WEST PALM BEACH — The love affair between Palm Beach County politicians and yacht builder John Staluppi continues unscathed, unquestioned, unadulterated.
According to a published report, suspected one-time organized crime soldier Staluppi is hosting a party Friday for retiring Palm Beach County administrator Bob Weisman.
Among the elected officials scheduled to show up: Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who also benefits from Staluppi’s largesse for his campaigns; State Attorney Dave Aronberg; State Sen. Joseph Abruzzo; Palm Beach County Clerk of Courts Sharon Bock; Ex-County Commissioners Karen Marcus and Burt Aaronson; U.S. Senate hopeful Patrick Murphy; and a slew of hangers-on.
The $150-per shindig is scheduled to take place at Staluppi’s breathtaking private car museum, a party palace in a North Palm Beach strip mall at 133 US 1 that Staluppi uses for political and charity fundraisers.
Each of the boldfacers named above should look at him/herself in the mirror Friday, when they put their silly outfits for the 1950s-themed blowout, and wonder how associating themselves with Staluppi is going to make them better public servants.
We, at Gossip Extra, know how this party makes us feel: It makes us wanna puke — and wonder if the Weisman well-wishers went to Staluppi after they were told they just couldn’t hold their little wingding in John Gotti‘s old prison cell.
Taking advantage of the corporate media’s descent into oblivion, the county’s political establishment now is in a full canoodle with Staluppi.
Never mind that, over the years, a handful of legitimate government agencies in New York and New Jersey have decided there’s enough evidence to tie Staluppi to Colombo crime family killers and, in one instance, refused to issue him a business license.
Never mind that Staluppi, a gregarious Robert DeNiro lookalike, just had business before the county commission: A company tied to him received clearance from the commission — over the strong objections of residents — to open yet another strip club on Southern Boulevard.
Never mind that Palm Beach County’s recent history includes the still-fresh releases from custody of crooked politicians caught in corruption scandals.
In the past at least, politicos were still slightly red-faced about breaking bread with the multi-millionaire former car mogul.
Now, there’s no shame.
The names of public officials above were all on invitations sent throughout the county for old Bob’s sendoff.
Oh yes, the spoils are going to a charity, the Homeless Coalition of Palm Beach County.
Wouldn’t it be nice if it sent Staluppi’s check back to him?
So happens that Gossip Extra‘s Jose Lambiet produced in 2004 what could be the most extensive investigation into Staluppi, outside of law enforcement.
The story came after officials at the Scripps Research Institute nixed setting up their fancy labs in Riviera Beach, partly because the institute would’ve had to buy properties owned by Staluppi.
Instead, Scripps built its Florida campus in Jupiter.
Highlights of the story reprinted below include the wealth of evidence showing that Staluppi’s ties with organized crime were deep, the fact Staluppi attempted to intimidate Lambiet by having him tailed by private investigators while he did his research and Staluppi’s secret scheme to make millions off a patchwork of tiny properties bought in Riviera Beach for next to nothing.
And since the Bradshaws, Aronbergs, Bocks, Aaronsons, Marcuses, Murphys and Abruzzos of the world may have been too lazy or careless or stupid or greedy to Google the words “John Staluppi” before agreeing to be a part of this masquerade, here is the story.
We hope it won’t disturb their collective conscience.
For one fleeting moment in midsummer of 2004, things looked up for Riviera Beach. Rich men, dining in the luxury of The Breakers, were discussing the city’s stark waterfront as a site for the prestigious Scripps Research Institute.
From a yacht gliding past Riviera Beach a few days earlier, Scripps President Richard Lerner envisioned something few locals saw: Where there were warehouses, he imagined architecturally daring laboratories filled with scientists looking to cure killer diseases; where there were empty lots, there would be lush parks and soothing water views.
So, with environmental concerns over the original Scripps site in the northwest suburbs mounting, Riviera Beach was added to a list of alternate sites.
Yet, the city’s brush with untold wealth – and at least half a billion in government monies – ended as quickly as it began.
The public explanation: Thousands of low-income homeowners would have to be relocated.
There was, however, a not-so-public reason. And it may be found in the story of John Staluppi – a man who has funneled thousands of dollars to local politicians and whom law enforcement agencies have investigated and whispered about for years.
He is the same man once described in a New York newspaper story under the headline: THE MOB’S BIG WHEELS.
John Staluppi, to those in Palm Beach County who know him, is first a tremendously successful businessman. He introduced auto malls – mega-dealerships with several car brands on a single property – to South Florida consumers. He transformed yachting, as the builder of super-fast, super-sized yachts.
And, over the past six years and at times for as little as $18,000 per lot, Staluppi has become one of the largest landowners on the Riviera Beach waterfront. He now owns a patchwork of 23 lots nobody wanted, for which he paid a total of about $6 million. They could have been must-buy properties if Scripps had come.
But even without Scripps, Staluppi’s lots are positioned as keystone properties in a $1 billion redevelopment effort. And Staluppi talked to Riviera Beach officials about becoming the project’s master developer.
That’s the public face of John Staluppi: a quick-on-his-feet businessman always looking for his next huge score.
Then there’s another side to the gregarious Brooklyn transplant: the side that has drawn legal scrutiny for years, the side local politicians ignore or dismiss as rumors when they accept his generous contributions.
It’s also the side that may have scared off Scripps, according to West Palm Beach marketing guru Sherman Adler.
At a private meeting with Lerner, Scripps Executive Vice President Doug Bingham and Trustee Alex Dreyfoos at The Breakers on July 28, Adler brought up the subject of the mob story. It was published in 1994 in The Village Voice and detailed Staluppi’s involvement with the Colombo gang, one of New York’s five Mafia families.
Why would Adler show the article to Scripps? With Palm Beach banker Loy Andersen, Adler forms the backbone of Riviera Partners Initiative, which also wanted to lure Scripps to Riviera Beach, to a site just south of Staluppi’s land. And Riviera Partners may become Staluppi’s rivals in the redevelopment effort.
“I wanted them (the Scripps top echelon) to know who they would have to deal with if they settled in a certain part of Riviera Beach, and why they may not want to,” Adler said. “And Doug (Bingham) responded: ‘We’re familiar with that situation, and it is a concern.’ Next thing you knew, Riviera Beach was no longer in the running.”
Scripps spokesman Keith McKeown confirmed that “information about Staluppi’s background” was passed along to the Scripps leaders. But he downplayed Riviera Beach’s chances.
“We questioned the possibilities of Riviera Beach,” he said. “But it was never the focus.”
An examination of Staluppi by The Palm Beach Post underscores some of the reasons Scripps may have expressed concern. As it turns out, investigators with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Suffolk County (N.Y.) District Attorney’s Office and the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement have called the prominent businessman a soldier, or initiated member, of the Colombo family.
But while the gun is usually the Colombos’ tool of the trade, convicted felon Staluppi relied on business acumen to establish legitimate financial operations that, according to FBI documents, may have helped Colombo members with cash, phantom jobs and equipment.
“We were always aware of Staluppi’s presence in the area because everybody in the office knew he is a wiseguy,” said retired FBI agent Larry Doss. In the early ’80s, Doss ran a mob-related undercover operation that snared Riviera Beach Police Chief William “Boone” Darden and members of the Gambino family. “But Staluppi’s businesses are legitimate. So we never really concentrated on him.”
Still, said Doss, once a “made man,” always a made man.
“Whatever business deal a made man is involved with, he has got to give a piece of his action to the family bosses in New York.”
Staluppi did not respond to numerous interview requests. But through his attorney, Gerald Richman, Staluppi vehemently denied being a mobster and denied paying any kind of money to Colombo leaders in New York.
“Mr. Staluppi has been probably one of the most investigated men ever,” Richman said, adding the IRS to government entities that have looked at him. “But he was never charged with or convicted of mob-related crimes.”
Over the years, however, Mafia turncoats and undercover cops have had plenty to say about Staluppi’s connections.
Take John Rosatti, for example. Also a local business stalwart and a convicted felon, Rosatti was found to be a “career offender” by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, based in part on testimony that he was a “made member” of the Colombo family.
Rosatti is Staluppi’s best friend and partner in many business ventures, including the Riviera Beach land investments.
“They just grew up together,” Richman said.
Rosatti, too, declined to be interviewed for this story. And through his lawyer, Mike Burman, he denied being a member of the Mafia.
“Mr. Rosatti has no idea why he was described as a career criminal and a Colombo soldier,” Burman wrote in an e-mail. “He has no knowledge of why any individual . . . would make that kind of representation, except for their own self gain.”
Staluppi: Only business
Yet, previously unreleased details about Staluppi’s history, and indirectly about Rosatti, came to light in 1992-93, courtesy of the Casino Control Commission.
Staluppi appeared on the radar screen of casino authorities when his company, Dillinger Charter Services, applied for a license to shuttle casino patrons to and from New York City by helicopter. The license was denied on the basis of information that Staluppi was a member of the Colombo crime family, according to CCC records.
Staluppi’s name surfaced again a year later, this time as the CCC considered banning him for life from Boardwalk gambling joints. During that yearlong procedure, the CCC heard from law enforcement agents specializing in organized crime. One described how, in 1980, a Suffolk County undercover agent became Staluppi’s limousine chauffeur and reported driving him to numerous meetings with high-ranking Colombo operatives, including then-boss Carmine “The Snake” Persico.
The CCC also heard from an agent with the Jersey Division of Gambling Enforcement who obtained Staluppi’s personal phone directory and appointment book. It contained the phone numbers of another onetime godfather, Victor “Little Vic” Orena, and of Colombo capos (or crew leaders) Theodore Persico Sr. and Pasquale Amato. The book showed Staluppi had been invited to the wedding of the daughter of another Colombo capo, Dominick “Donnie Shacks” Montemarano.
Testifying in his defense, Staluppi admitted to meeting and knowing the Colombo leadership, but only in a business capacity. He told the CCC he sold cars to Orena, owned buildings with Carmine Persico’s sons, bought carpets from Theodore Persico Sr. and was a close friend of Amato. But, Staluppi swore, he had no idea all were members of the Colombo family. “The Snake” Persico, Orena, Amato and Theodore Persico Sr. are serving life sentences in various federal lockups, while “Donnie Shacks” served 11 years for racketeering.
Staluppi also brought his own set of character witnesses to the CCC. Among them was Palm Beach businessman and philanthropist Robert Cuillo, for whom West Palm Beach’s Cuillo Centre for the Performing Arts is named. Cuillo appeared as a retired NYPD detective and a Florida car dealer who had done business with Staluppi.
“John is a respectable businessman,” he told the CCC, “and I think he is being stereotyped because he’s Italian.”
In the end, the CCC denied the petition by the Division of Gaming Enforcement to ban Staluppi because there was “insufficient credible evidence” after FBI Special Agent Brian Taylor refused to reveal his sources.
Then a strange thing happened: While the CCC was considering the ban on Staluppi, his name and that of his pal Rosatti popped up in FBI interviews of suspected mobsters.
‘Nothing to hide’
In the early 1990s, a war within the Colombo gang transformed Brooklyn into a battlefield. Eleven people, including an innocent bystander, were killed and 14 were injured. The gunplay between warring factions faithful to “The Snake” Persico and “Little Vic” Orena prompted the FBI to make a series of arrests.
In transcripts of FBI interviews with some of those arrested and informants, no fewer than eight persons told the Feds on separate occasions that Staluppi and Rosatti participated in gang activities in one way or another. Several told the FBI that Staluppi and Rosatti sided with the Orena faction at first, then rejoined the Persico faction after Orena was arrested.
In one of these interviews, Colombo enforcer Sal Miciotta, who was eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison, said in late 1993 that Rosatti had been asked by Orena to provide cars from his dealership to be used to carry out murders. Miciotta said Rosatti refused but gave Orena $50,000. Miciotta also told the Feds that Rosatti and Staluppi contributed another $50,000 for the legal defense of Orena and his lieutenant, Pasquale Amato, and that Staluppi lent his helicopter to high-ranking gangsters to attend a meeting in upstate New York.
Another statement made by Colombo family accountant Kenneth Geller suggested that Staluppi and Rosatti were known to provide gangsters with “no-show” jobs in their dealerships – jobs for which gang members were paid $500 a week without working. Geller and his family are in a witness protection program. If there is anything Staluppi was ever guilty of, attorney Richman counters, it’s growing up with people “who might otherwise have been investigated.”
“Some of these statements are of questionable credibility,” Richman said, pointing out that they’re often made by suspects trying to get a lenient sentence. “Mr. Staluppi may be guilty by association. But our whole criminal system is based on the presumption of innocence. Where is the proof? Mr. Staluppi has nothing to hide.”
And Staluppi apparently wanted to make sure The Post has nothing to hide, either.
He hired a private investigations firm to track this reporter. For several days, an investigator watched the reporter’s house.
Another private eye, who identified himself as Bill Livingston, phoned one of the reporter’s previous employers under the guise of doing a background check for a government job the reporter supposedly applied for. Livingston did not return a call for comment, but Richman confirmed Staluppi had hired him.
“Mr. Staluppi just wanted to know exactly who was writing about him,” Richman said. “He did hire a private investigations firm in Texas owned by a couple of retired CIA agents. He feels he is being unfairly targeted and persecuted, and wishes to keep his good name.”
Trappings of good life
At 5-feet-8, 250 pounds, Staluppi looks like Robert De Niro on steroids. The 57-year-old has a chest the size of a Mack truck grill. Hawaiian shirt and all, Staluppi looks a little out of place in the staid surroundings of his favorite lunch spot, the Palm Beach Yacht Club.
For Staluppi – who is married to his former secretary and has two grown children from a previous marriage – financial success spawned all the trappings of the good life. Staluppi was known to zip along the East Coast on a 130-foot yacht named after the James Bond movie Octopussy. And there are helicopters, corporate jets, classic and exotic cars and a personal luxury bus.
His real estate holdings include a $4.7 million compound in Palm Beach Gardens’ Snug Harbor Estates, and a vast array of properties on Long Island, N.Y.; and in Columbus, Ohio; Montana and Wyoming. Records in Wyoming’s Teton County show he recently applied for a permit to build a $100,000 underground bunker in his country home there.
“It’s just a safe room,” Richman said. “For tornadoes and earthquakes.”
Rosatti, 60, is a widower with three teenage children, and – at 180 pounds, physically much smaller than Staluppi – is the quiet one. Have lunch with the pair, and Rosatti leaves the talking to Staluppi. Around Rosatti’s $2.4 million home four blocks south of Staluppi’s, neighbors appreciate him. The home’s holiday decorations have become a Christmas must-see. Rosatti, like Staluppi, is known to donate heavily to local charities.
“John (Rosatti) is a fantastic neighbor,” said Bill Krick, a retired firefighter. “He offered some people on the street the use of his home during Hurricane Frances.”
Life wasn’t always this grand for the duo. Staluppi dropped out in the 10th grade at a vocational school in rough Bensonhurst. At 24, in 1971, Staluppi was nabbed by New York cops for allegedly stealing cars and selling them with altered vehicle identification numbers. A grand jury indicted him on 30 counts of grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen auto parts. He pleaded guilty to the second charge and was sentenced to five years probation.
“His civil rights have been restored,” said lawyer Richman.
Rosatti, too, was arrested, in 1973. A 46-count indictment charged him with being part of a car-theft ring. Then 28, he pleaded guilty to felony grand larceny. He, too, was placed on probation for five years.
While on probation, Staluppi started a Honda dealership at a time when no one had ever heard of Honda. Ten years later, he had 29 dealerships and was making $2.5 million a year in salary, he told Jersey gaming enforcers. In 1978, Rosatti bought one of Staluppi’s franchises.
The “Johns” opened their first Florida operation, Hollywood Honda, in 1980. On the state Division of Motor Vehicles’ dealership application, Staluppi was listed as company secretary and Rosatti as treasurer. Then came the West Palm Beach Auto Mall, the North Palm Auto Mall and dozens of dealerships along the coast as far north as Melbourne.
By 2001, the trade publication Ward’s Dealer Business ranked the Staluppi Auto Group 20th largest in the country, with total revenue of nearly $900 million. Rosatti was ranked 56th, with revenue of nearly half a billion.
As of late, Staluppi has been placing more emphasis on running his Riviera Beach marina and yacht business. There, he also owns a business that outfits recreational vehicles as rolling palaces.
He commands attention
Despite their histories, Staluppi and his friend Rosatti set up shop in South Florida without, it seems, raising an eyebrow.
A self-assured individual, Staluppi has always known how, and whom, to entertain. His 50th birthday party in 1997, when he flew in Las Vegas’ best dealers and transformed the Palm Beach Gardens Marriott into a casino, is still talked about.
Guests played with fake money that night, but to local politicians it’s real cash that Staluppi has been distributing. Personally and through companies he owns with Rosatti, Staluppi has been one of the county’s most generous political donors of the past 15 years.
Just in June, Commissioner Warren Newell, an incumbent running for reelection, received the legal maximum of $500 from each of these real estate companies: 1700 Broadway, Hudgins 2010, Millennium Distributors and Millennium Development. They’re all Staluppi-Rosatti companies, according to Florida secretary of state records.
“We once jokingly talked about . . . what would happen if someone crossed Mr. Staluppi,” Newell said. “But we never took those rumors about him seriously. As candidates, we can’t check the background of every donor.”
In the 2002 race, County Commissioner Jeff Koons received a total of $5,000 from Staluppi and his businesses with Rosatti. Staluppi hedged his bets, giving Koons’ opponent, Al Zucaro, $3,500. Said Koons, who was seen lunching with Staluppi this summer at the Yacht Club: “I was not aware of his background. All I know is that he has invested in the future of Riviera Beach, and that’s a good thing.” Koons called Staluppi “a visionary.”
Staluppi also donated $2,500 to help Commissioner Mary McCarty settle legal bills in a previous fund-raising scandal. That donation and others are now under investigation by state ethics officials. When asked about Staluppi, McCarty said she knew nothing and hung up the phone.
While running unopposed this fall, Commissioner Karen Marcus received $1,500 from Staluppi-Rosatti companies. That may bring a smile to some lips. In 1988, Staluppi gave upward of $46,000 to Marcus’ opponent, Herb Evatt, after Marcus voted twice against a zoning petition that would have allowed Staluppi to expand a dealership. Marcus still won and, eventually, made up with Staluppi during a peace lunch two elections ago.
“He is one of the only people willing to invest in Riviera Beach, and he deserves credit for that,” Marcus said. “His past? A lot of things are written about people.”
Staluppi opened his wallet for bigger-name candidates, too. According to elections records, he gave $6,000 to President Bush’s campaign, $5,000 to U.S. Rep. Mark Foley’s and $15,000 to the Republican Party of Florida over the past year.
Is Staluppi getting a return on his political investments? This much is sure: He commands the attention of local leaders.
County commissioners did an unprecedented, and controversial, thing for Staluppi in 2002. They sold a county park located on the Riviera Beach waterfront to Millennium Development.
The county was supposed to equip the park, adjacent to Staluppi’s marinas, with a much-needed boat ramp. Instead, the 3 acres went to Staluppi for nearly $1.5 million. He has an exclusive contract to buy an adjacent 3 acres of the park from the county for $1.7 million.
That left boaters complaining that public ramps were too scarce in a place that bills itself as a boater’s paradise. And now, county commissioners are asking voters to approve a Nov. 2 ballot measure allowing them to float a $50 million bond issue to “preserve and expand public access” to the water.
“I negotiated for two years to get the county to sell to John (Staluppi),” said Realtor John Sansbury, a former county manager who represented Staluppi in the transaction. After the deal was struck, he sued Staluppi for a $140,000 commission but settled for $50,000. “We even had some commissioners on one of John’s yachts during SunFest. They put the property out to bids, and John was the only bidder. Never before, and never since, did the commission sell a park.”
Koons said the sale sounded like a good idea.
“We did it to help Riviera Beach redevelopment,” Koons said when asked about the deal.
Mayor grateful for help
In Riviera Beach, Staluppi and Rosatti found a city that current Mayor Michael Brown described as “the city of lost hope and abandonment.” There, they found public officials desperate to change that.
Staluppi set up a marina, boat yard and the “land yacht” factory, all headquartered at 2010 Ave. B, and provided jobs in an otherwise idle, crime-infested neighborhood, something Brown appreciated.
One of Staluppi’s liaisons to Brown and other officials is Tom DeRita. DeRita is the city’s lobbyist in Tallahassee. He is also so close to Staluppi that he is considered the gatekeeper to Staluppi’s political contributions. DeRita, a former car dealer, declined to comment after first agreeing to an interview. He, too, hired Richman to respond to questions.
“Mr. DeRita met Mr. Staluppi in 1986,” Richman said. “They were competitors and it evolved into a friendship. Mr. DeRita believes that Mr. Staluppi did a lot of good for Riviera Beach.”
That’s something Mayor Brown agrees with wholeheartedly.
“As long as somebody does things legally, he is welcome to invest in Riviera Beach,” Brown recently said in a discussion about Staluppi and Rosatti. Staluppi donated $500 to Brown’s campaign last year. “If Mr. Staluppi is willing to build a hotel and put my people to work in it, build nice condo buildings, retail space and a world-class marina consistent with the redevelopment plan, and do it legally, that’s fine. No one has ever addressed the mob stuff with me before.”
As for Scripps, Brown said, it would have been nice to have the institute set up in Riviera Beach. But in Staluppi, Brown added, he has a known local investor with a proven track record.
“I’m happy he bought land here,” Brown said. “He is smart. When I did my first presentations about redevelopment in 1999, he was there to hear me out. He’s helping, which is more than what the federal, state or county governments ever did for us.”