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Other Gotti Family Trial begins

Opening arguments begin in Gotti family case

By Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Federal prosecutors kicked off a wide-ranging case Tuesday against seven alleged mobsters -- three of them relatives of the late convicted crime boss John Gotti -- accusing them of rigging contracts, shaking down businesses and controlling unions on the city's waterfronts.

On trial are Peter Gotti, reputed head of the Gambino crime family and John Gotti's older brother, their younger brother Richard V. Gotti, nephew Richard G. Gotti and four others, all named in a 67-count indictment on charges of racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy, fraud and loan-sharking.

"This case at its heart is about the greed and power of the gang known as the Gambino crime family," said prosecutor Rick Whelan in his opening statement in Brooklyn federal court.

"Rather then work and contribute to society, members of this gang make money in extortion, fraud and running illegal gambling businesses," he said.

"Peter Gotti was at the helm of the Gambino family," he added. "As the boss, he got a cut every month from these crimes."

Gotti's defense attorney argued his client was innocent and being unfairly tarred by sharing a last name with the notorious John Gotti, who died in June of cancer while in prison.

"Forgive me for stating the obvious. John Gotti is dead," defense attorney Gerald Shargel said to the jury.

"Prosecutors would love to have John Gotti sitting at the defense table. What's better, since they can't have John Gotti sitting here, than to have his brother here. Even in John Gotti's absence, prosecutors get to have another Gotti trial," he said.

"They think that if you have a notorious surname, it is better than proof," Shargel said.

The famously suave John Gotti, known as the "Dapper Don" for his style and the "Teflon Don" for eluding conviction despite several trials, was found guilty of murder and racketeering in 1992 and sent to prison for life.

At the heart of this case are tapes secretly recorded by government agents during a three-year investigation, which prosecutors say reveal the accused men plotting to influence dockworker union elections, rig contracts, extort money from businesses and dockworkers, run illegal gambling operations and launder illicit profits.

"Although there are a lot of crimes, they all have one thing in common -- the defendants' greed for money and their willingness to use threats and fear to take it whenever the opportunity would arise," Whelan said. "The mob is like a machine. It turns fear into cash."

The trial is expected to take several weeks.

Among those expected to testify are accused mobsters who are cooperating with the government in exchange for lenient sentences, victims of the alleged shakedowns and kickback schemes and actor Steven Seagal, whom prosecutors say was threatened by the Gambino family if he did not work with or pay off a family associate who wanted to be a Hollywood producer.

Prosecutors say Peter Gotti took the helm of the Gambino family after John Gotti became ill in prison and his son, John, known as Junior, was convicted of racketeering and sent to prison in 1999.

Peter Gotti worked as a garbage collector for the New York City Department of Sanitation in the 1970s when John Gotti was rising in the ranks of the mob, his attorney said.

The others on trial are reputed crime family captain Anthony "Sonny" Ciccone, reputed soldiers Primo Cassarino and Jerome Brancato and associate Richard Bondi.