Mob probes hit a hurdle

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Months after announcing criminal charges against dozens of reputed Gambino crime family members and associates, Labor Department investigators fear a Bush administration legal opinion could make it harder to investigate organized crime.

The department’s inspector general, Gordon S. Heddell, is questioning Labor Department lawyers over a legal opinion saying his office doesn’t have “exclusive authority” to investigate organized crime and racketeering, according to Labor Department documents.

“OIG investigations may be subject to interference by the department and clear congressional intent … will be undercut,” Mr. Heddell said in a newly disclosed report to Congress, adding that his office has had “a unique programmatic responsibility to investigate labor racketeering and organized crime” since 1978.

“Congress recognized the need to place the labor racketeering investigative function in an independent law-enforcement office, free from political interference and competing priorities,” he said.

But the department’s top attorney, Solicitor of Labor Gregory F. Jacob, called Mr. Heddell’s report “at best highly misleading” in a recent memo to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao.

Mr. Jacob, nominated to the post in September by President Bush, said the law gives the Labor Department - not just the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) - the authority to conduct organized-crime investigations.

The dispute is raising concerns in Congress.

“We have been in contact with the inspector general and the Department of Labor on the concerns that the IG has raised,” said Aaron Albright, spokesman for the House Education and Labor Committee. “Labor racketeering investigations should be conducted in an independent manner and be removed from any appearance of being politicized.

“We will continue to monitor the situation,” he said.

Experts say the situation suggests a possible “turf battle” between the Labor Department and Mr. Heddell’s office, which has investigated numerous high-profile mob cases in recent years. Neither side would comment on the disagreement.

“It sounds to me like a tempest in a teapot,” said Frank C. Razzano, civil editor for the RICO LAW Reporter and a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. “Federal agencies often have overlapping jurisdictions to investigate. It may not always be a very effective system, and it’s certainly very onerous on the people who get investigated.”

Ethan S. Burger, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a corporate crime scholar, said the inspector general’s office could be concerned about outside leaks if too many people are involved in its investigations.

“It’s hard to know what’s going on without anybody on the inside talking, but if the OIG is concerned about things being leaked or communicated to different parties, then you’ve got a concern,” Mr. Burger said.

An independent watchdog arm of the Labor Department, Mr. Heddell’s office played a major role in several high-profile mafia prosecutions over the past year.

The biggest case, also investigated by the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and other federal and state agencies, resulted in charges against more than 60 reputed members and associates of the Gambino crime family in New York. The investigation uncovered loan sharking, embezzlement and killings spanning more than 30 years, officials said.

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