To get a job on the massive Goethals Bridge reconstruction project, Andrew Merola was the man to see. Whether one actually did any work was a separate issue. Asking too many questions could get someone hurt – at least until late last month. The FBI and various state and local authorities in New Jersey, starting on May 21, arrested a reported 25 suspects involved in a wide variety of criminal schemes, including labor racketeering. A reputed Gambino crime family soldier with close connections to the Lucchese family, Merola, 40, allegedly ran a ghost-worker operation for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 (Springfield, N.J.) and Laborers International Union of North America Local 1153 (Jersey City) from a taxpayer-funded construction site in Elizabeth underneath the Goethals Bridge (the section of I-278 connecting New Jersey with northern Staten Island, N.Y.), where he had obtained a job through Local 825. “Merola benefits from the activities of dozens of associates who report to him on their activities, which range from gambling to loan-sharking to a highly organized theft ring dealing in high-end merchandise,” said Union County Assistant Prosecutor Scott Kraus.
Two of these associates were John Cataldo, 44, and Joseph Manzella, 49, respectively, an organizer for Operating Engineers Local 825 and business agent for Laborers Local 1153. Merola and another Gambino soldier “would cover for each other in a no-show work scam that allowed them to collect full pay for not showing up at work,” noted Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow. “Both men basically surrendered their control of the unions to Andrew Merola.” Romankow added that in one instance Merola had solicited a bribe of $20,000 in exchange for not reporting the use of nonunion labor. One of Merola’s chief enforcers was Martin Taccetta, 56, a resident of East Hanover Township (Morris County), N.J., and a reported Lucchese crime family soldier. Taccetta in December 2005 had been released from New Jersey state prison on procedural grounds after having done time for racketeering and extortion. That particular case involved a 1984 murder carried out with a golf club. His brother, Michael Taccetta, a resident of Florham Park, N.J. and also a Lucchese family member, is currently in prison.
The union corruption at hand is apparently part of a much larger criminal enterprise. Charges against the suspects include extortion of contractors, home-improvement store scams, loansharking, illegal gambling and assault. The gambling operation stretched from New York City to Central New Jersey, and included a website, www.topbettors.com. Merola, who sometimes goes by the alias Andrew Knapik, has a prior criminal record. And he’s known to have used violence or the threat of it to collect debts, which typically carried unusually high interest rates. Getting off the hook won’t be easy for him or his associates. The cop raids nabbed about $250,000 in cash, guns and some drugs, said an anonymous law-enforcement source. “A real-life Tony Soprano” has become a journalistic cliche this decade, but this might be as good an excuse as any to employ it once more, especially now that The Sopranos has completed its run on HBO. (Newark Star-Ledger, 5/23/07; Associated Press, 5/23/07).