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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Buffalo labor leader details life as an FBI informant

Ron Fino lived a dangerous double life as business manager of Laborers Local 210 and a secret FBI informant. (Photo by Derek Gee / Buffalo News)
As Ronald M. Fino looks back on his life as a Buffalo labor leader, organized crime associate and FBI informant, he admits that, yes, he has one real regret.

It isn't that he spent 17 years working as a secret FBI informer while serving as the business manager and chief spokesman for a Buffalo laborers union that was then dominated by the mob.

He doesn't regret that he turned away from old friends and family members when he left Buffalo 23 years ago. He says one of the reasons he did was to protect his family from danger.

And he doesn't regret that he spent more than a decade after that as a paid government witness, helping the FBI investigate the Mafia nationwide and helping the U.S. Justice Department to remove organized crime cronies from the Laborers International Union of North America.

It's how he did all that that bothers him.

"I don't regret what I did, but I regret how I went about it," Fino, now 66, told The Buffalo News during a recent visit to Buffalo. "If I had to do it all over again, I would have applied to become an actual FBI agent and tried to attack these problems through the courts and the field of law enforcement."

For years, Fino had secret meetings with federal agents, telling them about Buffalo's Mafia, and how its leaders used the union as their power base. He even helped the FBI install a hidden camera and listening devices in the old Laborers Local 210 union hall on Franklin Street, giving the agents a set of keys and telling them the best spots to plant the bugs.

Despite that, Fino insists he is not the thing that all mobsters despise.

"I'm not a rat," Fino said. "A rat is someone who turns informant to save himself from prosecution. I didn't do that. I did the things I did because I saw things that were wrong and I tried to fix them. I did it for the little guy who digs ditches and doesn't have mob connections to help him get good job assignments."

Life as a paid government witness and informant has been a long, lonely and uncomfortable road, said Fino, who now works as a private investigator in Virginia and is writing his autobiography.

The public record shows that Fino was one of the government's key sources of information in the investigation that led to a takeover of Laborers' unions all over the country in 1996. It also shows that Fino was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for this work, and that in 1999, he testified as a prosecution witness in a high-profile mob murder trial in Las Vegas.

What cannot be verified by public records are Fino's claims that he spent years in Russia, running an American vodka company while investigating the Russian mob for the Central Intelligence Agency, or that he also assisted the CIA by investigating terrorist groups in Africa and other locations.

"It has not been an easy life," said Fino, who is now married to an artist he met in the Republic of Belarus. "I have lived on the edge for a long time, in dangerous harm's way. If I had stayed in Buffalo and not gone down this path, I think I'd be a millionaire now. I could have made a million dollars just on the snow plowing business I had, with mob connections."

Instead, he said he is now strapped for money.

In addition, his role as an informant cost him many friends and family members in the community where he grew up.

Not surprisingly, some of the people who knew Fino before he left the city in 1989 hold him in very low regard.

"To me, he's a back stabber," said Robert F. Hill, longtime president of Union Concrete in West Seneca. "As far as I could see, Ron did nothing to help Local 210. When he was running the union, he would sometimes send me workers who did very little work. These were people with connections - to Fino and the mob."

Attorney Paul J. Cambria, who has represented Local 210 and at one time Fino, has some mixed feelings.

"On a personal basis, I always liked Ron. But Ron always had some kind of an inside game going that always benefited Ron," Cambria said. "He took all the benefits of whatever associations he had here in Buffalo, and then he turned on the organization that he was a part of. All I can say is, whatever Ron does is to benefit Ron."

During an interview of more than three hours, Fino insisted that he had good intentions when he turned against the union and the Buffalo mob.

He said his decision to go undercover for the FBI was not an easy one, especially because he grew up surrounded by people with close associations with the Mafia. His late father, Joseph Fino, was one of the Buffalo mob's leaders and enforcers for decades.

Fino's tangled life story began on Buffalo's East Side and in West Seneca, where he spent his boyhood.

"Through much of my childhood, my father was in Attica [State Correctional Facility], so I didn't have much contact with him," Fino said. "Later in life, he told me he really didn't want me to be part of the mob."

Many of his childhood role models were black men from his neighborhood, he said, including a man who ran a large, illegal numbers operation.

Thanks to his father's status in the mob, Fino got hired at the age of 18 as a laborer through Local 210. Just seven years later, at age 25, he was named a business agent, taking one of the union's top leadership posts. In 1973, he was elected as business manager, the top position in Local 210.

Outspoken and politically well-connected, Fino became well-known to Western New Yorkers in the late 1970s and 1980s. During that time, Fino lived a dangerous double life known only to a handful of people.

Publicly, he defended Local 210, telling people that allegations that the union was dominated by the mob were outrageous and vicious lies.

But privately, for 17 years, he acted as an FBI informant, meeting in secret with federal agents and telling them that their suspicions about mob ties to the union were exactly right. Meanwhile, every major action he took during his years running Local 210 was done on orders of the Mafia leadership in Buffalo, according to Fino.

Plum jobs and in some cases no-show jobs were routinely doled out to people with mob ties, Fino told the FBI. And he told agents how those who ran afoul of mob leaders could wind up dead.

In March 1980, William "Billy the Kid" Sciolino, a 40-year-old steward for Local 210, was shot dead by a team of masked assassins in broad daylight on a construction site for the Metro Rail line in downtown Buffalo. No arrests were ever made. Some sources close to the case said Sciolino, like Fino, had been working as an informant for the feds.

Fino was one of about 60 local men who were required by prosecutors to provide palm prints and hair samples to detectives investigating the Sciolino murder.

"That was a ruse," Fino said. "The FBI wanted to make sure I was questioned about the murder, like everyone else, so it didn't look like I was getting any kind of special treatment."

On one occasion in the mid-1980s, Fino said a Buffalo mobster saw him in a car in the downtown area, talking with a federal agent. A leader of the Buffalo mob called Fino in for a meeting and began grilling him about it.

"I told him some agents told me to get in their car and started asking me questions," Fino said. "I said I told the agents, 'Call my attorney!' [The mob leader] bought it."

When the feds took control of Local 210 in the 1990s, Fino helped the government establish trusteeships that ran the local and the Laborers International Union of North America, removing most of its leadership. Wearing a hood to conceal his face, he testified before Congress in 1996, accusing laborers union leaders of taking orders from mobsters.

Today, Fino maintains that the government's cleanup of the Laborers international - and of Local 210 - didn't go far enough. While admitting he has no direct information about current wrongdoing in the local, Fino said he is skeptical of the Justice Department's claims that mob influences were totally removed from Local 210 and the Laborers international.

Fino pointed out that, in the 1990s, Sam Capitano, the current business manager of Local 210, was an outspoken critic of efforts to remove mob influences from the Buffalo local.

In March 1995, then serving as a Local 210 steward, Capitano repeatedly told The News the federal government was greatly exaggerating the influence of mobsters on the local. He was a vocal leader of a group that filed a lawsuit, claiming there was absolutely no mob influence on Local 210 and no need for a cleanup.

Yet speaking to The News on Sept. 14 this year, Capitano said he is now convinced that the government takeover was needed and was successful in removing mob influences from the Laborers' leadership.

"We weren't against the reforms. We were against the way the trusteeship was put on us," Capitano said. "The reform plan that was put in place prevents [organized crime] from having any influence in our union...I feel these changes were good and necessary."

Asked about Fino's opinion of Local 210, Capitano said he is "appalled."

"I think he's just trying to sell books," Capitano said of Fino.

Local 210 is now an aggressive but clean union that works hard to represent its members, according to Hill and James C. Logan, who represents 25 area contractors as executive vice president of the Construction Industry Employers Association. Both described Capitano, 46, as a tough but honest labor leader. Two other local contractors reached out to The News to speak in favor of Capitano.

Retired FBI Special Agent John "Jack" McDonnell said he believes the government cleanup of Local 210 and the Laborers - with Fino's help - was a major success. From 2000 until 2006, McDonnell oversaw all of Local 210's operations as a court-appointed liaison officer to the local.

"I know that Ron Fino supplied interesting and accurate information about how unions worked and how organized crime infiltrated Local 210," McDonnell said. "As for Sam Capitano, he was a very active, very vocal union guy who did fight against the takeover. He's an old-style, combative guy, but I have no information that he is involved with the mob."

As a union leader in Buffalo, Fino rubbed shoulders with congressmen, governors and other influential government officials.

The late Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin once called Fino "a fair and honest union leader" and testified as a character witness for Fino at a fraud trial.

Former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, called Fino "a giant of a man" and presented him an award for civil rights contributions.

"I did work hard to bring minorities into Local 210, and I am proud of that," Fino said.

Yet a Buffalo News investigation in 1979 revealed that Fino was a principal in a company called the Onyx Corp., which falsely claimed that it was owned by minorities in order to win millions of dollars in contracts for Metro Rail work. In 1985, Fino pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor fraud charge in that case, and was put on federal probation for two years.

"The whole Onyx case was an FBI sting operation that went wrong," Fino said.

In 1988, Fino left the union and became an executive with a Niagara Falls hazardous waste company. The company was more than $2.6 million in debt when Fino left it - and abruptly moved out of Buffalo - in early 1989. Some of Fino's former partners in the company blamed mismanagement by Fino for the company's demise.

Fino blamed the demise on mobsters who interfered with its operations. He said he moved out of Buffalo, with the FBI's help, because he learned that Buffalo mob leaders had put out a murder contract on his life.

When Fino left town, he left his wife and children behind, and traveling with him was a former Playboy bunny whom Fino had given a job in the hazardous waste firm.

Fino said he had to cut himself off from his family for their safety.

"I don't know any place I can be safe," Fino told The News from a hidden location in February 1989.

If his life was in such danger, how did Fino manage to survive all these years?

He told The News he's had some scary moments, but added that there was never any attempt on his life that he is aware of.

"I think I am still alive because of my close association with the FBI. I went onto the FBI payroll. I helped them with cases. I spoke to groups of FBI agents about organized crime," Fino said. "I believe the FBI made it clear to organized crime people that I was working with them, and if anything happened to me, there would be consequences for them."

Christopher M. Piehota, the agent who currently heads the Buffalo FBI office, wouldn't say much about Fino's claims.

"Mr. Fino has testified on multiple occasions in the Western District of New York, and in other courtrooms throughout the country, regarding his firsthand information about the infiltration of labor unions by organized crime," Piehota said. "Public interest in Mr. Fino's knowledge and credibility can be best assessed by publicly available court proceedings."

In May 1999, the Las Vegas Sun reported that Fino testified as a prosecution witness in the murder conspiracy trial of two Buffalo natives, Robert Panaro and Stephen Cino. The two men were accused of plotting the death of Herbert "Fat Herbie" Blitzstein, and Fino testified about their alleged ties to the Buffalo mob.

Blitzstein, a mob-connected loan shark and bookmaker, was executed by gunfire in his home in 1997.

Jurors acquitted Cino and Panaro of charges related to the murder, but convicted both men of felony conspiracy to commit extortion against Blitzstein. Cino was sentenced to 15 years in prison; Panaro to seven years and six months.

In his News interview, Fino also said that he also provided extensive information to the CIA on a number of occasions, beginning in the late 1960s, when Fino was in his early 20s.

Back then, the CIA had an office in Clarence that was burglarized, and some documents were stolen, Fino said. He said the CIA believed one of the leaders of an anti-government student group at the University at Buffalo was involved.

"I went undercover for them at UB and tried to help them find out who did it," Fino said.

Between 1996 and 2010, Fino said, he worked extensively as a private contractor for the CIA investigating Russian mobsters and black market arms sales.

"I set up a vodka company, and did some work for the CIA," Fino said. "I traveled to Russia at least 80 times."

Fino said he could not be more specific than that about his investigations of the Russian mob, adding that some aspects of the investigations are still ongoing.

"I will tell you the Russian mob is the scariest organization I've ever dealt with," Fino said. "They are entrenched worldwide, including Buffalo, and they are involved in more things than you can possibly imagine ... They are the most powerful crime organization in the world."

In an article in August 2002, the Moscow Times reported that Fino had claimed that a Russian vodka magnate had threatened to have him killed. Fino was quoted as saying an associate of the vodka magnate told him about the threat.

Officials in the CIA's public affairs office in Langley, Va., declined to comment on any of Fino's contentions, or to confirm or deny that he worked for them.

To many people in Buffalo, Fino is a mysterious figure. Even people who like him say they really don't know whether to believe all, part or any of the things he claims.

His former attorney, Cambria, was asked if he will read Fino's book, should it someday be published.

"I don't know if I'll read it or not," Cambria responded. "I can't vouch for his credibility."



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