Michael Franzese: the Mafia interview
Named the 18th-ranking Mafia boss by Fortune magazine in 1986, Michael Franzese eventually decided to leave Cosa Nostra. His father approved a contract on him, and his brother became a government informer, but he survived. Interview.
What kind of business did you run in the 1980s?
I was active in several businesses: car dealerships, restaurants and movies. One day, I was contacted by an insider to set up a gasoline business; we devised a scheme to collect the tax and not pay it. We made $320,000 the first week and up to $10 million per week later. This was the most profitable mob business since Al Capone – we had up to 18 companies in Panama, wholesale licences and sophisticated accounting techniques. The government didn’t notice anything, and if they had, it would have been too late - we were already shutting the company and shifting activities to another. It lasted seven years and would have gone on much longer if my partner had not become an informant. Could it be done again? I believe so, though perhaps not on the same scale. But I’d say you could still make maybe $500,000 a week through a daisy-chain scheme. All you need is a corporate shell and a bank account.
Were you conscious you were running an illegal business, or did you feel like a regular businessman?
I knew I was engaged in illegal activities, but I didn’t have a moral issue with taking tax from the government. The way government throws our money out of the window is appalling. My targets were banks, insurance companies and the government, but not small businesses. I always had big targets.
“We made up to $10 million per week. This was the most profitable mob business since Al Capone”
When did you decide to leave "the Life"?
There were a couple of reasons for that. Back in the early 1980s the US courts were sending people to jail for 150 years. In my mind it was clear that I would get at least 200. I had met my wife while shooting a movie in Florida, and I didn’t want to see her only in the prison visitors’ room. Meanwhile, I had the Russians in my pocket, and people in my own family were getting nervous about me trying to take control. I was called for a meeting by the Colombo family, and let me tell you, I was really scared going there. I wasn’t sure I would be coming back.
In retrospect, did you really have a choice, or was it just a survival reflex?
I think it was survival. I knew that if I remained active, I would get killed or end in jail for life. There were so many informants and new technology. I was a major target, so it was only a matter of time.
Isn’t being a public speaker the most dangerous career you could have chosen?
Things have gone better. I’ve outlived almost everyone. The boss of my family is doing life, and so is his son. Everybody else is dead or in jail. The new guys? I don’t go near their territory, that would be stupid. I’m 67 years old. One of the main reasons I’m still alive is that I didn’t testify: I didn’t hurt anyone. The government subpoenaed me against someone – I refused to comply and went to jail as a result for violation of parole. That took a lot of heat off me.
Was the legal system unfair to your father, John Franzese?
Absolutely. My father was innocent in the case for which he was convicted for and spent 38 years in jail. He was framed. We proved it, but the conviction was never overturned. People say he got away with other stuff, but that is not how the justice system works. That kind of thinking risks anarchy. It’s how the system works for everyone. My family was destroyed by the case.
Was it fair to you?
I went to trial four times and each time – including against then US attorney Rudy Giuliani – I was acquitted, or the case was dismissed. In the final case I pleaded guilty and served my time.
What’s it like to work with top lawyers?
I don’t have a very high opinion of them. You have to do the work alongside them. My father never wanted to be involved in the preparation work and was convicted. When I went to trial, I fought hard, hired investigators, and I think that’s why I was acquitted. You pay your lawyers big money, but the government has all the power. I had a good understanding of the law. It is like negotiation. You need to be active, even if you are innocent. In my case, my life was at stake.
Is there a moral code within the Mafia?
Yes, there is. It is built on secrecy. We take an oath of omerta, which is built on respect for children, women and one another. For example, we don’t accuse one another of lies, even if we know that the other person is lying. Originally it was a code of honour, but money and power corrupt the highest standards, even when the principle is good. There was a reason why Cosa Nostra prospered in the US for 100 years. The cops were after us, but we had discipline and structure. We infiltrated the White House, trade unions, the streets, politicians and major corporations. We had tremendous influence. It worked really well until the 1960s, when omerta was broken by money and corruption. Even though it became corrupted, it remains a good ideal.
How did you react when you heard that your father approved a contract on you?
My father asked me to become part of Cosa Nostra, so he was responsible for me. You need to understand that ‘the life’ comes before everything: if your mother is dying and you get a call, you go. So, when the word went out that I was becoming an informer, I doubt that my father would have pulled the trigger, but he went along with it. It doesn’t mean that he loved me less, though at the time it hurt.
What about your younger brother,John Franzese junior,who sent your father to jail and went into the witness protection programme?
He had a drug problem and started co-operating with the government in the early 2000s. I didn’t trust him, and I told my father to be careful. He tried to get me in trouble, too. I still love him, but I knew he was weak, and I probably won’t see him again.
How could you run companies without being noticed?
I had an auto dealership that was perfectly legitimate and a film production company that was partly so. I filed my taxes, but there was always something in the background, like gambling and loans. People have this idea that we sit in private clubs and identify targets, but it rarely happens like that. We had 750 ‘made guys’ on the streets and thousands of soldiers, but typically, it was legitimate people who contacted us to help defraud their company and protect their interests – people from General Motors, or from GE’s leasing company. When you are part of the life, anyone outside is a ‘sucker’. It doesn’t matter whether he’s the president of the United States or a banker, we simply focused on how to take advantage of him.
What is the mix of legal and illegal activities in corporate America?
I believe most of it is legal, but I’d say there are two exceptions: first, the lobbying business, where you pay people to get an advantage, and Wall Street, where lots of crimes are committed, rules are violated, and people get rich really fast. That’s the nature of Wall Street.
You wrote the book, "I'll Make You an offer you can't refuse". What can businessmen learn from the mob?
My book is about two ways to do business, as Machiavelli or as Solomon. Machiavelli is the book that mob guys read in jail: how the adviser takes control of the prince, how the end justifies the means. But I found the Book of Proverbs attributed to King Solomon brilliant – it basically shows an honest way to achieve success.
Did John Gotti destroy everything?
He was a friend, and I still know his family. We had our issues here and there, and he did damage to the life with his public persona. There are 2,000 hours of tape-recordings in the Gotti case in which he names people. This put a lot of people under scrutiny. That hurts, but that’s how he was. If you consider that a good boss is someone who protects his family and people, he was not a good boss.
Did Joe Pistone (Tony Brasco) break the mystique?
He was very successful. I knew Sonny and Lefty who were working with him. He put more than 100 guys in jail, not counting the people who left the life and ratted. He was a money-maker and, obviously, we didn’t do our homework. After that, there was no more parole and we were looking at 20 years for one count, and 40 years for two. A lot of informants were created, and the government won.
How do you view Rudy Giuliani today?
I am surprised. My impression of him as a prosecutor was that he was good, and he was great as a mayor of New York. But today, as a lawyer, he makes a lot of mistakes.
What about your show, A Mob Story?
It has been very successful. It was initially planned for six months in Las Vegas, but it will continue longer. I needed a break – being on stage five nights a week is really exhausting. We will start again in April, but we are now producing my segment on video.