Mob Allegations Tail Tow Truckers in City Hall Bribery Scandal

Mob Allegations Tail Tow Truckers in City Hall Bribery Scandal

The prosecutions of former Adams aide Eric Ulrich and associates spotlight corruption in an industry DAs say is infiltrated by the Mafia — and where the NYPD calls the shots.

Greg B. Smith, The City

Logo for THE CITYThis article was originally published on by THE CITY

  • Republished with Permission: The Roosevelt Island Daily News

  • Tow trucks sat behind tall metal fence at Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing in East New York, Brooklyn.
    Tow trucks sat behind a tall metal fence at Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing in East New York. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

    A Brooklyn tow company owner who raised big bucks for Mayor Eric Adams and faces bribery charges tied to his interactions with a former top mayoral aide has been enmeshed in scandals dating back 25 years — including one in which prosecutors alleged his company was controlled by the Genovese crime family.

    Last month Michael Mazzio, 54, was indicted on charges of bribing Eric Ulrich, while Ulrich was a top aide to Adams. In exchange for cash and Mets tickets, prosecutors allege that Ulrich got Mazzio access to Adams’ chief advisor, Ingrid Lewis-Martin, and snagged him a sit-down dinner with the mayor himself.

    Before that, Mazzio and his company, Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing, had turned up in the middle of two scandals that highlight a longstanding effort by the towing industry to corrupt the system New York City uses to regulate who gets to tow disabled vehicles.

    Mike’s Heavy Duty first emerged in a 1998 lawsuit alleging the city’s system for regulating which companies are permitted to tow vehicles off of city highways was corrupt. And Mazzio and his company were indicted in a 2018 case that included allegations of Mafia control of New York’s towing industry.

    That case was still pending in August 2021 when Mazzio co-hosted the fundraiser at Russo’s on the Bay that raised $140,490 for Adams’ mayoral campaign, and on Dec. 27, 2021, when Mazzio had a private dinner with Adams a week before he took office.

    It also remained unresolved throughout 2021, when prosecutors say Mazzio was bribing Ulrich and communicating with Adams’ chief advisor, Lewis-Martin, about reinstating his license, getting work towing vehicles stuck on highways during snow storms, and revoking the highway permit of a rival firm, Runway Towing.

    Months after that meeting, Runway’s permit was terminated, despite a judge’s finding that that punishment was too severe and disproportionate to the alleged overcharging infractions leveled against the firm.

    Asked whether the mayor was aware of the allegations regarding organized crime involvement in Mazzio’s company, Charles Lutvak, a spokesperson for Adams, said “Mayor Adams meets with New Yorkers every day and had no knowledge of Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing’s ownership structure or this one individual’s alleged relationships until The City reached out.”

    Mazzio had long depended on the good graces of city government, granting him the permits that have allowed him to thrive as a major towing industry player for decades. 

    Behind the scenes, this sometimes pugilistic industry has been plagued by mob infiltration. As the then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. put it in a 2018 case filed against Mazzio and 10 other tow companies and their affiliated auto body shops, “The New York City towing industry is influenced by organized crime.”

    Brooklyn tow truck company owner Michael Mazzio was arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court on bribery charges connected to indicted former Department of Buildings commissioner Eric Ulrich.
    Brooklyn tow truck company owner Michael Mazzio was arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court on bribery charges connected to indicted former Department of Buildings commissioner Eric Ulrich. | Alex Krales/THE CITY

    The city’s system for regulating the towing of vehicles within its borders has been tainted again and again with allegations of bribery, bid-rigging and general day-to-day corruption.

    This is particularly true regarding the system managed by the NYPD to regulate which companies are granted permits to haul vehicles off highways, parkways, expressways, bridges and tunnels.

    Under what’s known as the Arterial Highway Towing Program, the NYPD awards select companies licensed by the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCPW) the exclusive right to tow vehicles in assigned segments of highways. Tow fees for disabled vehicles are capped at $125 for the first 10 miles, although fees for heavy duty towing of 18-wheelers and other large vehicles are much higher. All fee restrictions are supposed to be followed assiduously.

    The system for designating who gets these permits, however, is unusual. There’s none of the traditional competitive bidding. Instead applicants seek a permit from a small committee appointed by the NYPD that reviews applications and assigns segments to companies based on a point system. The committee relies on interviews but does not always interview every applicant.

    In 2017, the NYPD began suggesting that, in addition to the base fee they’re required to pay, applicants should also pay the department an unspecified “vendor proposed percentage” of the fees they collect for highway towing. One vendor who declined to make such a payment was rejected and alleged that the NYPD only awarded permits to tow companies that kicked in this extra lucre.

    For the last two weeks the NYPD has refused to provide THE CITY with a list of the companies currently holding highway towing permits or to reveal how much they’ve collected in fees and “vendor proposed percentage” over the last two years. The city comptroller, who reviews and registers all contracts with city agencies, has no information about who is doing this work and how much the companies are paying the NYPD for these permits.

    Weiner Party

    This system is extremely lucrative for the companies, but it also puts vehicle owners in a vulnerable spot: they have no choice about who’s going to tow their vehicle and, more often than not, the vehicles wind up in storage lots or auto body shops controlled by the towing companies.

    That often results in consumers getting hit with hundreds to thousands of dollars in illegal fees without explanation, along with storage fees that grow when the companies delay giving owners access to their vehicles. The DCWP has hit tow companies with hundreds of violations for overcharging in the last decade.

    Questions about the integrity of this system date back to 1996, when Mazzio incorporated Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing, just as the NYPD reopened the application process for highway segments. NYPD had been brought in to co-manage the program with the city Department of Transportation after allegations of corruption had surfaced with DOT.

    But the move to the NYPD was no cure-all. In the first round of permits, four tow companies that had been assigned nearly all the highway segments for decades were rejected and replaced by nine companies that had little experience doing that work. One of those firms was the newly incorporated Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing.

    In 1998 one of the rejected firms, Midtown Enterprises, filed a lawsuit charging that the NYPD’s system for picking companies was “fraught with irregularities and illegal, criminal corruption.” Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Emily Jane Goodman ordered the NYPD to pause awarding any more highway tow assignments until the litigation could be resolved.

    The suit noted that Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing got the section of the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway (Segment 7) that Midtown had patrolled for years, and alleged that all the winning applicants were connected to Norman Teitler, a disbarred attorney convicted of insurance fraud who’d formed something called the Metropolitan New York Towing and Auto Body Association.

    At the time, Teitler and his association were pressuring tow truck company owners to make campaign donations to then-City Councilmember Anthony Weiner, who was preparing his first run for Congress. In an October 16, 1997, letter, Teitler implored the owners to attend an Oct. 22 fundraiser at a Sheepshead Bay beach club, making clear their donation was meant to gain political support for their financial interests.

    “If the fundraiser is not a success, and without everyone contributing and making the effort to attend, there will be no rate increase,” he wrote, referencing the rate the city allowed companies to charge per tow.

    Federal election records show Friends of Anthony Weiner received 10 donations totaling $5,150 between the date of the letter and the fundraiser, including $250 from Teitler. None of the donors except Teitler listed their employer or occupation.

    The owners of two other tow companies said Teitler approached them during the application process and said if they paid him $10,000 in cash, Teitler would “guarantee” they’d get “several” arterial highway permits from the NYPD, Midtown’s suit alleged. One owner said Teitler made clear that if he didn’t make such a payment, he would not get a permit, the suit also alleged.

    The suit also highlighted Carl Fava, a man the NYPD and FBI have identified as a soldier in the Genovese crime family. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has alleged that for years, Fava and a second reputed Genovese soldier, George Coppolino, illegally brokered agreements and mediated disputes within the New York City towing industry.

    Prosecutors alleged that Fava had a financial interest in several tow firms — including Mike’s Heavy Duty Towing. (Lutvak said the mayor “is not familiar with Carl Fava.”)

    Allegations of the Genovese crime family’s involvement in the towing industry have surfaced in other cases as well.

    In a December 2001 case, an acting Genovese capo, Pasquale Parrello, and two of his associates allegedly took control of a Bronx towing company, an indictment by the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney alleged.

    In a March 2001 case, an FBI informant described a physical altercation involving two tow truck companies controlled by two different Mafia families: one headed by alleged Genovese capo Salvatore “Sammy Meatballs” Aparo, the other by Joe Saunders Cammarano, a reputed gangster with the Bonanno family. A fight ensued, cars were damaged and one of the participants was almost killed, the informant said.

    An accusation about Fava’s comfort with employing violence emerged in the Midtown lawsuit. The co-owner of another towing company that Fava “controlled” feared he wouldn’t be approved for a highway permit and wanted to withdraw the application. In response, Fava stated if he did, he would “break your face. You’ll get the highway.”

    At one point as the NYPD was considering applications for highway permits in 1997, Fava discussed the permit selection with an NYPD chief who has “input into the selection process” for permits during dinner at the Marco Polo Restaurant in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, according to Midtown’s lawsuit.

    Marco Polo Ristorante in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
    Marco Polo Ristorante in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

    Fava picked up the tab at Marco Polo in cash, the suit alleged. At the time, Marco Polo was owned by Joseph Chirico, an alleged Gambino family soldier.

    Guilty Plea

    In 2018 Fava, Teitler and Mazzio all came together publicly in an indictment brought by Manhattan DA Vance that alleged pervasive corruption throughout the city’s towing industry. The indictments described a wide variety of criminal activity, including drivers beating up rivals and damaging their trucks. In Mazzio’s case, the charges focused exclusively on his longtime participation — stemming back to the allegations that emerged in the 1998 lawsuit — in the NYPD’s arterial highway towing program.

    Under the NYPD’s highway towing program, tow companies assigned to segments of highway are not allowed to subcontract the work to other companies. The DA charged that reputed mob soldier Fava brokered a deal in which another tow truck company owner, Daniel Steininger, paid Mazzio $20,000 by quarter plus a percent of the insurance claims they collected to haul away vehicles on highway sections where Mazzio had NYPD-awarded permits.

    Mazzio was charged with false filing and a conspiracy to monopolize the towing industry and had his tow truck company license revoked (a revocation he’s still fighting in court). Teitler was charged with coordinating with Fava to determine which companies would get which specific highway segments.

    In 2021 Teitler pleaded guilty to filing a false instrument first degree. Fava did the same the next year, and both were sentenced to three years of conditional discharge during which time they could not do business with the city. Teitler’s attorney, Todd Greenberg, declined comment. Fava’s lawyer, Andrew Leider, did not respond to a request for comment.

    Tow trucks on the lot at Mike’s Duty Towing in East New York, Brooklyn.
    Tow trucks on the lot at Mike’s Duty Towing in East New York, Brooklyn. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

    Last week Mazzio entered his own guilty plea in the 2018 case, admitting to one count of attempted agreement in restraint of trade, a class A misdemeanor. He was sentenced to conditional discharge. He was fined $1,000 and his tow truck company, Mike’s Heavy Duty, agreed to pay a $5,000 fine. Mazzio’s lawyer, James Froccaro, declined comment.

    Midtown’s lawsuit went to trial but in 1999 Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Paula J. Omansky, dismissed the case after a week of testimony.

    “I’ve been practicing law for 40 years,” said Brian Sokoloff of the law firm Sokoloff Stern LLP, the lawyer who represented Midtown Enterprises. “It remains the most surprising defeat of my career. The evidence we put before the court was overwhelming. It was shocking.”

    After the bribery case against Mazzio, Ulrich and five others was announced, the Adams’ campaign has said they intend to refund donations connected to Mazzio. On Friday Evan Thies, the campaign’s spokesperson, said told THE CITY “the Mazzio contributions are in the process of being returned to (Campaign Finance Board) CFB.” The Ulrich bribery case is now pending before Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Daniel Conviser, with the next court appearance set for Oct. 23.

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