• Show Notes
  • Transcript

In this bonus for CAFE Insiders, Elie Honig and Safeena Mecklai take listeners behind the scenes of the first episode of Up Against the Mob. They discuss the challenge of flipping a mafia member to become a cooperating witness and how Elie would speak to his young children about his job prosecuting organized crime.  

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Elie Honig:

Hey, everyone. Elie here. Up Against the Mob is my new CAFE podcast. In it, we explore the inner world of the real life mafia and the twists and turns of my time as a mob prosecutor. You can subscribe for free by searching Up Against the Mob wherever you listen to podcasts. We’re pleased to offer this exclusive bonus just for CAFE insiders with me in conversation with my co-host from the Third Degree podcast, Safeena Mecklai. We go behind the scenes on the creation of the podcast, its colorful characters both good and bad and other revealing insider aspects of my experience prosecuting the mob that go beyond the main episode.

Safeena Mecklai:

Welcome to the first of our bonus episodes for Up Against the Mob with Elie Honig. My name is Safeena Mecklai, I am a recovering law student that you might remember from Third Degree. And before we get into the first bonus episode, and today we’ll be talking about your interview with Michael Visconti, I wanted to ask you and take a step back why you wanted to share these stories, what it is that you hope people will learn. Why the mob? Why now?

Elie Honig:

So let me take the why the mob part of that, because I think I can answer all your questions by addressing that one. So the way it works in the Southern district of New York is your first two years in the office are set in stone. Your first year, you’re in general crimes, which we used to say was like the freshmen dorm, you’re all on the same dingy floor together in tiny offices, and you get the smaller federal cases. Your second year, you graduate up to narcotics where you start doing bigger cases and wiretaps and that kind of thing. And then at the end of your second year, you have this moment of truth where the decision comes which of the six or seven senior units are you going to go to? And I got to tell you, when I became Chief of Organized Crime once, I did a panel for the new kids in the office where all the chiefs, one chief from each unit, had to tell why they went into the unit that they chose.

Elie Honig:

And so the head of terrorism, for example, got up and had a very easy pitch. “Well here we are a half mile away from World Trade Center and it means so much to me and we’ll never forget that day.” The Chief of Public Corruption said… So I’m sure something like, “I believe our public officials should be free of conflicts and true and not corrupt,” and all that, on and on. And it gets to me as Chief of Organized Crime and I just basically said, “Look, I’ve got to be honest, I did it for the stories.” I did it because I saw what was being done in that office. I would go over, I would sneak over to the courtroom and watch the older people in the office do mob trials. And it felt like watching the movies, it felt like watching The Sopranos or Goodfellas, only it was real. These people were real. And I just wanted to do that. And so why did I do it? I guess in a nutshell, for the stories and for the human drama of it. And I think that comes through on this podcast.

Safeena Mecklai:

Absolutely. I mean you’ve said that prosecuting the mob in real life is better than the movies and better than the shows, and I think that totally comes across in these episodes.

Elie Honig:

I stand by that. I think that this proves that there’s a lot of moments in these podcasts, including with Michael, that I think are better than anything you would ever see on TV.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well before we get to Michael, it sounds like an amazing job and amazing work. Do you ever miss it?

Elie Honig:

Oh, good question. No, but I think part of that is the function of I just enjoy what I’m doing now so much. But also, I feel like I did almost everything that there was to do. And candidly, when I did my ninth or 10th big mob case, I felt like I had all the dance steps down at that point. So no, I think I’m very satisfied with my career and record as is and I have no desire at the moment to go reopen that.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well I think that’s good career advice for those like me leaving law school, when you feel like you’ve figured it out, maybe it’s time to do something new.

Elie Honig:

Yeah, not to say I had everything figured out, but it did begin to feel a bit [inaudible 00:04:04] and a bit step-by-step. So yeah.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well if you want, we can jump into episode one.

Elie Honig:

Yes.

Safeena Mecklai:

Right away, you start the podcast talking about how out on the street, if someone ran into you, no mobster would probably be afraid of you.

Elie Honig:

Yeah.

Safeena Mecklai:

Just walking around. But how about you? When you were doing this, were you scared? Was your family scared?

Elie Honig:

That is a great question and probably the one question that I’m asked most commonly. It doesn’t matter what I’m talking about by the way. If I’m talking about my book, which is about the justice department, someone always asks me that. No, I don’t cut a particularly intimidating figure on the streets. Was I ever scared? The short answer is no, oddly. I think counter-intuitively, part of it was just you can’t be. If you’re going to be scared, you’re not going to survive in that particular job. But part of it also goes to the mob’s own rules. Now, I talk about this a bit with Michael and with some of the other guests coming up in later weeks, but the mob has their own rules. Now, they break them of course, because they’re mobsters. But one of the ones that they really don’t mess with is the rule that you don’t mess with prosecutors or judges.

Elie Honig:

And the reason for that rule is not because they’re good or decent people, the reason for that rule is because it’s bad for business, right? They are allergic to what they call heat, right? The worst thing they can do is draw attention of law enforcement. And can you think of a better way to do that than to threaten, or God forbid, do worse to a judge or a prosecutor? And the other thing is let’s say they did something to me. Let’s say they eliminated me, that doesn’t make the case go away. If it did, I’d probably be dead a lot of times over. But they would just plug in the next version of me and holy hell would rain down on them from the entirety of the justice department and the FBI. So it was bad business. I always understood that. I did have thoughts once in a while about some of the true psychos, I don’t know, would they maybe try something? But I’m good at partitioning thoughts like that out of my head.

Safeena Mecklai:

And did you prep your family for the work that you were doing? I know your wife may have already been aware of this code in organized crime, but were they scared?

Elie Honig:

My mom being a Jewish mom is always scared. So that’s her job. My wife, as you mentioned, Safeena, is a prosecutor as well. She didn’t do organized crime cases, but she’s done some cases against some dangerous people, some vengeful people. So she fully understood. And she also I think understood that it’s really, really, really rare for anybody, any prosecutor to have some physical attack or retribution from any defendant. So I think she was on the same wavelength as me.

Safeena Mecklai:

Well that’s good. I know my mom would be terrified, but she also, as an Indian mom, has that similar fear of everything out in the world for me.

Elie Honig:

There’s a lot of overlap in the ethic of the Jewish and Indian mother. Yes, for sure.

Safeena Mecklai:

Exactly. Well I wanted to switch to talking about some of your skills in the role. In law school, we read a ton of cases and books about the law, but we don’t get a lot of training on the actual skills that you need to do the job. And you talked about being particularly skilled at flipping informants. And even though I graduated and it’s behind me, I am still in school mode. And I’m so curious about what the homework is like for flipping informants, both how do you get good at the strategy for that? And what do you need to know about a person to be good at flipping that person?

Elie Honig:

Gosh, that’s a great question. And Michael talks about this in the episode and he says… And I didn’t really ever know this specifically. I always suspected it, but he says in the episode that he was a maybe on cooperating until he met me. And it’s not because I’m some overwhelming figure or anything like that. You referenced one of the key things which is homework, right? You have to know everything about the cooperator and nothing impresses them more than if you know their story cold, right? And you can roll with them. And by the way, after a certain amount of time, you get to know the other players, you get to know even the neighborhoods, the geography, which bakery they would go to. And when you can drop something like that, then they go, “Oh, all right, this guy knows what’s going on.” You have to think about where the vulnerability sits because every cooperator has a different incentive.

Elie Honig:

I mean Michael was a little bit unusual because a lot of the cooperators I flipped were guys looking at murder charges and life in prison, but not Michael. Remember, he was only looking at this extortion charge. So my memory of the way I approached Michael was I understood that he was a smart guy, a rational guy. As he talked about, he wasn’t raised in the mob tradition. He was raised in what they call a legitimate family. He had at the time, and he talks about this, young kids. He was fairly recently married. And so I appealed to that. Now, I didn’t say to him, “Oh, your family is going to suffer,” or anything like that. And this is my approach. There was two ways to do this at the SDNY. There was the aggressive way. And I saw people do this where I saw one guy in particular, I won’t say his name, but SDNY people will probably figure out who this was, but where he would just get in people’s faces.

Elie Honig:

And he was a big guy and pumped iron and all that. And he would just go, “Ah, if you don’t flip I’m going to fucking make your life miserable and you’ll go back to jail and rot and I’ll go out and eat a steak. And I won’t ever think about you again.” And that kind of stuff. That didn’t work for me. I never tried it. It didn’t work for me.

Safeena Mecklai:

That doesn’t sound like you.

Elie Honig:

Well that’s part of it, right? I mean it would be ridiculous if I tried to put on that act. And so my approach was there’s nothing about you or me or that guy I referenced that’s going to actually frighten a defendant. But you know what they’re scared to death of? The sentencing guidelines and the mandatory minimums, right? And so I would just do it very straightforward and I would do it in a respectful way, but my tone would be similar to how I’m talking to you now, Safeena.

Elie Honig:

I would just say to them, “Look, you’re here because you’re trying to cooperate. That’s good. I think there’s a lot of important information we need from you. If you do this the right way, meaning if you tell us everything and you play no games, then you stand to benefit. And if you don’t, that’s fine. You can go back and maybe you’ll go to trial, maybe you’ll plead guilty and your lawyer can explain to you what the odds are there or what you’re looking at. But it’s your choice, but don’t do this unless you’re ready to come 100% clean because that’s going to be bad for you and bad for me.” And that was really it. The more matter of fact, the more just business, not personal you can make it, the more effective it was in my experience.

Safeena Mecklai:

That sounds super persuasive to me. And you didn’t have to go and make these threats or be super accusatory or aggressive. And you alluded to this, but I’m curious about what the ethics are of that. Are there things you couldn’t do or say to get somebody to flip? Or was everything fair game and it’s just a choice of strategy?

Elie Honig:

Yeah. So there’s not a handbook on this. This is not addressed in the justice manual that we are all given. The way I was always taught and the way I did it was you wouldn’t lie to a person. You wouldn’t say, “Look, if you don’t flip, I’m going to charge so-and-so,” maybe your father-in-law, maybe someone you were close with on the streets, unless you actually are going to do that. I didn’t believe in making a threat or a suggestion that I wasn’t ready to back up. I wouldn’t lie to these guys. I would give it to them fairly straight, right? I mean I wouldn’t bring them in until I was confident that I had the goods on them anyway. There were times when I took a shot on somebody who I didn’t really have the goods on, but in that case, I wouldn’t say, “We’re going to charge you or I’m pretty confident we’ll convict you if we have to.” The ethics, I guess there’s a gray area.

Elie Honig:

And there are times when people are worried about their families, I can tell you that, where a father was involved in something, an uncle was involved in something. The way I dealt with that was I said, “Look, the worst thing you can do is to withhold information. If there’s somebody out there that you want to protect, don’t lie to me. Don’t leave somebody out of a story.” That was somewhat common, right? Where a cooperator would have committed a crime with A, B, C and D and not mentioned D. He would tell me about A, B and C, right? And I would just tell them, “If you have someone like that, just pause, I’ll leave the room. You can talk to your lawyer and we can work it out. And if it’s somebody that we can give a pass to or give some consideration to, then I’m open to that possibility.” You know what I mean? So I would never over promise, I would never over puff myself. I always found that was the best way to do it.

Safeena Mecklai:

That seems to me totally the right way to do it, to give them the opportunity to think through things about the consequences, to be honest about the consequences. So that makes a lot of sense. As far as another ethical dilemma that I kept thinking about during the episode is you play some really interesting recordings from actual conversations that mobsters obviously thought were private. And I know some of our listeners, many of whom probably watched The Wire and have heard of these before, but I know many of our listeners might be wondering about how these recordings are legal. Can you talk about that?

Elie Honig:

Yeah, I’m glad you asked that. So generally speaking, there are a few ways you can get a recording like that. One is a wiretap, right? Where old school, yet you have an agent, an FBI agent listening in on a set of headphones to phone conversations. You have to go to a judge. A judge has to approve that, it’s a whole internal procedure. The problem with the mob is you’re almost never going to get anything off a phone because the real bosses don’t talk on phones at all. The guys who do are so cryptic. It’s just like, “Hey, the thing that is the thing that we talked about?” “Yeah.” “Okay, got you.” They barely talk on phones or even on emails and texts, although they only started adopting that a long time after the rest of us.

Elie Honig:

The other way to make the tapes, and these are the tapes that you heard in the episode, is by, “Wiring up,” and I put that in quotes because we no longer use actual wires, right? Like in the movies where they rip a guy’s shirt open and he’s got wires taped to his chest, you don’t do it that way, but we still call it wiring up. You get an informant or a cooperator to wear a wire and to secretly record his conversations with other guys. And that is lawful. You don’t need a judge’s permission to do that as long as one of the parties consents to recording that conversation in New York at least.

Safeena Mecklai:

I think I remember my criminal procedure professor framing it as you don’t really have rights against having a friend who’s distrustful.

Elie Honig:

Yeah.

Safeena Mecklai:

You have no rights to ensure that your friend isn’t cooperating with the government for example.

Elie Honig:

Absolutely. Right. I mean if you’re going to have these conversations… And by the way, one thing I was taught early on as a prosecutor, very, very early on, I remember the U.S. attorney saying to us, “Just assume every conversation you have is being recorded.” I actually found that it’s pretty good life advice.

Safeena Mecklai:

I will definitely keep that… After hearing these clips, I was like, “Okay, I should be a little more careful about what I’m saying on the street.”

Elie Honig:

Yeah, yeah. We’re not recording this, are we?

Safeena Mecklai:

We might be.

Elie Honig:

Oh, all right. Well let’s just make sure it doesn’t get out there.

Safeena Mecklai:

I was wondering, in this system of flipping somebody and making a deal, do you ever worry that somebody’s not telling you the truth? I mean you’ve mentioned you give people a moment to check in with their lawyer and make sure they’re telling you the whole story, but are you ever concerned that people are falsely ratting someone else out in order to get the benefit of a deal?

Elie Honig:

I think my answer is you always have to be concerned about that, from the moment you start cooperation all the way through to… And you could hear some of this rapport between Michael and me, when you spend a lot of time with a guy you end up in that relationship. But even then, even when you get comfortable with somebody like I did with Michael and maybe five or six other guys, you still have to have your guard up as a prosecutor. Now, let me break that down for a second. So first of all, you have to do your homework like I said before, and these guys know you’ve done your homework and they know that you’re talking to a million other cooperators, informants, you have other wiretaps. So I always explain that to them. Let’s not do this game of you try to fudge some details and hope I don’t know, because maybe I do and maybe I don’t. But if I do, it’s over, we have to rip up this cooperation agreement and that’s the worst possible thing for you because you’ll already have pled guilty.

Elie Honig:

Have I seen the situation, as I talked about before, where a cooperator leaves out somebody they don’t want to implicate, yes. That was I don’t want to say common, but I definitely caught that happening a handful of times. Now, the far worst scenario is what you said, Safeena, just now where a cooperator would falsely implicate somebody. I have never seen that. I’ve never seen that in a cooperator who I’ve signed up. I had a couple incidents in various situations where somebody was trying to cooperate, not even in the mob context, and included somebody who I didn’t believe or I knew was not involved, or I didn’t think was involved or I wasn’t convinced was involved. That’s an immediate game over, right? I’m not even going to entertain that, right? So I’ve never followed through and actually cooperated somebody or put on a witness where I had any reason to think that they were putting somebody into the case. I mean that’s about the worst thing you could ever do as a prosecutor, right?

Safeena Mecklai:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Elie Honig:

So I was very much on guard for that. And I think that’s far, far less common than the opposite scenario of falsely leaving somebody out.

Safeena Mecklai:

That makes a lot of sense. And it sounds like it goes to the core of the skill of all of this work, which is being able to read people and to be able to make judgments about whether they’re being honest, whether they’re being open, but then also looking to other cooperators to other evidence to make sure that you’re getting truthful information.

Elie Honig:

And let me give you an example of that that I think goes beyond what Michael and I talked about, some of that is just gut instinct, right? That you develop over time as a prosecutor. A lot of that is having done your homework and knowing the details. But I would always look for this. I would always look for did I have a cooperator who was willing to say no to me, right? And I’ll give you an example. We allude to this in the episode, Michael had some information about this 1992 murder that Angelo Prisco was involved in, right? And it was way before Michael’s time. He obviously had nothing to do with it. Michael was probably like a teenager at the time or something. But he had heard a couple of snippets about it. But I remember asking him and a lot of the questions I asked him, he just said, “I just don’t know that. Or I can’t say that.” I even think I said, “Did Angelo ever talk to you about this murder?”

Elie Honig:

Now, if he was just trying to please me, he could’ve been like, “Oh yeah. Angelo said he killed a lot of people.” But Michael said, “I’ve got to be honest, he never talked to me about that. I heard it from other folks. And I had a couple snippets, but no, not from him.” And to me, that was really persuasive. And there’s another case in fact, this will be a future episode, where I had a cooperator who was testifying against the boss and the cooperator had done various murders and attempted murders. And he said, “The boss ordered me to do this one and that one, but this third one he didn’t know about. I just did that one with other people on the side.” And when I heard that, I just thought, “Okay, that is credible, right? He’s not just trying to crush this guy or trying to make me happy, whatever he thinks might make me happy, or just trying to load up everything on the guy.”

Elie Honig:

And Michael showed all of those hallmarks. And I think you can see them in the episode as well. There are times when Michael said, “No, it wasn’t quite like that.” And to me, that was always a really good indicator of credibility.

Safeena Mecklai:

Definitely. And you definitely hear that in the episode, it comes through. Well we’re nearing the end of our time together and I wanted to end on a question that you asked Michael that I wanted to ask you, which is what do you tell your kids about this part of your life?

Elie Honig:

I love that question, and that’s the question that I loved asking Michael, because this was my opportunity to ask Michael all the things I always wanted to ask him but never quite could, and tell him some things, right? I told him the story about the judge, which apparently he had never heard before. You could hear he was shocked by that. What did we tell our kids? And remember, this is a two prosecutor parent household. My wife and I were and to an extent are always very open and candid with our kids. When I did that case with Michael, gosh, they were probably five and three or six and four, or something. We wouldn’t tell them all the details, but definitely probably too early in age, we started to explain what a trial was, right? Why mom or dad is going to be late for the next few weeks because we caught a criminal and he says he didn’t do it and we say he did. And a jury and all that.

Elie Honig:

Later on, I started to tell, especially my son who’s the older one, a bit about the mob and explained to them what the mob was and murders and robbery, probably stuff that’s not super appropriate. The only thing I wouldn’t ever tell them about was home invasions, which as you heard Michael was involved in, because I didn’t want them being scared for their own safety. But one thing we would always stress to them is these are just mobsters and they only do it to other mobsters, they don’t do anything. But my kids were never afraid of that or anything. So I guess the short answer is we told our kids way too much way too early of an age. And when my son finally watched Goodfellas with me, which again was probably way too young in his life, he was probably 11 or 12, he was right with me as I was critiquing it or saying that wouldn’t happen or whatever. He was like, “Yeah, yeah. Why would they do it that way?”

Elie Honig:

So my kids know a lot more about criminal law and crimes than your average kid does, but I think we just made a decision that it’s easier to be straight with them. And again, we filtered out certain stuff. But we were probably too candid with them, but they turned out all right.

Safeena Mecklai:

I’ve met them and they definitely turned out all right. And they had the best entertainment at home that wasn’t Netflix or TV, just being able to talk to you both.

Elie Honig:

And listen, for what it’s worth… Oh, by the way, my daughter used to ask me at bedtime to tell her a story about a case. So I would tell her, I hadn’t thought about that in years, but I guess she got a mini version of these podcasts. And I should say, as of this moment in 2021, my daughter who’s 14 wants to be an FBI agent. So I think that’s cool.

Safeena Mecklai:

That is awesome.

Elie Honig:

That’s it for this episode of Up Against the Mob. If you like what you heard, please rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners to find the show. And as always, please send us your thoughts or questions to letters@cafe.com. Up Against the Mob is presented by CAFE and the Vox Media Podcast Network. I’m your host, Elie Honig. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Adam Waller. The technical director is David Tatasciore. Music is by Nat Wiener. The CAFE team is Matt Billy, David Kurlander, Sam Ozer-Staton, Noa Azulai and Jake Kaplan. Special thanks to Nate White for his help with research. And special thanks to my interviewer, Safeena Mecklai. I’m Elie Honig, and this is Up Against the Mob.