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Seagal Sought Rival Mob’s Help, Feds Say

Times Staff Writer

In the movies, Steven Seagal often portrays heroic cops. But when the action star found himself in a real-life Mafia dispute, he didn’t turn to law enforcement -- according to federal authorities, he visited a New Jersey prison to get help from another mob family.

Seagal even paid $10,000 to a lawyer for an imprisoned mob captain, hoping the mobster would intercede with the group pressuring him for money to “see if we could settle this like businesspeople instead of like thugs,” according to defense lawyers quoting from documents handed over to them late this week in the ongoing trial of seven reputed members of the Gambino crime family charged with racketeering along the New York waterfront.

The documents detailing Seagal’s interplay with alleged organized crime figures -- including his account of a run-in with the Japanese Mafia -- were given to defense lawyers here as the actor prepares for one role he seems to have no desire to play, that of government witness.

Federal prosecutors say they may call Seagal as early as Monday to testify in U.S. District Court against the alleged mob crew accused of attempting to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from him, even as they pursued long-standing rackets along the Brooklyn and Staten Island docks and passed envelopes of cash up the crime family ladder to the brother of the late John Gotti.

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As for testifying, “that’s the last thing he wants to do,” prosecutor Rick Whelan said of Seagal during opening statements last month, explaining to jurors that the actor had to be compelled to testify by court order. Seagal also has been granted limited immunity for his testimony, according to defense lawyers who were studying the government documents Friday.

The actor’s own lawyer, Martin Pollner, would not confirm the deal, under which anything Seagal says cannot be used against him if he is subsequently charged with a crime other than perjury. But “as a matter of prudence ... lawyers generally have immunity granted to witnesses in cases such as this,” Pollner said. “It’s a standard practice.” Seagal has not granted any interview requests.

Federal investigators have said they discovered the extortion plot against the actor by chance, through wiretaps and bugs used in their latest attempt to curtail mob influence along the docks. The charges involving Seagal take up only two of the 67 counts in the indictment unsealed last June and stem from his longtime partnership with pharmacist-turned-producer Julius R. Nasso.

While the pair worked together on such films as “Out for Justice” (1991) and “Under Siege” (1992), Seagal sometimes lived in the guest house beside Nasso’s waterfront Staten Island mansion. But their relationship soured in 2000, and Nasso allegedly complained to an old friend, Anthony “Sonny” Ciccone, that the actor was reneging on a deal to make four more films together and owed him a lot of money.

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Prosecutor Whelan described Ciccone, 68, as the Gambino crime family’s captain who “has been dominating these piers for the last 20 years.” Though Nasso and his brother are also charged in the attempted extortion of Seagal, their cases were severed from those of the core defendants currently on trial: Ciccone and three of his crew, along with three Gottis, including Peter Gotti, who prosecutors say took control of the crime family following the imprisonment of his brother, “Dapper Don” John Gotti, who died last year.

As with many mob cases, this one is based largely on the defendants’ own words on obscenity-laden tapes, recorded in a Staten Island restaurant and barbershop, and in the car of a former president of the longshoremen’s local, who has already pleaded guilty to being, in effect, a mob pawn.

During one conversation, Ciccone asks Nasso whether he has demanded money from Seagal as ordered, saying, “Every movie he makes we want $150,000.”

Prosecutors do not allege that Seagal paid any money, only that there was a plot to get it, with Ciccone and others visiting the actor in Toronto in 2000 while he was filming “Exit Wounds” and at his Los Angeles home the morning of the movie’s 2001 premiere. Court papers quote Nasso as encouraging Ciccone to be forceful with the actor, saying, “You really gotta get down on him ... ‘cause I know this animal, I know this beast.” In another conversation, one defendant is quoted as saying the actor was “petrified” when they switched meeting locations at the last minute, taking him finally to a Brooklyn restaurant. “It was like right out of the movies,” he said.

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“The message was clear,” Whelan told jurors. “Pay [Nasso] the money or start making movies with him again.” But while the prosecution has portrayed Seagal as a frightened victim, the defense plans to give a different interpretation of his decision to turn for help to a crime figure, in New Jersey’s Rahway prison, rather than to authorities.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Whelan mentioned the incident only briefly, saying the actor “asked this person if he could use his connections to get Ciccone off his back.” Though Whelan did not name the inmate, defense attorneys said the FBI documents confirm that it’s Angelo Prisco, a captain in the Genovese crime family serving a 12-year sentence for arson and conspiracy to commit racketeering -- and that Seagal also acknowledged giving Prisco’s lawyer $10,000 after the visit in the spring of 2001.

"[Seagal’s] version of it is he gave it to him for legal fees,” said Barry Levin, a Long Island lawyer representing Nasso’s brother. Levin and other defense lawyers said Seagal has good reason to be a reluctant witness -- because they plan to challenge his credibility by questioning him on everything from whether he has ever been arrested to the veracity of stories he told over the years in building his mystique as a tough guy on and off the screen. During defense opening statements, Ciccone’s lawyer, George Santangelo, called the actor a “pathological liar” who cried “intimidation” whenever he owed somebody money.

Levin said the defense will hammer at the actor about “his ability to be truthful or not, ‘Did you tell people you were a CIA agent?’ ” The defense lawyers said they also want to ask Seagal whether he was behind a threat against a Los Angeles Times reporter investigating his relationship with Nasso and the mob. In the FBI reports, they said, Seagal denies having anything to do with a June incident in which the windshield of reporter Anita M. Busch’s car was vandalized and a dead fish left on it.

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The defense lawyers have tried to brand Seagal a “mob nut” who initiated contacts with men like Ciccone. In the FBI documents, they said, Seagal also discusses an incident in Japan “involving him and a Japanese female [who] had a boyfriend who was allegedly associated with the Japanese Mafia.” After the woman “went to her boyfriend in an attempt to intimidate Seagal,” Seagal reportedly sought help from the American mob.

While the defense is hoping to convince jurors that Seagal’s tough-guy image is no act, prosecutors have cautioned the panel not to confuse the witness with his screen roles.

“This was different,” Whelan said. “This wasn’t the movies. This was real life.”


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