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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is the Mob Now As Laughable As Reality TV Makes It Seem? We Ask an FBI Agent

VH1's Mob Wives.
VH1's Mob Wives

Special Agent George Khouzami helped coordinate the sweeping FBI mafia takedown in New York this past January — which then became a plot point on Mob Wives, VH1's hit show about the wives and daughters of Mafiosos. (Think Real Housewives with Staten Island accents and rap sheets.) With its jokey gunshot sound effects and surveillance-camera intros, Mob Wives made organized crime look about as serious as Flava Flav's love life. And yet it's deadly serious ... right? With mafia families becoming a reality-TV trend — including Investigation Discovery's I Married a Mobster, premiering tonight — we asked Agent Khouzami about the current state of the mafia and how the wiseguys we've seen on TV and film compare to the real deal.
All these reality-TV shows about mafia family members make the mob seem almost cartoonish, not something to be taken seriously anymore. What do actual mobsters think of these shows?
Based on my knowledge, the mob looks at these TV shows as a mockery of what they do. I certainly don't think that they're proud of having these shows. Without speaking for Anthony Graziano, who I believe is the father of one of the girls in the VH1 show [Renee Graziano], I imagine that he's probably beside himself over what his daughter is doing.
During the reunion special, I believe Renee said her father refuses to watch the show.
I think that's something you should bet on. I think she's probably gonna get a mouthful from him when he gets out.
On that show, they talk a lot about the "mafia lifestyle,” this glamorous Staten Island life of extravagance. Is there such a thing?
The mafia lifestyle for the spouse, or for the actual mafioso?
What's the difference?
Well, I think the mafia spouse is — from our perspective, we believe that she certainly knows what's going on, she knows what her husband is into, she's certainly reaping the benefits of what he's into by not having a job of her own, by driving beautiful luxury vehicles, by having the nicest of clothing, the Gucci bags. So they're all reaping the benefits, but they all have this ability at the end of the day to say, "I don't know what my husband is into.”
Mob Wives seemed to reinforce this idea — that, frankly, I got from The Sopranos — of all mafia guys having this secret life separate from their wives, which includes girlfriends. Do all mob guys secretly cheat on their wives?
Yes and no. They certainly all do have their girlfriends on the side. But most of these spouses know that there's a woman on the side, and they don't necessarily have to put up with it. That's some more evidence for you that the financial benefits that they reap from being mafia wives, it's all worth it to them. Because a lot of them may not know 100 percent, but they all certainly have a good idea that their spouses have girlfriends. And they're willing to put up with that. They're willing to live day to day with the fact that Tuesday nights are girlfriend nights. For some of these guys, it's that bad: Every Tuesday and Friday night, that's the girlfriend's night, and every Saturday and Monday night, that's the wife's night.
So what about the kids? On Growing Up Gotti, Victoria Gotti's sons seem eager to cash in on the fact that they're Gottis. Do kids see this as a benefit, are they generally in the dark?
I do believe that most real wiseguys keep their children out of it. I do think that in the case of the Gotti kids, they may be doing and have done street-level stuff that really any kid may have participated in growing up. You certainly didn't need to be the son or grandson of a mobster to be involved in smoking pot or doing some shoplifting. But look, like any normal human being, they're trying to cash in on some moneymaking endeavors, and I think in their minds, going into entertainment was the way to go. But I'm not sure how promising of a career they have going forward; I'm not sure that Growing Up Gotti was the best of reality shows.
On Real Housewives of New Jersey, there's that guy Danny Provenzano who would periodically come by to make threats and brag about his mafia connections. Is a guy like him putting himself at risk by doing that?
I certainly think that he carries the same risk that a lot of these cooperating witnesses carry. Sammy [“The Bull” Gravano]’s daughter [Karen, on Mob Wives] carries as equal if not greater a risk than Provenzano, just simply because there are plenty of people who are furious about what Sammy did twenty years ago [he snitched on the mob]. For Sammy's daughter to now reap some benefits from her dad betraying — in their world — their mafia family, I think that probably puts her at more of a risk. And again, not only are these people still wanting to retaliate against Sammy because he went bad on them, but to add insult to injury, she's on TV, she' s writing a book.
Let's talk about The Sopranos for a minute. The Sopranos sort of portrayed the mob as a dying organization, not like it was in the old days. How accurate was that portrayal of the New Jersey–New York mafia?
When people say "the mob is dead," I think that's an inaccurate statement. It's certainly less than what you experienced in the sixties and seventies. The way of doing business from the mob's perspective has changed dramatically, and I think some people confuse that with the idea that the mob is dying. It's still rabid, strong, and alive; I just think the days of easily charging the mob — those days are over, because people are engaged in more sophisticated crimes. Their level of concealment as it relates to financial-type fraud and health-care fraud and all the other, the different complex crimes that they're involved in, it's just made it harder for us to track them. So it appears as if it's not as big of a problem, but certainly the mob is still there, and they're still very strong. Their hierarchy is well-established, and it's been established for decades, so it's very easy to replace somebody. When we arrest a high-ranking captain, the next day somebody's there to fill that person's shoes.
So what crimes are the mob likely to be involved in now that they wouldn't have been involved in twenty years ago?
We've had numerous cases that illustrate their involvement in the stock market. They're infiltrating the financial sector a lot more than they did twenty or thirty years ago. The days of "give me a thousand dollars or I'm gonna break your legs" explicitly stated to someone and captured on tape, I think, are over. The forms of extorting individuals are now concealed in inflated invoices, they're concealed in control of high-level executives at companies.
How many times have you seen The Godfather?
Probably five or six.
I think that's still the touchstone for most people when it comes to the mafia. Is that film more fantasy or reality, in terms of how the mob operated in the seventies?
I think it's more reality. In the seventies, the Sicilian mafia in Italy was not a force to reckon with. And I think the slayings in that movie are a very accurate depiction of how life really was back then. Some people still argue that the Sicilian mafia is still, to an extent, more like they were twenty years ago [than other mafia]. They're certainly more intimidating and more violent than the New York–based families. So I would think it's probably more reality than not, as it relates to the seventies. But now I have to go back and watch The Godfather. It's been a few years.
How about The Sopranos?
The Sopranos sort of depicted a quasi-realistic life of the mafia in the tri-state area. I think that was a fairly accurate depiction; I think some of it was a bit of a stretch, but most of it was pretty accurate — the girlfriends, the extortion, the back-stabbing, the murders. The characters were pretty good depictions of your average mafia person.
So you felt that those were guys that you had met?
Yeah. I mean, look, a mafia guy is a man with quite a personality. Most of them are very professional and cordial with us. Most of them respect what we do and what we're trying to do, and they understand that when and if they get caught, it's the cost of doing business.
So there's actually some respect between the police and the mob?
I certainly believe that that exists, certainly with the older mafia. Some of the new generation mafia kids probably lack a little bit of that professionalism and respect, but for the most part the mafia does carry itself in a very professional and respectful manner towards law enforcement.



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