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Friend of mine

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This email arrived from some company called “Tagged,” asking me the following: “Michael Franzese has added you as a friend. Is Michael your friend? Click Yes if Michael is your friend, otherwise click No.But you have to click! Please respond or Michael may think you said no.”

Does he mean a friend of his or a friend of ours? It’s an important distinction, as explained by Al Pacino in the great mob film, “Donnie Brasco.” If it is a friend of ours, then it is a made guy. A friend of mine — or in his case, his — would tend to mean mob connected.

Michael Franzese is a former mobster, the real deal. He is the son of one of the one of the last of the old time mobsters still alive, Sonny Franzese, a member of the Colombo crime family who has spent much of the last 40 years or so behind bars, serving time in connection with racketeering, conspiracy to commit bank robbery and named in connection with some mob hits. One of Sonny’s claims to fame is putting up some of the money for the porn film, “Deep Throat.”

Sonny is 91 years old and currently behind bars on a parole violation, after his other son, John, dropped a dime on him. During part of Sonny’s time in prison, his role was filled by his son Michael. If you pay close attention to the scene in “Goodfellas,” when the Henry Hill character is going through the restaurant describing all the mobsters there, he mentions Mickey Franzese — in realilty, Michael Franzese. Michael became a capo in the Colombo family and was involved in a very lucrative bootleg gasoline operation that put a lot of money in the mob’s pocket in the 1980s. He was also partners with the corrupt sports agent, Norby Walters.

But Michael had a change of heart and simply walked away from the mob. He wrote a book called “Quitting the Mob,” and has earned a living as a speaker about the dangers of the influence of illegal sports betting. He has been hired to speak to athletes by the NFL, the NBA (presumably, not to referees) and Major League Baseball, and I’ve spoken to him before for articles. He has made a remarkable career for himself about his life in the Mafia, speaking out publicly, but managing to survive by never, at least publicly, having been fingered as an informant.

And now he wants to be my friend.

While I may not be a friend of ours, I may qualify as a friend of his — if writing about the mob qualifies as a mob connection. Years ago, in between covering county council and zoning board meetings, I had become fascinated with organized crime reporting, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s the mob was gaining a stronghold in northeastern Pennsylvania. It started for me as a kid still in college, working for a crusading weekly newspaper editor named J.R. Freeman, digging through land records at a county courthouse and discovering that two Caesars World Pocono resorts had been sold in a very unusual land deal. At the time, on the heels of legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City, there was much speculation that the Poconos would follow, and those with gambling interests were jockeying for position. The two resorts were sold to a Miami lawyer named Alvin Malnik — identified as the time by law enforcement officials as the so-called heir apparent to Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky. Malnik brought the two resorts with money borrowed from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund — the fund that served as a mob bank — and then leased back to Caesars at a profit.

From there, a few years later, I found myself hanging around the lobby of a Wilkes-Barre hotel, taking notes and paying attention to the cocktail hour before a testimonial dinner to honor one of their own who had just gotten out of federal prison — Russell Bufalino. Now, Russell Bufalino was one of the old time Mafia bosses, like Angelo Bruno in Philadelphia and Carmine Galante in New York. He was in attendance at the historic Apalachin, N.Y., mob summit in 1957 that was busted by the state police and finally made public the recognition that there was a national crime syndicate of mobsters. If you read anything about the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, you find Bufalino’s name is the mob boss mostly associated with that disappearance. He was a very bad man. But yet here was in, in Wilkes-Barre, being honored by the community, in a dinner that very few people outside of town knew about.

I got wind of it, and went there to see if I could write something about it — particularly about who might be attending such an affair. In between some very important looking and well-to-do people milling around the lobby were some very thick-necked men. Then everyone went inside the ballroom, as the doors closed, and there I was in the lobby by myself — looking at something that would go a long way toward helping me write my story. On the tables outside the ballroom were seating charts with the names of everyone who had been invited, where they were sitting, and if they had checked in. So I made one of those stupid spur-of-the-moment decisions that are made at a young age. I ran by the tables and pulled off all the seating charges and put them under my arm. I took off quickly, leaving the hotel and running down the street to my car, never looking back to see if any of these thick-necked men had seen me and were chasing me. After all, it wasn’t as if I could have run faster than I already was. I got out safely and went on to write a story about all these judges, politicians and union and business leaders who were listed on the seating charts who really had no business being invited or attending a dinner to honor a Mafia boss.

About a year later, I was covering a hearing on organized crime conducted by the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, an agency that at the time did great work on organized crime and corruption in the state. After the hearing, two men walked up to me and asked, “Aren’t you the guy who went running out of the hotel in Wilkes-Barre with the seating charts under your arm?” Turns out they were crime commission agents who had been in van across the street from the hotel the night of the dinner, taking pictures of who was attending, and got a big laugh out of watching me take the seating charts and run as if my life depended on it.

Bufalino died in 1994, but his influence is still being felt. They did approve slot machines in Pennsylvania two years ago, and the person who got the license in the Poconos was an influential Scranton businessman named Louis DeNaples. He has since been indicted on perjury charges for allegedly not revealing his past relationship with Bufalino. A Scranton Roman Catholic priest who was identified as an advisor to DeNaples has also been charged with perjury for lying about his alleged relationship with Bufalino and is in jail.

Old mob bosses may die, but they don’t fade away. All this may indeed qualify me as a friend of Michael’s, so I will certainly respond, because I don’t want Michael Franzese to think I said no.

NOTE: I will be on The Sports Reporters today (Thursday) on Sportstalk 980-AM from 5 to 7 p.m.

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