Peter Pringle's America: Tidying up the trash business

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The Independent Online
GIVE OR take a few hours, they arrested the reputed mobster they call Jimmy Brown on last week's anniversary celebrations of Earth Day. The timing seemed appropriate because he's said to run the dollars 1bn-a-year private garbage trade in New York, and everyone agrees that the business could do with some tidying up.

Being in trash presents the Mafia with many outlets for its subterranean business style. One unwanted competitor who disappeared was found buried under mounds of rubbish. And an illegal dump used by organised crime operators began to smell so badly that, when passing motorists complained about it, the owners doused it in cherry-scented deodorant.

So named because of his penchant for brown suits, James 'Jimmy Brown' Failla was charged, along with six others, of conspiring to shoot a gangster who was co-operating with prosecutors investigating the Gambino family. Known to be heavily into waste disposal, the Gambinos lost their boss, John Gotti, who is serving a life term for murder.

Other bosses of the mafiosi have either been imprisoned or turned into government witnesses and the arrests of Jimmy Brown and his pals signal the launch of a new campaign by federal and state authorities against the powerful second tier of organised criminals in New York and New Jersey.

Failla, 74, walks on crutches and has been in the garbage trade most of his life. He denied the charges against him and was released on bail of dollars 1m. With Mr Gotti otherwise occupied, Failla is said to be looking after the interests of the 500-member Gambino family, which would make him very important in La Cosa Nostra.

His hands are full. Joseph Gambino, a family member, is currently up on drug-racketeering charges and having trouble getting the right courtroom answers from a former colleague, Salvatore 'Sammy the Bull' Gravano.

'You consider yourself intelligent?' asked Gambino's lawyer of Gravano.

'I'm not as intelligent as you, but I don't consider myself stupid,' Gravano answered.

'From 1968 to 1990, you made millions of dollars, you killed 19 people . . . and you aren't intelligent?' the lawyer asked.

'You don't have to be in Harvard . . . (to be smart),' Gravano replied.

It's all great theatre for New Yorkers fascinated with the workings of the underworld, but their personal lifestyles are more affected by the second set of charges against Failla and co. These include his using his position as head of an organisation called the Trade Waste Association to extort money from the carters who haul garbage from Manhattan's private sector.

Failla's underlings haul away 12,000 tons of garbage a day from businesses, shops and restaurants, and there are those who say it could cost a lot less if the mobster middle- men left town. Prices might even drop.

Failla's arrest comes as the Mafia's hold on the trash business has been weakened by the losses at the top. A week before Failla was picked up, another reputed mobster, Salvatore Avellino was arrested on murder and racketeering charges. He is said to be a long-dominant figure in the private garbage business in neighbouring Long Island.

Avellino's name appears on a family tree of organised crime's presence in the trash industry produced by the New York State Assembly, the local government council based in Albany.

The tree, which covers a double- page spread, includes 71 carting companies, two local Teamsters unions and 49 names, mostly of Italian origin. Avellino's name is linked directly to that of Jimmy Brown and the Luchese family, which has 100 members. Its boss, Vittorio Amuso, is serving a life term after having been convicted last June on murder and racketeering charges.

Hovering over the enfeebled chain of command but keeping a respectful distance, national carting companies are poised to take over. The problem is the organised crime families' grip on the allocation of territories, or garbage pick-up routes.

There are many stories of unsuccessful attempts to break this hold, some of which appear in the 'bible' (if that's the right word) of garbage and the Mafia that came out of the New York Assembly's hearings into the control of the trash business in the mid-Eighties.

One story is entitled 'What Can Happen to a Well-educated Gentleman Who Feels He Can Make a Good Living for Himself and His Family by Going into Business for Himself'.

This person mortgaged his house, bought three garbage trucks and began soliciting for business in restaurants and so forth, offering much lower rates.

He got plenty of clients, but he forgot one thing: he didn't clear his activities with the people who clear these things. He was visited by someone who wanted to buy his trucks and when he refused, one of his trucks was blown up.

He fell behind on his collections and was threatened with losing his licence.

Then one day the phone rang. The gruff voice at the other end described the clothes his 10-year-old daughter was wearing and how she was standing on the corner of such- and-such street with a blue bicycle. The voice advised him to sell up,

or he would not see his daughter again. He rang his wife to check what his daughter was wearing that day, and then he sold his other trucks.

The Mafia's game began to unravel when the investigators started to bug them in their Jaguars. Jimmy Brown became a legend, the prosecutors said, because of an uncanny ability to sense a bug and move his private conversation elsewhere.

Otherwise, he is not known for his retiring character; Gotti once called him 'Big Mouth'. Last week, facing life imprisonment without parole, he was less talkative - and in place of the brown suit he wore a blue turtle-neck sweater and blue trousers.