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Simon Wasn't Gangbusters as Prosecutor

Court records belie the assertion that he played a key role in tackling organized crime.

October 17, 2002|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

During the 1980s, the U.S. attorney's office in New York mounted a huge legal assault on organized crime. Bill Simon Jr.'s campaign for governor has marketed him as a pivotal figure in that effort.

From the start, Simon has emphasized his role as a prosecutor, his experience as a businessman and his charitable activities as the three cornerstones of his candidacy. His campaign spots accent his work with Rudolph W. Giuliani, who as the U.S. attorney in New York was Simon's boss.

Simon's campaign Web site emphasized that his work had "facilitated the convictions of the heads of all five New York crime families -- and successfully diminished their infrastructure so they no longer could function as a viable criminal enterprise." Simon made a similar claim in a speech at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace.

He was described at one rally as the man who "broke the back of the Mafia." Giuliani has frequently heralded Simon's work in organized crime cases, particularly his successes in seizing the assets of mob families.

Though no one has questioned that Simon was an earnest lawyer during his tenure as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1985 to 1988, records and interviews show that he was hardly the major crime-buster that he has claimed: * Simon can recall trying only one criminal case from start to finish -- the successful prosecution of a marijuana dealer who received a two-year sentence.

* Although Giuliani's office won a number of major organized crime cases, the heads of all five Mafia families were not convicted in Manhattan during his tenure. All five were indicted in 1985 in what came to be known as "The Commission Case" -- the first federal prosecution of Mafia chieftains for running a crime syndicate, utilizing the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

But one of the lead defendants, Paul Castellano, who headed the Gambino crime family, was gunned down in front of a Manhattan steakhouse before the trial started. Another, Philip Rastelli, head of the Bonanno family, was dropped from the case before testimony began.

And there is no evidence in the massive court record housed in a federal archive in Missouri that Simon had any involvement in the case. Among the tens of thousands of pages in 14 boxes of material from the case, not one paper has Simon's name on it.

* The Republican candidate was involved in an earlier, separate effort to keep Rastelli, the head of the Bonanno organized crime family, from getting out of prison after his parole was revoked. But Simon lost that case in 1985, and during the process a judge ruled that evidence he submitted was unreliable.

* Records also show -- and Simon can recall -- only one instance in which he actually seized the assets of a criminal. After another federal prosecutor secured the conviction and a 30-year sentence for drug dealer Philip Vasta, Simon was easily able to convince a judge in a civil proceeding that the government should be able to keep $5.8 million of Vasta's cash that federal agents found along with 6 kilograms of heroin, 9 kilograms of cocaine and several weapons during a January 1986 raid.

* Simon has boasted in the campaign that he "took on corporate wrongdoers," while a prosecutor, and Giuliani has said Simon went after "the worst polluters." But when questioned, Simon could cite only one civil case against an asbestos removal firm and just one instance in which he indicted a corporation -- a Staten Island construction company charged with using unsafe methods to remove asbestos from a Sanitation Department garage in Manhattan. Simon left the U.S. attorney's office before the criminal case went to trial.

Giuliani did not return calls seeking comment.

Simon does not have a complete record of his cases, nor does the U.S. attorney's office in New York. The Times researched his record by interviewing Simon, his campaign aides and numerous former colleagues from the U.S. attorney's office, as well as reviewing records at the U.S. attorney's office in New York, the U.S. District Court in New York, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, the federal archive in Lee's Summit, Mo., and a database assembled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University institute that compiles records on federal agencies.

*

Simon speaks with near reverence about the terrific experience he had at the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, the oldest in the nation.

"It was just a great chapter for me and a real stimulus toward being interested in additional public service," he said in an interview.

After graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts and working on Wall Street, Simon enrolled at Boston College Law School. After graduation, he spent three years at a small New York firm that specialized in corporate work. There, he met Whitney North Seymour Jr., the former U.S. attorney in Manhattan, who prompted him to seek a job as a federal prosecutor.

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