Feds charge Colombo crime family in massive extortion plot

Mobsters shook down a Queens labor union for two decades, prosecutors say

Andrew “Mush” Russo is shown here in an undated, vintage photo. (Photo: SOURCE, Graphic: Ethanb822)

A sweeping indictment was unsealed Tuesday in a federal court in Brooklyn, charging 14 defendants, including members and associates of the Colombo crime family, with labor racketeering, extortion, and money laundering in an alleged 20-year plot to take over a Queens labor union and its employee health insurance program.

Those charged with racketeering include Andrew “Mush” Russo, the family’s boss, as well as underboss Benjamin Castellazzo and consigliere Ralph DiMatteo. Other notable individuals charged are family captains Theodore Persico, Jr., Richard Ferrara, and Vincent Ricciardo, as well as soldier Michael Uvino and associates Thomas Costa and Domenick Ricciardo. John Ragano, alleged to be a soldier for the Bonanno family, is charged with loansharking, fraud, and drug trafficking.

From 2001 to 2021, the indictment claims, the Colombo family worked to shake down an unidentified labor union with members in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. It’s unclear how exactly law enforcement was tipped off to the alleged scheme, however, court papers say authorities received information from a third party, suggesting someone may have told on the family.

“The investigation revealed that the collection of salary payments from labor union personnel was only one facet of a broader plan to take total control of the labor union and more lucrative health fund,” the indictment says.

In addition to the charges of racketeering, loan sharking, and drug trafficking, authorities outlined several “uncharged acts” that they say show the men’s “violent nature” and hostility towards those who cooperate with law enforcement.

In one conversation, Vincent Ricciardo discussed the potential slaying of a family member he suspected was cooperating with the government.

“He makes the whole family look like shit…” he allegedly said. “He made a big mistake, he signed his own death certificate, he signed his own death certificate… He’s dead now, he’s finished.”

According to documents, Vincent Ricciardo, also known as “Vinny Unions”, and his cousin, Domenick, directly extorted a senior union official. Authorities say the Ricciardo cousins threatened the official, starting in 2001, for a portion of his salary. Vincent allegedly claimed that the payments were part of his union pension.

One night, papers say, Vincent and Domenick, joined by Michael Uvino, paid a visit to the official’s house and threatened him and his family. The men also sent threatening text messages, and showed up at the union office in person, banging on locked doors in an attempt to confront employees. When police called to the office stopped the men, they claimed they were attempting to collect a check.

In a recorded phone conversation in 2021, authorities say, Vincent threatened to kill the aforementioned union official if he didn’t comply with the family’s demands.

“I’m not afraid to go to jail, let me tell you something, to prove a point? I would fucking shoot him right in front of his wife and kids, call the police, fuck it, let me go, how long you think I’m gonna last anyway?” he allegedly said.

Other threats to the official included promises to “send people” to his home if he told authorities, and promises to “break” his head.

In 2019, under the direction of Russo, the extortion effort was allegedly broadened: The union was forced to use their health fund to make decisions that would benefit the Colombo family, including the hiring of select vendors in an effort to generate a monthly kickback of $10,000 or more.

Authorities say Ralph DiMatteo, who is currently at large, served as the boss of the operation and frequently met with with Vincent Ricciardo about the crime. During one of the meetings, the men allegedly placed a call to Russo that authorities have obtained. During that call, the men can allegedly be heard plotting on how to pressure a health consultant who held contracts the family considered valuable.

“I got every-, I got where he lives, his social security number. He lives in his house, his wife’s social security number. Big house,” Ricciardo allegedly said.

Ricciardo is later said to have met with the union official, where he outlined a series of demands including the hiring of a new consultant handpicked by the Colombo family, that no raises be given to any employees, and that the Colombo family be given control over the vendor contracting process.

“It’s my union and that’s it, but I call the shots, nobody listens to me they’re out of there,” Ricciardo allegedly said.

In November 2020, senior leadership in the Colombo family met at a Brooklyn restaurant, where they were surveilled by law enforcement officers. During the meeting, the mobsters determined that Russo would hold up leadership of the family until captain Theodore Persico completed supervised prison release from a previous federal conviction.

Richard Ferrara was also tapped to supervise the $10,000 kickback scheme from the union’s health insurance program. According to wiretapped phone calls referenced by authorities, Ferrara and DiMatteo both played “active roles” in overseeing Ricciardo’s efforts, eventually culminating in the hiring of a Colombo-backed health consultant.

Although Ricciardo and Ferrara collaborated often about the plans, senior family leadership grew displeased with Ricciardo’s apparent slow-walk of the process and replaced him with Benjamin “Benji” Castellazzo. A phone call between Ferrara and Ricciardo, referenced in court papers, gives some insight into the tense interaction.

“When are you coming here?” DiMatteo asked Ricciardo, who was in North Carolina at the time.

“I’m coming here in the middle of March,” he answered.

“Middle of March, we’re gonna wait a month and a half?” DiMatteo shot back.

“Well, things are going slow…” Ricciardo said. “I’m not all the way in there yet.”

“Okay, that’s no good buddy, you’re gonna have to take a trip in, to say hello.” DiMatteo said. “Everything you said was happening, nothing is happening?”

“Of course not,” Ricciardo said. “It’s going slow, but we’re partly in there.”

“Partly?” DiMatteo exclaimed.

After Castellazzo took up charge of the alleged takeover of the labor union, law enforcement say they surveilled him and Ricciardo meeting in Brooklyn to talk about the scheme. Officials also say Uvino, Russo, and Persico met to discuss diverting money from the health fund, which the men found would be easier after Persico took control of the family.

“It’s smooth sailing,” Uvino said. “I was out, he came out with me the other night, we went out to Body English together, forget it, the guy’s the best, fucking, I was talking, the guy is the best guy in the world to deal with.“

Also outlined in the indictment are three more offshoots of the alleged plot: loansharking, the sale of fake workplace safety certificates, and drug trafficking

Court papers say Uvino, Costa, and Vincent Ricciardo, joined by Bonanno soldier John Ragano, engaged in loansharking that brought the family thousands of dollars.

Uvino allegedly loaned $100,000 to an anonymous victim, who was thereafter required to make weekly payments with 1.5% interest. He was later loaned an additional $150,000, which was subject to the same payment plan.

In July of 2021, when the man eventually became behind on payments, Ricciardo told Costa to give the man “a beating” — a practice of intimidation to get borrowers to pay their debts.

New York’s OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, operates a voluntary workplace safety training course that awards cards for completing 10 and 30 hour courses, commonly referred to as “OSHA-10” or “OSHA-30” cards. The training teaches construction and industrial workers about various hazards they may encounter at job sites and how to deal with them.

Ragano and the Ricciardo cousins allegedly operated two “schools” in Franklin Square and Ozone Park, which claimed to provide workplace safety trainings, but actually churned out fraudulently obtained OSHA cards for $500 a pop, raking in tens of thousands of dollars every month. An undercover police officer allegedly purchased several cards from one of the schools, without going through any training or courses before doing so.

A secretly recorded alleged conversation between Ragano and an unnamed individual, officials say, shows the man’s “brazenness” in the scheme.

“The only thing she could do is call the cops and tell them I’m doing OSHA,” Ragano allegedly said of his former girlfriend possibly reporting him to law enforcement. “If she calls the cops and she tells them that? I’ll just tell them, hey, okay, put me in jail, what’s the problem?”

He added: “I ain’t afraid to go to jail for this, it’s non-violent, I’ll get 35 months, 40 months.”

Ricciardo, Costa, and Ragano are also charged with planning to transport large quantities of marijuana to Florida by vehicle from New York. The scheme worked in several steps: Ragano, and co-defendants Vincent Martino and John Glover, would purchase small samples of marijuana and pick one sample out of the many to purchase in large quantities. After those were purchased, the men would transport the shipments across the country.

As a result of the investigation into the Colombo family, authorities say they discovered that Ragano had picked up two one-pound samples of marijuana and brought them back to one of the previously mentioned OSHA schools. Ragano then began to contact potential buyers by phone, and would collect the money through a front at Martino’s business in Suffolk County, New York.

Each defendant faces up to 20 years behind bars, according to prosecutors, who stressed that the men are innocent until proven guilty in court. Colombo boss Andrew Russo, according to the Associated Press, pleaded not guilty from a hospital bed over videoconference as medical equipment beeped in the background.

The 87-year-old was taken there for a medical evaluation due to his age, as well as injuries he sustained in a recent car accident. After being medically cleared for detainment, he was sent to MDC Brooklyn, where authorities seek to keep him permanently detained throughout the trial.

Law enforcement officials have said that the sweeping indictment targeting the mob figures proves that New York’s crime families are “alive and well” and don’t only exist in movies or books. FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Michael Driscoll said the bureau is readily equipped to take criminal organizations down.

“Everything we allege in this investigation proves history does indeed repeat itself. The underbelly of the crime families in New York City is alive and well. These soldiers, consiglieres, under bosses, and bosses are obviously not students of history, and don’t seem to comprehend that we’re going to catch them,” Driscoll said. “Regardless of how many times they fill the void we create in their ranks, our FBI Organized Crime Task Force, and our law enforcement partners, are positioned to take them out again, and again.”

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Ethan Biando

Ethan Biando

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