The Mafia on tape: not nearly as glamorous as on film

Martin Patriquin reports from the Charbonneau commission

A photo taken from an RCMP surveillance video allegedly shows Nick Rizzuto Sr., right, exchanging tens of thousands of dollars with Nicolo Milioto, left, former head of Mivela Construction Inc. Also at the table is alleged mafiosa Rocco Sollecito. (Graham Hughes/CP)

The Mafia, we are often told, is a made up of men who are rich, oddly alluring and invulnerable to consequence. “To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies,” as Henry Hill says in Goodfellas. There are countless examples of how this isn’t true, or at least how it doesn’t stay true for very long. Many die or go to jail. Others like Hill turn rat, go into witness protection and live the rest of their lives as schnooks, as Hill put it.

Yet it’s old age that really knocks the glamour out of thug life. Such is the impression one gets, anyway, while watching the surveillance tapes from Montreal’s Café Consenza, the Jarry Street hangout of choice for the Rizzuto Clan and its associates. Recorded secretly between 2004 and 2006 by the RCMP and seen publicly for the first time this week at the so-called Charbonneau Commission into corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, the tapes record the machinations of what was arguably the most powerful and deadly Mafia organization in the county.

It was in Café Consenza where police say the Rizzuto Clan made itself rich through Quebec’s construction industry, and on the backs of  Quebec taxpayers. It is why, according to the testimony of Montreal Police organized crime investigator Éric Vecchio, the price of most construction contracts with the city of Montreal was routinely 30 per cent higher than what they should have been. If so—Montreal typically contracts $1.5 billion in goods and services a year, according to the Montreal Gazette—the amount of money flowing through Café Consenza was staggering.

It was also highly controlled. As former construction company owner Lino Zampito testified today, the vast majority of Montreal’s construction contracts are mostly shared amongst a “hermetically sealed” group of ten companies—of which he was a member—who colluded with one another so that the winner of each contract was determined beforehand. “Were you part of a system of collusion?” commission lawyer Denis Gallant asked Zambito.

“In Montreal, yes,” Zambito replied.

And yet if these tapes show anything, apart from the chummy relationship between the Mafia and some of Quebec’s biggest construction magnates, it’s the true banality of evil—the antidote to Hill’s childhood fantasies. As it stands today, the Mafia is seemingly the domain solely of shabby old men with paunches and ankle socks, kvetching over piles of money in the ill-lit back room of a Montreal coffee shop.

On Christmas Eve 2004, 22 days after the RCMP installed the camera, Nicolo Milioto walked into that back room with a wine coloured satchel, followed by Rizzuto associate Rocco Sollecito. The bullet-headed and brutish-looking Milioto was until January 2012 president of Montreal-based Mivela Construction and, according to Vecchio the “middleman” between the construction industry and the Rizzuto clan. Sollecito was one of the heads of the clan itself charged with the construction side of things. The two men chat for a bit around a small table.

After a few minutes a man of medium height hobbles in wearing a tan suit, black shoes, sunglasses and a crown of jet black hair around his bald head. It’s Nicolo Rizzuto Sr., perhaps this country’s best known Mafia Godfather. From the satchel, Milioto takes out an envelope and three wads of bills and appears to laugh as he gestures to the chair. The 79-year-old Rizzuto sits down, throws his left leg over one an armrest and leans into the discussion.

Sollecito divides the money into seven piles as the three continue to chat. Milioto takes a document out of his pocket, and the three take turns looking at it. Milioto opens the envelope and pulls out more money. Rizzuto gestures grandly at the money on the table, and picks up four wads. Milioto peels off ten bills and hands the rest to Rizzuto, who appears to wrap them in an elastic. He then hands the money back to Milioto, who stuffs them into his socks. Sollecito pockets the remaining money and then the three crowd close together around the paper from Milioto’s pocket. Then the three discuss something written on a piece of paper. Rizzuto folds and presses the satchel in his hands as he listens to Milioto. The entire exchange takes less than 10 minutes.

For two years, the RCMP recorded thousands of variations of this little ritual. There are consistencies: the money is always divided into five piles; Rizzuto is always handed his share of the money through Sollecito; and invariably the wads find their way into the socks of one or more of three men seated around the table. The five piles, meanwhile, are a “reference to the five heads of the network,” Vecchio said in his testimony. “Vito Rizzuto, Rocco Sollecito, Nicolo [Rizzuto] Senior, Paolo Renda et Francesco Arcadi.”

Why, exactly, these five men received this money was described by Sollecito in a recording from May 2005. “When they do something, they bring us something, and we always divide it in five,” he is heard saying. Translation: when “they” (the construction companies) “do something” (a job), they “bring us something” (money, and lots of it), and it is divided into five.

Apart from being wonderfully succinct, this equation was also quite profitable for the five men involved. Between Sept. 23 2002 and Nov. 21 2006, the RCMP recorded the license plates on vehicles registered to 68 Quebec-based construction companies from the parking lot in front of Café Consenza. “The majority of those companies who have business with the City of Montreal, whether it be excavation, sewers, who receive public contracts, out of about 10 there are at least six if not more who show up at the Cosenza,” Vecchio said. These companies would typically hand over two to five per cent of a contract’s value to the Rizzuto clan; the end result, Vecchio said, was that the contract submissions to the city would typically be 15 to 30 per cent higher. And more often than not, the balance would find its way into the socks of Rizzuto, Sollecito and Milioto.

And yet they were seemingly so cheap. The Consenza Christmas party in 2005, duly recorded by the RCMP, has men worth millions of dollars milling around a table in Consenza’s middle room, replete with Styrofoam cups and takeout pizza, in a scene reminiscent of a church basement party. In a separate phone conversation intercepted by the RCMP, Joe Sciascia, the owner of a tree nursery in the Montreal suburb of Brossard and nephew to Giorlando Sciascia, once a Bonanno family liaison, is negotiating the retirement gift for Frank Catania—a man whose company, Construction Frank Catania et Associés Inc., has received some $100 million in city contracts since 2006. Sciascia is speaking with Paolo Renda, one of the five recipients of cash skimmed from city contracts. They hem and haw over the price of a $4,500 cigar humidor, finally agreeing on the 20 people who will contribute to cover the cost. To their credit, neither Sciascia or Renda complained about being $225 out-of-pocket.

There’s another decidedly un-sexy aspect to these skinflint, paunchy men who stole and stole. Look at where those five men are today: Vito Rizzuto has been languishing in jail since 2004. Paolo Renda hasn’t been seen since the spring of 2010. Francesco Arcadi is in jail on a variety of drug smuggling, bookmaking and illegal gambling charges. Ditto Rocco Sollecito. And Nick Rizzuto? He was shot in the face as he sat at his dining room table on a Wednesday afternoon in November 2010, in front of his wife and daughter. Speaking of the Mafia, Vecchio said, “I think it’s a constant evolution. We’ve seen it in the past. In English, we say, ‘Live by the rules, die by the rules.’ These men knew what they were into and, one day or the next, the wheel turns and someone else takes their place.”