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Personality: The Fixer

Once a renowned Mob boss who helped fix sporting events, Michael Franzese makes the case that he's a good fella now
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

"I agreed to plead guilty to two of the twenty-eight counts filed against me -- federal racketeering and tax conspiracy. I was given a ten-year prison sentence, was forced to forfeit nearly $5 million in assets, and promised to give the government 20 percent of my future earnings…until I had paid another $10 million in restitution. "As part of the deal, I also agreed to plead guilty to the sixty-five counts charged against me in Florida, which included racketeering, grand theft, conspiracy, theft of state funds, uttering a forged instrument, and failure to account for taxes collected. The nine-year Florida sentence would run concurrent with the ten-year federal sentence. A $3 million Florida restitution fee would come from the $15 million federal agreement. "In addition to the pleas, I privately promised to quit the Mob." -- from Quitting the Mob, by Michael Franzese (with Dary Matera)

Michael Franzese sits down in a Marina del Rey deli with his back to the front door, just like you're never supposed to. He places his cell phone beside him on the banquette and orders matzo ball soup.

At 51, he looks a decade younger. He might be any of the other entrepreneurs who live out their easy lives in the seaside town, running businesses from the balconies of their condos and the cabins of their sailboats. There's an air of success about him, and the trappings, too. He has an expensive car and a California tan. His ribbed white shirt accentuates a muscular build that's one part genetics, three parts gym.

Once upon a time, Franzese was the Yuppie Don, the captain of New York's infamous Colombo crime family. Like Michael Corleone of The Godfather, he represented a new generation of Mob boss. He loved making money and living well. In photos from that period, he wears expensive clothes and dark sunglasses and looks more like Tom Cruise than John Gotti.

Opinions differ as to whether Franzese ever killed a man as part of the traditional Mafia initiation rite. Regardless, Franzese had little taste for violence. He specialized in white-collar crime, helping companies defraud shareholders, skimming profits off of legitimate businesses. He helped organize a gasoline tax scheme that cost the federal government millions of excise tax dollars and dipped into illegal gambling. He even tried to alter the outcome of sporting events, which brought him back into the news last summer. With it all, he made more money for the Mob than any man since Al Capone.

Franzese has been out of the life for a decade now, working as a force for good. He meets with federal agencies and talks at schools, offering his personal history as a cautionary tale. "I was as bad a guy as anybody out there," he says. "I should be dead or in jail. That would be just restitution for me, as far as society is concerned. For some reason, God said, 'That's not going to happen to you.'"

Out of a converted ranch-style home near Los Angeles International Airport, he runs a ministry and a small post-production house that specializes in youth-oriented film and television projects. He's writing a book for a Christian publisher. He coaches Little League.

He also consults for sports leagues, including Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, and for teams, college conferences and associations. A lifelong fan, he provides an insider's perspective on how to try to prevent the kind of point-shaving and game-fixing schemes he used to be part of. "And by no means was I the biggest player," he notes. "I myself wasn't a bookmaker, I just controlled certain operations. There were certainly a lot of my associates who played a much bigger role in that than I did. That was their thing."

He gives presentations to the leagues and their athletes, even talks with troubled players who may owe a bookie more money than they can get their hands on. He understands the temptation to make it all back with a fumble or a dropped fly ball. "You try to educate them and warn them and safeguard the leagues as much as you possibly can, but it becomes a matter of personal integrity more than anything else," he says. "And you're never going to get 100 percent of them."

It is likely, Franzese says, that he has watched sports events in recent years that have been tampered with, although he has no idea which ones. "The possibility and the probability are definitely there," he says.

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