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The U.S. government filed suit Wednesday to take over a 22,000-member restaurant union in Atlantic City, a major casino center, saying that the union was being run by a reputed Mafia boss from his prison cell.

In an anti-racketeering civil suit brought by the U.S. attorney's office in Newark, the government wants to assume control of Local 54 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union. The suit claims the local is being run by Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo from his prison cell.

U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who flew to Newark to make the announcement, told a news conference, "Through their brutal and sometimes deadly acts of violence and intimidation, members of the Bruno-Scarfo organized crime family have destroyed the integrity of the union and its leadership.

"By placing control in the court's hands and seeking the removal of corrupt union officials, honest members have the opportunity to reclaim their union."

Michael Chertoff, the federal prosecutor for Newark, said, "For more than 20 years in Local 54, union officials and employees have been chosen subject to the approval of and control of the boss of the Bruno-Scarfo family, rather than the local's rank-and-file membership."

The suit seeks the removal of Roy Silbert as Local 54 President and five other Local 54 officials.

The restriction means international President Edward T. Hanley of Antioch, Ill., could be barred from any contact with the local which represents 22,000 members including casino, hotel, bartenders and food workers at Atlantic City casinos.

Scarfo is serving a life sentence on a 1988 conviction involving murder and extortion.

The mob boss is accused of ruling Local 54 by communicating through his son Nicky, a frequent prison visitor, as well as other individuals accused of engaging in organized crime activities.

Phillip Leonetti, Scarfo's nephew and reputed former "underboss" of the family now serving a 45-year prison sentence for a 1988 conviction involving murder and extortion, has agreed to testify for the government in this case, Chertoff said.

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