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Morality Play in the South Bronx : TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE The Outlandish Story of Wedtech By James Traub (Doubleday: $21.95; 368 pp.) : FEEDING THE BEAST How Wedtech Became the Most Corrupt Little Company in America By Marilyn W. Thompson (Charles Scribner's Sons: $22.50; 320 pp.)

September 16, 1990|Robert L. Jackson | Jackson is an investigative reporter in The Times Washington Bureau who covered the Wedtech scandal.

John Mariotta, the Puerto Rican immigrant businessman who founded the now notorious Wedtech Corp. of the South Bronx, was consumed with a desire to make it big--for himself, for his family, for his employees and for his country.

So much so, we are told, that the trappings of success became almost more important to him than the bottom-line corporate figures of his fledgling defense-contracting enterprise: big limos to take him and his fellow executives to meetings; dinners at expensive restaurants.

But it seemed Mariotta never knew where to stop. As with many aspects of Wedtech, the money spent on furnishings alone was beyond all bounds of propriety. Flushed with his initial success at winning some Army and Navy contracts, Mariotta turned the executive suite of his former machine shop in the downtrodden Bronx into a palace worthy of the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He bought miles of heavily brocaded silk to cover the ceiling-high windows of his office, adding Persian carpets and antique breakfronts. A chandelier fit for a grand ballroom hung in the plant's small entrance foyer.

The almost bigger-than-life story of how the founders of this "house of fraud" corrupted congressmen, lawyers, officials of the Small Business Administration, former White House aides and New York state officeholders is told in an entertaining fashion by free-lance writer James Traub, who pored over thousands of pages of court records and interviewed many of the defendants and federal prosecutors. The influence-buying scandal broke in late 1986 and eventually resulted in about two dozen convictions for bribery, conspiracy, fraud and racketeering. It wound down last year with the convictions of San Francisco lawyer-lobbyist E. Robert Wallach, a longtime friend of former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, and New York Congressman Robert Garcia, the second of two congressmen to fall.

"Too Good to Be True," James Traub's well-organized narrative, laced with humor and replete with anecdotes, captures the human side of all the malefactors who peopled this major domestic scandal of the Ronald Reagan years. (The other big case would be HUD, and the foreign-affairs scandal, of course, was Iran-Contra, which Traub notes ironically broke about the same time.)

By way of explaining his book's title, Traub shows us that what gave Wedtech its initial entree to the Reagan Administration was the makeup of the firm. Originally known as Welbilt Electronic Die Corp., its founder, Mariotta, was an energetic Latino, and a Republican to boot, at a time when Reaganites wanted to woo Latino voters and to encourage the principles of private enterprise instead of government handouts, particularly in an area such as the economically ravaged South Bronx. Invited to attend a White House meeting of small businessmen, Mariotta and his company soon became what Traub has labeled "the White House poster child."

But folks who at first promoted the firm for free in the inner circles of government--folks like Wallach, Meese's friend, and Reagan political director Lyn Nofziger--ultimately latched onto high fees from Wedtech in return for their lobbying work. Nofziger, of course, waited until after he had left the White House.

Such importuning by paid friends of Wedtech (it changed its name in going public in 1983) helped win for it a no-bid $30 million minority-enterprise contract to produce Army engines and other government work, including a Navy portable-bridge contract that eventually would have been worth $400 million if Wedtech had performed well.

But the company's reach exceeded its grasp; high living by its executives, payoffs to congressmen and state officials and excessively high fees paid to lawyers and political consultants in return for their influence drained the small company. All that, combined with poor management and shoddy workmanship, brought Wedtech to eventual bankruptcy. The dream vanished when its several hundred workers, mostly blacks and Latinos, lost their jobs as Mariotta and his colleagues, along with public officials, went off to jail.

Traub suggests we may look upon Wedtech as sort of a morality play that includes the cynical bribe-payers--the top officers of the firm--and recipients who surrounded the company like flies around a honey pot. But the play, he suggests, is neither straightforward nor satisfying. It has to do with deceit and self-delusion, that faculty which permits men to believe what is useful for them to believe. Mariotta and his executives believed they were only doing on a smaller scale what large defense contractors accomplish with their campaign contributions and their employment of top officials who retire from the Pentagon.

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