family became their fifth partner. The mobsters were entitled to twenty percent of the normal 10% profit margin on each job. As a final show of power to these bourgeoisie capitalists, Scopo would personally receive an additional ten thousand dollars for each contract. Organized labor unleashed its full muscle on private enterprises. Now for contracts worth between two and five million, a 2% kickback was required and shared between the four Families sitting on the Commission. Finally, kickbacks for contracts greater than five million were shared between the Genovese and Gambino Crime Families. In contracts over two million, only companies in the “Club” were allowed to bid and those firms were all controlled by organized crime. Incidentally, S&A Concrete was the largest concrete producer in Manhattan. Unsurprisingly, it was also owned by Anthony Salerno and Paul Castellano. Owning the producers of the material is what separated concrete/cement from other construction rackets the Mafia ran. Unlike drywall for example, where LCN only controlled the carpenter’s union and contractors, the full vertical integration and control over the concrete supply chain allowed the Mafia to exert a complete chokehold on the industry. Now I have never seen anyone attempt to estimate how much money the Mafia generated from this scheme, but in 1982 there was an estimated $2.5bn worth of construction work underway. One victim reported that payments to Ralph ranged from as little as eight thousand dollars to forty thousand dollars, paid at the parking lot behind Local 6A and those payoffs were made regularly. Another victim, Stanley Sternchos, testified that he made more than $800,000 in payoffs to concrete union leader, Ralph Scopo. New York Times estimated that construction costs were inflated between 15%-70%. I think a fair estimate would be that they made a lot of money.
During the early 1980s, Ralph Scopo roamed the streets of New York intimidating construction firms and dining out with Bosses. He seemed to be particularly close with the administration and seen in the company of Gerry Lang many times by FBI surveillance. Langella, holding the rank of Underboss, oversaw the Colombo Family’s interest in the various labour rackets they controlled. In fact, Scopo’s regular presence in Casa Storta, a restaurant that doubled as the Colombo’s headquarters, dining with heavyweights like Donnie Montemarano puzzled and confused law enforcement. He was regularly seen attending Big Paul Castellano’s house and Commission meetings. Just what was Scopo Sr. up to? To learn more, the FBI bugged Ralph Scopo’s car to see what they could find out. What they learned was that Scopo had a big mouth.
On March 19th, 1984, the FBI caught Little Ralphie in the act explaining to a contractor just how construction business was conducted in the Big Apple. In the plainest of languages, Scopo in painstaking detail described the Concrete Club and how it operated. Dollars for labour peace. Kickbacks for work. Partnerships for contracts. Contractor James Costigan likely didn’t find this conversation particularly enjoyable. The FBI? They loved every second of it. Quite quickly they were able to piece the puzzle together and realize how the Colombo’s were able to shakedown the cement industry, where their power came from and how to target that. Those tapes however also highlight another aspect of the mob, just how dispensable you are to the Bosses. He told the contractor about a certain Gambino fellow who killed thirty-six people. Soldier Roy DeMeo was murdered according to Scopo for fear that he would cave under law enforcement pressure and flip on his superiors. Killing him was their insurance and a way to distance themselves from the crime. Scopo implied that he knew his Bosses would not hesitate to do the same should he place them in a compromising position. He knew that if stuff hit the fan and the Feds got a whiff of what he was doing, he was the first guy going down. And boy did he go down. Hard.
Like an asteroid from outer space, Operation Star Quest detonated Ralph Scopo’s world on October 25th, 1984. He was hit with a massive 51-count indictment that sought to attack and destroy the Colombo Crime Family’s leadership structure. In all, eleven members were charged including the administration alongside four captains and two soldiers. The indictment showcased just how widespread the problem of union racketeering was in America. The government charged that the Colombo Crime Family owned and corrupted six union locals in and around New York, including Scopo’s Local 6A. During the trial, the government called upon countless witnesses who testified about Scopo’s extortion in meticulous detail. To add fuel to the fire, the government played hours of tape where Scopo, clear as day, incriminated himself and confirmed his shakedown racket. Scopo would receive 12 years for his part in facilitating labour racketeering activities for the Colombo criminal enterprise. His Bosses received much worse with his principal supervisor, Gerry Lang, getting 65 years.
They say when it rains, it pours and Little Ralphie would experience that like no man before him. If the indictment of the entire Colombo Crime Family’s leadership wasn’t bad enough, Scopo’s tapes alongside Tony Duck’s unveiled an even wider conspiracy. It wasn’t just the Colombo’s that were engaged in extorting the construction industry, it was the entire Mafia. The Commission Case, as it would later be called, was built in part on Scopo’s activities in Local 6A to help maintain the power of the Concrete Club. Charged on February 26th, 1985 with participating in aiding and abetting various racketeering activities, Ralph was forced to resign from his position in both Local 6A and the District Council. Despite being just a solider, the judge slapped Scopo with a hundred-year sentence, just like his Boss, Carmine Persico and Underboss, Gerry Langella. According to Michael Franzese, Ralph Scopo Sr. was not in the good graces of the Family by the time it was all said and done. Being an already sickly man, Little Ralphie would die in prison in 1993 at the age of 61. But the story of the Scopo’s does not end there.
Will it Ever Be the Same?
It seems that labour racketeering is an inherited trait, like that of male pattern baldness or eye colour. Ralph Scopo Jr. would follow in his father’s footsteps in infiltrating organized labour and join the Colombo Crime Family. When Ralph Sr. resigned his position as President of Local 6A, he put his son Ralph Jr. in charge to maintain the Colombo’s grip. As such, while his father was on trial for shaking down contractors, his son was continuing in the Family business. The party didn’t last long, however, and the government soon filed civil RICO charges, an incredibly powerful tool in combating union corruption. Thus, in March of 1987, the Laborers’ International Union of North America placed Local 6A under trusteeship and ousted Ralph Jr. and his brother Joseph from their leadership positions. To add further instability, the Colombo Crime Family went to war over the leadership of the criminal enterprise. The Scopos’ would side with Vic Orena, and Joseph Scopo would become his Underboss. Although Joseph escaped Orena’s huge RICO indictment, he couldn’t dodge the bullets that came out of John Pappa’s gun, and he died in October of 1993. Ralph Scopo Jr. was luckier and got picked up in 1992 on charges of possessing an illegal handgun and remained out of harm’s way for the rest of the war.
Obviously, under the new world order post-Orena, Ralph probably wasn’t Persico’s favourite member. But he was still very useful and, in the Mafia, money talks. Despite his ban from Local 6A, Ralph Jr. could still pull the strings and exert the will of the Family upon the union. The Bosses put Scopo Jr. under the watchful eye of caporegime Dino Carbo and let him get back to being a labour racketeer.
Thus, Ralph Jr. was free to prowl the streets of New York to do what he did best which was putting the fear of God into cement contractors. With the Commission gone and the Concrete Club dismantled, presumably, the Colombo’s got to pocket even more from all the payoffs. The usual repertoire was at hand, Ralph would intimidate businessmen by soliciting bribes for labour peace, steered lucrative contracts to mob-affiliated companies, organized worthwhile no-show jobs for members, offered union cards for payment, and got key Colombo members including his own son high-level positions within the local to dominate it. It was not like it once was, but they still had a good thing going and a lot of money was still being made.
The early 2000s were good times for union racketeering, as New York was experiencing a massive construction boom, buoyed by low-interest rates. In 2005, New York City issued more than 28,000 new private residential unit permits, a 10% increase from the previous year and more than five times compared to the amount issued a decade before. Scopo Jr. would find himself rolling high in the company of construction tycoons like Dino Tomassetti, whose business empire was building the World Trade Center and the Freedom Tower. Former Gambino captain Michael “Mikey Scars” DiLeonardo testified to Tomassetti’s relationship with the mob that gives us a glimpse of the power they still possessed. No one got into the Manhattan concrete industry without the mob getting a taste, and Dino had to pay seventy-five thousand dollars for his admission pass. Dino’s company, Laquila, then paid ten thousand a month to be split between the Colombo’s and the Gambino’s. Later Colombo turncoat, Dino Calabro, said Ralph actually received ten thousand a month from Laquila. $7,500 was kicked up to the administration with the rest split up between the two mobsters. Despite the government’s effort to purge La Cosa Nostra through successful prosecutions in the Commission Case and the Colombo Family Trial, the Mafia’s grip on the construction trade seemed as dominant as ever.
The latter half of the 2000s didn’t start well for either of Ralph’s families. In 2006, Scopo Jr. was convicted of using Local 6A’s influence to extort concrete contractors. The judge, taking pity on the aging gangster, sentenced him to time served and fined him forty thousand dollars. While he got to walk free then, that trial was just foreshadowing what was to come. In 1988, to maintain control of the union, Ralph Scopo Jr. placed his son, Ralph Scopo III, inside the local. His trojan horse so to speak. This was an effective strategy that also helped secure his boy a six-figure job. Who can say that the mob doesn’t take care of their own?
As far as law enforcement was concerned, Ralph Scopo III was not a member of organized crime, and in fact, has not been inducted into the Family he served. He was the perfect stooge to control, and he oversaw the day-to-day operation of one of the most ingenious schemes of all time. While on the whole, hoodlums were and are considered unsophisticated thugs, they do display flashes of ingenuity and sheer genius. I am, of course, referring to the infamous Coffee Boy Scheme. In any given construction site administrated by the union, only designated workers were allowed to make a coffee and food run for the entire crew. The Colombo’s flexed their muscle on these coffee boys and made two changes to how things were run. First, they forced them to buy food and beverages from mob-controlled firms. Second, they had to give kickbacks worth $250 per week into the coffers of the Family. It may seem like small potatoes, but if six construction sites were happening at the same time, it was a cool seventy-two thousand dollars per year. The Scopos’ devised this scheme sometime in the early 1980s. Assuming this scam was running from 1984, the mob pocketed a tax-free sum of almost two million dollars. It’s creativity like that which keeps me interested in the Mafia. The Colombo’s were always seen as the least sophisticated Family, but they did perpetrate some of the cleverest scams ever pulled.
As the decade was coming to an end, the walls were closing in on the Scopo family. In 2008, as LIUNA was investigating improprieties occurring at Local 6A, Ralph Scopo III created some last-minute policy that allowed him to cash out more than ten thousand dollars in unearned vacation money. In 2010 the final Scopo was ousted from his position as business agent for LIUNA Local 6. According to annual reports published by the union, Ralph had an annual salary of $164,000 in 2009. The union was put under trusteeship (again) and the corrupt influence of the Three Racketeers seemed to be gone. Yet this was just the start of their troubles.
January 20th, 2011, was a historic day for the Mafia and law enforcement. In what the FBI claimed as the largest mob roundup in its history, 126 members connected or part of organized crime were arrested up and down the East Coast. As part of 16 massive indictments, members of the Five Families in New York and crime Families in New Jersey and New England were charged with an assortment of crimes. As part of the sweep, the entire Colombo administration was taken off the street (again) including Ralph Scopo Jr., in part, for labour racketeering activities at Local 6A. When it was all said and done, everyone was found guilty of some type of crime. Everyone except Ralph Scopo Jr. The ill mobster was able to delay the trial for health reasons and ended up escaping justice by dying in October of 2013.
It seems the Scopo’s are no longer labour leaders practicing the Family trade. Maybe the family went legitimate. Maybe in the future, we will hear how yet another Scopo became involved in union racketeering. Maybe they will even do so at LIUNA Local 6A.
Sources include: Gotham Unbound and Mobsters, Unions, and Feds by James B. Jacob, The Colombo Family by Andy Petepiece, LCNBios, Quitting the Mob by Michael Franzese and Dary Matera, Five Families by Selwyn Raab, and various articles from the Daily News (New York), The New York Times, and other newspapers.