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Mafia goes on trial. Case to squelch mob most ambitious yet

With the opening of the so-called Mafia commission trial, law-enforcement officials want to send a very specific message: The Mafia is nasty business; it exacts a high cost from all citizens, and it is not invincible. Eight men go on trial here this week in a case that will lay bare the workings of organized crime in New York City. They are charged with being part of the Cosa Nostra's governing council.

The federal government has been waging a war on organized crime throughout the country in the past several years. But the so-called commission trial, which got under way as jury selection began Monday, is one of the most ambitious attempts to ``decommission'' the mob yet.

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Led by US Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, the government will try to prove that New York's five crime families operate under a ruling commission as they make their money from a wide range of illegal activities; specifically extortion, murder, and labor racketeering.

On trial will be many of the big names in organized crime, including Anthony Salerno, alleged boss of the Genovese family; Anthony Corallo, alleged boss of the Luchese family; Carmine Persico, alleged boss of the Colombo family.

Several other organized-crime trials are going on in New York, including the trial in Brooklyn of John Gotti, who allegedly rose to the head of the Gambino family after the murder of Paul Castellano in front of a midtown Manhattan restaurant last December.

During the trials, detailed information about the extent and workings of organized crime is expected to be revealed. Already, court papers have begun to show in detail the alleged influence of the Mafia on the construction industry, labor unions, garbage collecting, the garment trade, and gas, liquor, and cigarette distribution. Organized crime is also believed to be involved with white-collar crimes such as securities, insurance, and bankruptcy fraud and embezzlement, computer crime, and credit-card fraud. Food distribution, extortion, and loan sharking are other alleged sources of revenue for crime families.

The assault on the mob is a result of several coinciding factors, say law-enforcement officials and other observers. G. Robert Blakey, a professor of law at Notre Dame University, points to more aggressive, highly skilled prosecutors and staff, like Mr. Giuliani. But he also notes that there is a ``new'' Federal Bureau of Investigation that goes after organized and white-collar crime rather than ``car thieves and bank robbers.''

There is also a new combination of statutory rules affecting prosecution, better grand juries, more sophisticated listening equipment, and the much-vaunted Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which allows the government to aim at groups and patterns of crimes rather than just at individuals.

Professor Blakey, one of the authors of RICO, says this case is to RICO what the Standard Oil case was to the Sherman Act, referring to the case that led to the breakup of the Rockefeller domination of the oil industry.

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There is always some skepticism that organized crime can be blocked. And even the most optimistic observers say there will likely be involvement in such illegal activities as drugs and pornography as long as there is a public demand for them. But law-enforcement officials say they can make a dent in areas such as the construction industry and labor unions, if cases such as the commission trial are won and followed up with further prosecution of other Mafia members.

With three alleged heads of organized-crime families charged in the commission trial, the case will receive considerable attention. Jurors are being selected anonymously, with names kept secret, said US Judge Richard Owen.

The New York attack on crime figures has come amid fanfare and a seeming eye toward publicity. The conversations taped by a hidden wiretap and the testimony of Mafia informers will be closely followed by a public that has long been fascinated by the mob.

Along with the three alleged crime family bosses, co-defendants include Salvatore Santoro, alleged underboss of the Luchese family; Christopher Furnari, alleged consigliere of the Luchese family; Ralph Scopo, alleged soldier of the Colombo family; Gennaro Langella, alleged underboss of the Colombo family; and Anthony Indelicato, alleged soldier for the Bonanno family.

``It's not the end, but it is the beginning of the end for the mob as we know it,'' says Blakey.

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