“Good morning, Mr. Milioto. You’re doing well? What is the pizzo?”
So began construction company owner and alleged Mafia bagman Nicolo Milioto’s morning. Milioto’s answer was indicative of his testimony so far. “I don’t know,” he uttered in his street-worthy French, looking passively at an already-incredulous prosecutor Sonia LeBel. Incredulous, because she cannot believe that an alleged Mafia bagman wouldn’t know the common Italian term for extortion.
He clearly isn’t pleased with the honour, but the 63-year-old Nicolo Milioto is a key witness in the so-called Charbonneau commission investigating organized crime in Quebec’s construction industry. He is known as “Mr. Sidewalk” for his uncanny ability to score sidewalk jobs. Between 2006 and 2009, according to the city auditor general’s report, Milioto’s company received nearly $58 million in municipal contracts. Milioto retired in January 2012, though he says he still stops by the office on occasion. It’s just about the only thing he’s been able to remember in the past two days of testimony.
Faced with overwhelming evidence that he was a very important moving part in Montreal’s Mafia, including video footage of him exchanging money with known kingpin Nick Rizzuto Sr. and his main associate in the back of a mobbed-up coffee shop in Montreal’s north end, Milioto shrugged, smirked and otherwise looked confused throughout his testimony.
Was Nick Rizzuto Sr. a member of organized? “Me, I don’t know.” Did he know why Vito Rizzuto, Nick’s son, received a five-year sentence in an American court? “I don’t know. Maybe I read it in the paper.” Does he think the Mafia exists? “I don’t know, madam. What is the Mafia? People who shoot people? People who sell drugs?”
“I don’t remember,” he said repeatedly—51 times in the afternoon alone, by Maclean’s count.
He’s got palle, as the Italians say. Balls. On hidden cameras, the RCMP recorded Milioto entering the Café Consenza, a known Mafia hangout, 236 times between 2002 and 2006. He is seen in Consenza’s back room, usually with Nick Rizzuto Sr. and Rizzuto associate Rocco Sollecito. A variation of the following little danced occurred: Mililoto would arrive with wads of money, often in a satchel. The money—the 2.5 per cent pizzo harvested from construction companies, according to police—would be divided into five piles, and Milioto handed a share to Rizzuto, always by way of Sollecito. And more often than not, that money would end up in their socks.
Milioto, as Montreal Police organized crime investigator Éric Vecchio testified last September, was the middleman between the many construction companies bidding on jobs and the Rizzuto clan, which fixed the contracting business so everyone got rich. To hear Milioto say it, though, these meetings were for the Cattolica Eraclea Association, so named for the Sicilian village from where Rizzuto, Milioto et al. hailed. The money exchanged, Milioto said, was for association functions.
And his own share? Milioto said he didn’t get anything. “Maybe the money was for me to run errands for Mr. Rizzuto,” he said over his half-moon glasses. “I’d buy him bread. Go to the pharmacy. He’s an 80-year-old man. I had a lot of respect for Nick Rizzuto.”
It’s worth remembering here that Nick Rizzuto Sr. was shot dead by a sniper’s bullet in 2010, as he, his wife and his daughter sat at his kitchen table. The murder has never been solved.
That Milioto was able to get away with so many vagrancies, muddied memories and head-smacking bouts of ignorance is in many ways thanks to the RCMP. The national police force set up cameras in Café Consenza in 2002 as part of its investigation into a mafia-controlled drug ring. The construction racket, which we have since learned was very much active during the time, wasn’t yet de rigueur with law enforcement. The result: the vast majority of the more than 35,000 hours of Consenza footage was done without audio. The law compelled police to stop recording when they found he conversation didn’t explicitly involve the drug trade.
So despite all the evidence, Milioto was able to spin his own narrative—despite a stern warning from Judge France Charbonneau about perjury and contempt of court. He even attempted to extract sympathy from the commissioners and prosecutors. “I did a service for a person you say was a member of the Mafia,” said the man with the square chin, bald head, and folds like scars on either side of his mouth. “You undo 45 years of hard work to feed my family.”
It was a masterful performance, beginning with ignorance, peeking with befuddlement and ending with self-righteousness. It was reminiscent of Pietro Sciara’s testimony during Quebec’s CECO hearings into organized crime in the 1970s. Like Rizzuto and Milioto, Sciara spent most of his early life living in Cattolica Eraclea. As noted in the excellent Mafia Inc, he was consigliere to Rizzuto rivals Vic Cotroni and Paolo Violi.
Like Milioto, Sciara was a reluctant witness. And, like Milioto, he was aggressively clueless. “‘The Mafia’? I don’t know. What is that, ‘the Mafia’?”
Three months later, after having taken in “Godfather II” with his wife, Sciara was shot dead outside a Montreal by three assailants thought to be connected to the Rizzuto clan. The past is prologue, but Nicolo Milioto doesn’t seem at all worried. Hell, he doesn’t even know what the Mafia is.