A key figure in the colorful bygone era of organized crime – a world filled with federal accusations of embezzling, loansharking and plenty of violence – has died.
Leonard F. Falzone, once described by a federal judge as a complex "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" character, died Saturday in his Amherst home. He was 81.
A longtime top official of Laborers Local 210, Falzone was a polarizing figure in the federal government's war against racketeering, loansharking and organized crime.
A tall, powerfully built man, he inspired loyalty from most of his associates while fending off federal agents' efforts to link him to local organized crime for 25 years, starting around 1970.
He also attracted public support from some unlikely corners, including local attorneys and Buffalo Common Council members.
To some, Falzone was a “puppy dog,” a loving family man with a contagious laugh who helped keep kids out of trouble and still sent Valentine’s Day hearts to his four sisters in their adult years.
But he had another side, as a key figure in the notorious Laborers Local 210, a man closely watched and followed by the FBI for decades and finally convicted on racketeering charges in 1994.
“There is a dark side to you, Mr. Falzone,” the judge told him at his January 1995 sentencing. “The court does not question that you are a caring, loyal father and husband... But you’re a complex man, almost like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Federal agents and prosecutors devoted great resources -- and a couple decades -- trying to implicate him in several violent acts, but they never succeeded. His lone conviction, on the racketeering charges, led to a five-year prison sentence.
Falzone had passed from public view more than 20 years before he died. His thick Buffalo News file contains not a single story after 1996.
"He served out his retirement years going to his grandchildren's sporting events and being with his family," said an attorney who represented him for decades. That attorney and another person quoted in this story agreed to talk only if they weren't named.
His trial and conviction
More than two decades ago, the Falzone name became a symbol for the government's battle against organized crime.
"The vestiges of what once was an infamous era of organized crime are dissipating with the deaths of people like Leonard Falzone," said one former reporter who covered organized crime. "You can't deny the fact that he was a reputed insider in the Buffalo organized-crime family."
Born on Jan. 26, 1935 in Buffalo, one of seven children whose parents were Sicilian immigrants, Falzone began working at a young age to help support his family. He later worked with Laborers Local 210 for 20 years, starting as a laborer in the early 1970s before becoming a business agent and then pension-fund administrator for the well-known union.
Long considered a Teflon man in the federal government’s investigation of organized crime, Falzone was found guilty in July 1994 of supervising a loansharking ring that lent thousands of dollars to tapped-out gambling addicts at illegal interest rates, according to old Buffalo News reports.
At his trial, prosecutors played numerous FBI taped conversations of Falzone discussing loansharking operations with a longtime friend who became an FBI informer.
Newspaper accounts of those tapes show a lot of tough talk and expletive-laced threats.
Jurors deliberated for more than a week before convicting him of felony racketeering and racketeering conspiracy.
Falzone’s defense attorneys claimed that the case was manufactured by over-zealous FBI agents working with lying, self-serving witnesses, especially the FBI informant and former close friend who agreed to testify against him.
“Leonard is not a saint,” one defense attorney told the court. “He has associated with people [like the informant] all his life. The fact that he has associated with [such people] doesn’t make him guilty of a crime.”
Courtroom observers described Falzone – with his impeccably cut double-breasted suits, fine leather shoes, wavy mane of silver hair and dark, bushy eyebrows – as a man with the distinguished air of a senator or a CEO.
His supporters believed the government created a myth about Falzone. With his strong facial features, his outgoing personality and loud voice, he looked like a Hollywood creation of an organized-crime figure. And that myth, they claimed, was supported by shady informants and unsubstantiated accusations by the government about him being a street thug.
"Instead, he worked in a suit and tie for 20 years as an administrator in a [Local 210] office, working alongside lawyers, accountants and insurance professionals," said his longtime attorney.
Strong support for him
Before Falzone's sentencing in January 1995, 46 longtime friends and family members sent letters to the judge, requesting leniency for him. The letter writers included two Buffalo Common Council members, three local lawyers and other prominent professionals and businessmen.
The two Council members, who had known Falzone for decades, both ended their letters with the same sentence: "I have never observed anything of a threatening nature."
The letters depicted Falzone as a trustworthy union official, a good friend, a loving family man and a warm, caring husband and father who posed no danger to the community. Relatives called him a “big puppy dog” and a devoted brother who, as a boy, helped nurse his brother back from a severely broken leg that had threatened his ability to walk again.
Federal prosecutors, though, painted another portrait of the man, claiming his loansharking enterprise preyed on vulnerable people, including chronic gamblers and drug addicts.
“Despite his love for his family, he engaged in this criminal activity,” one prosecutor told the court. “He dishonored this family.”
The judge sentenced Falzone to five years and one month in federal prison.
Federal investigators and prosecutors may have been frustrated in their belief that Falzone was guilty of more than the racketeering charges.
"But the government never charged him with any assaults," his former attorney said. "They never charged him with any homicides. They never charged him with witness intimidation. They never had enough proof to bring those charges in their decades of surveillance and investigation of him."
Following his death, family members described Falzone as a man with a passion for life, who loved music, history, classic films, travel, food, wine and cooking. Relatives recalled him standing on the dance floor, singing to his grandchildren and “sharing his contagious laughter and thirst for new experiences.”
Survivors include his wife of 45 years, the former Lorraine Lecompte; three daughters, Francesca, Rosanna Hagg and Lisa; two sons, Salvatore and Leonard; two sisters, Lena Herod and Rose; one brother, Frank; and 12 grandchildren.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. Thursday in St. Mark’s Church, on Woodward Avenue in Buffalo.