Feds Steer Big Mafia Case to Government-Friendly Judge

Federal mob prosecutors in Brooklyn have started out their big new Mafia takedown case with some heavy spin, just as they did in a similar situation back in 2008. Court records show that the office of U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch has steered the massive new Colombo family indictment to a decidedly pro-government judge, rather than relate it to a less friendly jurist where it seems to belong, or accept a random court assignment.

Defense lawyers are claiming foul, but as things stand, the indictment of Andrew Russo is tentatively assigned to Judge Sandra Townes, based on a fairly weak assertion by a designated hitter for Lynch that the charges are related to a labor racketeering case that was filed last year against Michael Persico and eight others, including his cousin, Theodore (Skinny Teddy) Persico Jr.

Actually, the Colombo case, which charges 22 defendants with racketeering conspiracy, has nothing to do with the earlier labor racketeering charges. What they do have in common, however, is Teddy Persico, who is charged with two relatively minor extortion counts in the new mobapalooza filed last month. And that is reason enough for the case to be sent to Townes, says Lynch.

The U.S. Attorney conveniently skips over the fact that, just five days before the Colombo case was indicted, her office obtained a racketeering indictment against an alleged member of the same Colombo family enterprise, Walter Samperi, who was arrested in Italy in the big FBI takedown against the mob. What's more, five Colombo case defendants, including Andrew Russo, are charged with trying to extort $150,000 from rival gangsters who stabbed Samperi last year in a dispute between thugs.

Prosecutors used Russo's taped conversations about the stabbing to detain him as a dangerous felon, citing his criticisms of family wiseguys for not getting even with the dastardly Gambinos before trying to wrangle money from them to pay for Samperi's medical expenses. Samperi, an Italian citizen who is confined to a wheelchair, was reduced to fleeing to the home country to obtain free medical treatment.

So why didn't prosecutors tentatively assign the case to the judge in the Samperi case, Frederic Block? Nobody's saying so for the record, but the smart money on Cadman Plaza has it that Block's reputation for being somewhat more exacting on prosecutors is one reason. Another is that Townes has shown a sympathetic ear to prosecutors' arguments such as last year when she agreed with the government that Michael Persico was a danger to the community and had him remanded for two months. The ruling was later roundly criticized and reversed by an appeals court.

"It's obvious what happened," said one defense lawyer. "They rolled the dice with Samperi, didn't like what came up, so they related the case to Townes."

A spokesman for Lynch, who was U.S. Attorney from 1999 to 2001 and took over that role again last May, declined to answer any questions about the matter.

There's no question that prosecutors prefer Townes over Block. In 2009, prosecutors sought - unsuccessfully - to transfer the sentencing of a mobster charged with violating his supervised release from Block to Townes.

Three years ago, after prosecutors under Lynch's predecessor, Benton Campbell, used specious arguments to relate a 62-defendant Gambino family indictment, Chief Judge Raymond Dearie issued an administrative order that made the practice of relating cases an adversarial one that could be contested by opposing parties as well as the judge.

Defense lawyer Joseph Corozzo, who represents Teddy Persico in the labor racketeering case, said he is not sure whether he will represent him in the Colombo case. But Corozzo, who has another client in the case, is likely to contest the government's push for Townes.

"Judge or forum shopping is a very serious issue," said Corozzo. "Anytime one side manipulates the system to choose a judge, it creates the appearance of impropriety. It's something that needs to be addressed, and it will be addressed in the proper forum."

Last week, Gerald McMahon, an attorney in a companion case that prosecutors also "related" to Townes, challenged the move during a status conference. Lawyers in the Colombo case are esxpected to file their own challenge this week.