NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors sued Thursday to take control of Manhattan's famed Fulton Fish Market, one of the nation's largest commercial seafood outlets, charging that the Mafia runs an extensive extortion and theft ring at the waterfront complex.
The suit, filed under the civil provisions of the federal racketeering law, asks a U.S. District Court judge to appoint an administrator for the market. Officials said it was the federal government's first attempt to take over a complete commercial market.
"What we hope to do is return our economy and society to its citizens and leave the Mafia like a fish out of water, flopping on the shore," Thomas Sheer, assistant director of the FBI in New York, said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, likened the action to use of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up monopolies during the early 20th Century, and to the use of federal courts to desegregate school districts.
29 Associates Named
The suit asks that 29 alleged members and associates of the Genovese organized-crime family be banned from the market area. It also asks that administrators be named to oversee the allegedly mob-dominated Local 359 of the United Seafood Workers, Smoked Fish and Cannery Union, which controls deliveries, trucking, parking and other operations on the Lower Manhattan dock.
"We are seeking to eliminate the influence of organized crime in the operations of the Fulton Fish Market," Giuliani said.
The federal prosecutor, who has led the FBI's widely publicized assault on hundreds of mob figures, said the suit is part of a strategy "to take back from organized crime the institutional power they have acquired over many, many decades. . . .
"This does not preclude the possibility of criminal charges being filed, but our first priority is to try to recapture the area's business and the union, so that they can be used for legitimate purposes," he said.
Since last year, courts have named trustees for three other New York area unions controlled by organized crime. A federal judge also appointed a receiver to run Umberto's Clam House, the reputedly mob-dominated restaurant in Little Italy where crime boss Joseph (Crazy Joe) Gallo was shot to death in 1972.
Wholesale, Retail Outlet
About 1 billion pounds of seafood, worth several billions of dollars, passes through the Fulton Fish Market each year, according to court papers. The pre-dawn market is a wholesale outlet for distributors from Boston to Washington, and sells fish to retailers throughout the New York area.
Officials said that the mob has run the market by controlling the union members who load and unload the fish trucks. Because seafood spoils quickly, any delays in loading are costly to both sellers and buyers.
The suit alleges that buyers unwilling to pay the mobsters find that their purchases are stolen, or loaded last. "Tapping," or stealing fish from the crates, is also common, officials said.
"A 100-pound crate of fish taken from the truck ends up to be an 88-pound crate," Sheer said.
Extortion also is common, the suit alleges, because mobsters require retailers to park in assigned spaces at triple the legal parking rate. The extra charge supposedly guarantees "protection" from vandalism and theft.
Officials of the market and union could not be reached for comment.