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NEWS     3-22-99
Al Guart, New York Crime JournalistOrganized Crime Reporter -Al Guart

Al Guart is a crime journalist and reporter from the New York Post. Al's coverage includes terrorism and organized crime. This is one in a series of regular columns by him, exclusively for AmericanMafia.com.

WE GOTTI NO PHONE CARDS

By Al Guart
     Picture a plane that’s lost an engine, is low on fuel and is headed for a mountain. The pilot yells ``Dump some cargo’’ in hopes elevating the aircraft in a hurry. That’s what happened in the racketeering case against John A. ``Junior”’ Gotti two weeks ago. With three weeks to go before Gotti’s racketeering trial, the feds opted to toss out phone card fraud charges.

     In sum, Gotti, 35, was charged with putting worthless pre-paid calling cards on the street.

     From the pilot’s point of view, the phone card end of the case was dead wood. As the new lead prosecutor put it mildly in a March 11 letter, ``the defense has shared with us substantial concerns regarding at least one victim of the alleged fraud as well as other information that focuses on certain aspects of the government’s theory.’’

     For those wondering what that means, consider this: The unnamed ``victim’’ was MCI. But calling MCI a victim is like saying Don King loses money promoting boxing matches. It turns out the telecommunications giant is under a federal microscope in Atlanta for allegedly ripping off some of the very people charged in the Gotti case.

      Last month, MCI financial manager James Wilkie IV pleaded guilty in Atlanta to wire fraud charges and began cooperating with federal probe into an alleged $30 million rip-off.

     The scheme involved securing $15 million in bank loans through deceit and diverting much of the money to accounts in the Cayman Islands. Wilkie admitted he stole at least $2 million.

      But it gets better. It turns out MCI had another scheme in which it ripped off ``resellers,’’ or firms that bought phone time wholesale, by charging them for a minute of access only five seconds after calls were placed.

     But ``re-sellers’’ like Cy Young winner Dennis McLain, who was indicted with Gotti, were charging their customers after their calls were connected. So, firms like McClain’s were getting billed when his customers got a busy signal or just hung up. The net effect was that resellers were getting charged millions of dollars more than they were making from their customers. Hell of a way to run an airline.

     Now Gotti was near the bottom of that food chain, buying time from resellers and putting out pre-paid phone cards. As he told me outside court, ``I was a victim. I lost a lot of money on that deal.’’ Given what MCI is accused of, a jury might have agreed.

     Thus, it turns out the ``aspects’’ of the ``government’s theory’’ have to do with mistakenly portraying MCI as a victim in the first place.

     With the phone card case goes some of my favorite taped evidence. One was a discussion in which Gotti discusses California and ``Boston.’’ And another in which a Gotti protege said he wanted to name a new phone card ``something catchy.’’ The prosecution had claimed Gotti really said ``bustin’ ‘’ (presumably a crime) and that ``catchy’’ was a reference to a mobster’s nickname.

     That leaves behind charges that Gotti ran the Gambino crime family, extorted money from a topless club and construction firms, and robbed a drug dealer at gunpoint.

     Rather than run the risk of crashing into a mountain of evidence that would make Gotti and others look like good guys, the feds wisely tossed the phone card case overboard. With discredited witnesses, villains mistaken for victims and a prosecutor booted for leaking information to the press, it’s been one long, turbulent ride. Last week, a judge restarted the government’s stalled engine by keeping all the evidence in the case. Maybe now they can get the case to fly right.


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