HE SAID NO TO THE MOB
For nearly two years Joey Teitelbaum lived a double life. It was the hardest thing he had ever done, but his life and the lives of four others depended on it.
On the surface he was still the same Joey: father of two children; a man of deep faith; a shipper who loved working on the docks. But secretly he was working for FBI.
Like many of his colleagues in ports from Houston to Boston, Joey had found himself caught up in a corrupt scheme -- making payoffs to officials of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) to buy freedom from labor problems. It is an old, widely-accepted practice among shippers and many other waterfront businessmen, for in the highly-competitive shipping industry, labor "peace" can mean the difference between profit and loss.
But Joey decided to fight the system -- a decision that led to his other life , the one his wife knew nothing about for nearly two years.
All that time Joey was risking his life, working as an undercover informant for the FBI, still making payoffs but tape recording the transactions. "I don't think anyone can appreciate the extent of his contribution in terms of the danger to which he exposed himself," says FBI agent Ray Maria, then-supervisor of FBI labor racketeering investigations in the Southeast. "It took a man of really tremendous character and tremendous tenacity."
Since his undercover role was revealed in court (January 1977), he has been guarded night and day by US marshals, and several apparent attempts to murder him have been foiled. So far his testimony has helped convict nearly 20 ILA officers and waterfront businessmen; several others in this area still face trial.
How does one man get the courage to stand up to a "mobdominated" organization , which is the way the justice department's strike force chief in Miami, Atlee Wampler, describes the ILA?
In the four years that the Justice Department's Operation UNIRAC (for union racketeering) has been in existence, it has netted approximately 70 convictions of ILA officials and other waterfront businessmen in East and West Gulf coast ports. Another 45 persons are awaiting trial.
But so far, only one shipper has stepped forward voluntarily to cooperate -- Joey Teitelbaum.
"Maybe my boys are going to want to grow up and work in shipping," Joey explained recently in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "Why should they have to be subjected to payoffs and payments?"
We sat in a small trailer he uses as one of his offices on the docks. Outside, the cargo ship Polar Queen was being loaded for Trinidad under a sunny sky decorated with wisps of white clouds.
Later that morning, as a big yellow crane was beginning to hoist a load of boxes aboard the Polar Queen, the wooden pallet beneath the load broke. Boxes spilled in all directions. But in a few minutes, the longshoremen (the workers who load and unload ships) had reassembled the boxes and secured a sling around a new pallet. Loading resumed.
Uncooperative labor could have turned the momentary delay into a costly, lengthy one, Joey explained. He says that is called (in flagrant disregard of ethnic sensibilities) "an Italian strike" where "everybody moves and nothing happens," he said.
Today he works only with non-ILA labor, dealing with the smaller ships that come up to Miami's inland port. The larger ships dock at Miami's Dodge Island, where the ILA still controls labor despite the recent string of convictions among its top officials.
That control has grown stronger over the years.
As soon as some of the now-convicted ILA officials came down from New York, they began planning to take control of the Miami docks. They first contacted Joey in 1968, telling him -- not asking him -- to sign a contract with the ILA local. Then he was told to pay $3,000 "good faith" money to a local ILA official who would become his "partner."
"This was my first encounter with gangsterism," Joey recalls.
He refused to sign or pay. His father backed him up, telling his son that once you "sell your soul to these people you will never -- ever -- have your self-respect again."
Within a few days, Joey had calls from his key shipping clients in New York canceling their business -- ILA leaders in Miami had warned them there would be labor trouble for anyone who dealt with him.
"Within a period of three weeks, we lost three of our biggest accounts," Joey explains.
Then things turned even tougher.
One evening he arrived home to find his wife very upset. "She said she was called and she was told that she was a nice lady and we had nice kids," Joey says. Then the caller warned her: "Tell your Jew husband that the waterfront belongs to us, and he's going to pay and lit it."
His wife said to Joey: "Sign the contract, do anything they want. Don't let them hurt the kids."
So Joey signed. But he dragged his feet over the payoffs, so his business continued fading away.
In 1972, he and his wife went heavily into debt to buy a large, $155,000 crane for ship loading and unloading. But immediately there were problems: slashed tires, punctured hydraulic hoses. "Real sabotage," he says
An ILA official him "insurance" on the crane -- no more problems -- and more shipping business in exchange for regular payoffs. By this time Joey was getting desperate. He agreed to the terms and began making the payoffs -- $200 a week. (Later this amount was substantially increased.)
The next year, 1973, while he was vacationing in Key West, Joey met State District Appeals Court Judge Tom Barkdull and poured out his misgivings. "I told him I was losing my mind with the corruption on the wterfront. I told him I was paying off and it was against everything my upbringing had taught me."
A few weeks later, Judge Barkdull asked Joey for the names of those involved in the corruption. Then the judge introduced him to a member of the US Justice Department's strike force investigating the ILA. From that point, things moved quickly.
Joey gave more information to the Dade County (which includes Miami) police. But to protect his family, he would not agree to testify in open court unless others did so, too. But none would.
Joey did agree to hire a Dade County police informant who would gather first-hand information to be used in testimony. But the informant could not win the trust of the dock workers, and learned little.
Then the FBI got a break -- a way to force Joey to cooperate more fully.
In 1974, hurricane Fifi smashed into Honduras. Joey collected nearly $500, 000 in relief goods for the victims, (he gave $5000 worth himself) and shipped the goods to Honduras at his own expense. But they never reached the people who needed them. Apparently, a shipping agent in Honduras absconded with all the goods. Joey was so angry he said the man should be killed. The FBI informant, hearing this, volunteered to do the killing for $10,000, according to Joey. Joey agreed.
But when he had calmed down, Joey was terrified, he said, that the man might actually do the killing. But the informant, who had recorded the conversation, had gone to the FBI instead.
Joey was charged with solicitation of murder, a charge his attorney thought could be beaten. But what the Dade County police really wanted were several taped payoff conversations. These Joey agreed to provide, by carrying a hidden recorder.
The payoffs usually took place in the men's room of building 1001 on Dodge Island, where there was an ILA union office. An ILA official would flush the toilet to drown out their conversation, but Joey would count the money so slowly that the final key words were taped after the sounds of flushing had stopped.
Once he had given the county police the tapes they wanted, Joey was ready to go even further, with some encouragement from FBI agent Ray Maria.
"You can't fight organized crime from the outside looking in," Joey said then. "You need to be on the inside looking in."
He volunteered to take on four undercover agents in his shipping company, train them, and let them document corruption first-hand. Agent Maria got permission from his superiors and the "hiring" began.
During the next several months, three FBI agents and a Dade county detective joined the company. But this time Joey personally trained each one in dock lingo s well as in the shipping business. ILA officials did not suspect them and they were soon busy documenting payoffs.
Joey continued to tape payoofs, too, but one day he was almost caught.
He walked into the ILA office and William Boyle, an ILA officer (recently sentenced to 12 years), told him to take off his shoes. Puzzled, Joey obeyed. He learned later from an underworld source that the ILA officials had been tipped off by someone at Dade County police that payoffs on the docks were being tape recorded.
Joey had often carried a tiny FBI recorder in his shoes. But that day he had left the recorder at home.
John F. Evans, then chief prosecutor for UNIRAC cases in the southeast and now a Miami attorney, had this to say about Joey's role: "Although the catalyst for his agreement to participate was a charge against him, his cooperation began before that. And his decision to go all the way took a lot of guts, to the possible jeopardy of himself and his loved ones.
"Although the type of payoffs he was involved in was widespread, not only in Miami, but throughout the Southeast, no one else came forward," says Mr. Evans.
Joey is still in danger.
A few days before this interview he says the US Marshal's office in Miami told him that a gunman was in town reportedly to kill him. Ironically, the next day th eoffice asked him to sign a paper ending their protection of him. He refused.
Asked for his comment on this, Howard Safir, Assistant Director of Operations of the Marshal's Witness Protection program, said only that it "sounds strange." He said he could not comment on the case.
But within a few days of being asked to sign the paper ending his protection, the number of marshals protecting him around the clock was increased from three to five, Joey said later.
Usually after someone has testified against organized crime, he or she is given a new identity and moved to another area at federal expense, says Miami Strike Force Chief Atlee Wampler. But Joey decided to stay on the docks he loves.
He hopes to testify on labor racketeering before a US Senate investigation panel this summer.
"My belief in the truth and my belief in the Almighty will carry me through this case," he says. "I don't foresee any problems."