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FBI agent: Life in the mob a boring, money-grubbing grind

By GEORGE LOBSENZ

WASHINGTON -- An FBI undercover agent who spent six years posing as a Mafia hoodlum said Friday life in the mob was a boring, money-grubbing grind, consisting mainly of hanging around local clubs trying to dream up 'a score.'

Joseph Pistone told a Senate subcommittee that he masqueraded as small-time jewel thief Donnie Brasco and infiltrated the Bonanno Mafia organization of New York City so successfully that they suggested he become a full-fledged soldier in the family.

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He also worked with the Colombo family of New York, the Balistieri family of Milwaukee and the Trafficante organization in Florida.

His assignment ended when he was ordered to kill another mobster during a 'shooting war' between two Bonanno factions fighting for control of the family.

'The FBI felt -- and so did I -- that it was a good time to get out because everyone was being killed,' Pistone told the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, testifying from behind a screen to prevent the mob from seeing his face, which was altered by plastic surgery after he left the mob.

Pistone appeared at the fourth in a series of hearings being held by the subcommittee to evaluate the success of the government's war on organized crime.

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When he left the underworld, Pistone said he testified in more than 10 trials and many more grand juries, resulting in more than 200 indictments and 100 convictions of mobsters nationwide.

He also learned that because of his infiltration of the Bonanno family, the New York Mafia families have reinstituted an old prerequisite for mob membership -- that a prospective 'wiseguy' kill somebody.

But Pistone said the actual day-to-day life of mob members was far removed from the thrill-packed existence portrayed in movies like 'The Godfather.'

'One thing I will never forget from my six years with them is the daily grind of trying to make 'a score' that they face from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they go to sleep at night,' he said.

During the day, Pistone said he would go to the local club or restaurant where his 'crew' hung out and plot various money-making schemes. At night, if not out pulling a score, his crew would hit nightclubs or restaurants popular with 'wiseguys' and plan new scores or reminisce about old ones.

'This routine never changed,' he said. 'The mob was their job as well as their whole life. What they did for a living was on their minds far more than it is with ordinary 'straight' citizens.'

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While mob members occasionally pulled off a big score -- such as a drug deal -- Pistone said he was somewhat surprised to learn that gambling was the main source of income for the Mafia, with a single bookmaking operation capable of generating tens of thousands of dollars each week.

'I must admit I did not fully understand the importance of gambling to the organized crime family before I went undercover,' he said. 'It is the blood that pumps through the veins of the system 365 days of the year. It keeps the organization alive when other, more lucrative, scores fail.'

Pistone said while recent prosecutions of top mobsters had clearly hurt the Mafia, the mob would never be eradicated unless society took a harder line against illegal gambling and law enforcement made it stick.

More broadly, he said mob members live by a perverse moral code under which lying, stealing, cheating and killing are considered 'legitimate.'

'They do not view themselves as morally reprehensible,' he said. 'Coming from a subculture where crime is acceptable, where their elders, friends and neighbors view criminal behavior as 'normal' or even 'honorable,' these men would take issue with being called criminals or gangsters.'

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For example, Pistone said gang members felt little compunction about killing longtime friends if it was necessary for 'business.'

'If someone did wrong in that society and the punishment was death, you killed him,' he said. 'It was just a part of business. It's no different in their mind from someone getting arrested and sent to the electric chair.'

He said the Mafia subculture extended to the neighborhoods where mobsters lived. 'Whether from fear or respect, the neighbors protect the wiseguys from police surveillance. The wiseguys in return will help out the neighborhood by ensuring that no 'disorganized', or street, crime operates in the area.'

While confident on their own turf, Pistone said most wiseguys were pathetically unsophisticated once removed from their familiar routine.

'I had to school them on how to make airline reservations,' he said. 'I'm talking about a 49-year-old man.'

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