Real-life Donnie Brasco expected to testify at Charbonneau Commission on Monday
Published Thursday, September 13, 2012 5:41PM EDT
MONTREAL - The Charbonneau Commission is recruiting one of the world’s great gangbusters to take aim at Quebec's construction graft.
Joseph Pistone, 73, infiltrated the Mafia Bonanno family in New York in the 1970s under the alias Donnie Brasco and his work ultimately led to the arrest of at least 200 mobsters.
His story was turned into a blockbuster film starring Johnny Depp and Al Pacino.
It is not immediately clear why Pistone was chosen to testify at the probe, or whether he has any specific knowledge about the Montreal crime scene.
One crime analyst believes that Pistone will be asked to describe some of the general backgrounds of life in the underworld.
“He knows the culture of the Mafia, the protocols, the rituals, he'll be a rich witness to the commission in terms of how the Mafia makes its money, how the Mafia works, its chain of command, its reliance on corruption and intimidation,” said Adrian Humphreys author of The Sixth Family.
The Bonanno family is said to have close links to the Montreal Cosa Nostra, however the only real connection that the retired Pistone has with the city is circuitous at best.
When he still undercover, Pistone was invited to take part in a triple murder in 1981. He was replaced by then-rising mobster Vito Rizzuto, who is to be released from U.S. prison next month for that crime.
If nothing else, the larger-than-life Pistone is expected to keep the already-interesting probe even more tantalizing.
“Pistone, under the guise of Donnie Brasco, had an unbelievable success in infiltrating the Mafia, going into trusted places, getting their trust like no one before and no one since,” said Humphreys.
One crime expert says Pistone remains an authority on the Italian Mafia and may be able to provide a broader picture of how the organization works.
But given that his expertise was gathered in another era, in another country, he might not have relevant specifics to share at Quebec's inquiry, the expert said.
"He's very knowledgeable, he's very intelligent," said Antonio Nicaso, an author and expert on the Mafia in Canada.
"But I don't know what he can add about the Canadian side (of the Mafia)."
The French-language arm of the CBC reports that Pistone will testify on Monday -- which happens to be his 73rd birthday. Spokespeople for the inquiry have not confirmed or denied the report.
Quebec's Charbonneau commission is looking into criminal corruption in the construction industry and its ties to organized crime and political parties. Hearings are scheduled to begin again Monday after a nearly three-month summer pause.
Pistone is no stranger to testifying.
After infiltrating the infamous Bonanno crime family, and to a lesser extent the Colombo family, between 1976 to 1981, he spent the years that followed testifying in several trials that led to more than 100 federal convictions.
The Bonannos are alleged to have links to Montreal's Rizzuto clan. In fact, Vito Rizzuto has spent the last several years in a U.S. prison in connection with 1981 murders that were referenced in the "Donnie Brasco" movie featuring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.
Rizzuto is slated for release from a U.S. prison early next month.
Nicaso doubts that Pistone knows much about the Mafia in Canada or is up to date on current events. Montreal's Mafia has been torn apart by a bloody power struggle since Rizzuto was extradited in 2006.
But Pistone is aware of just how the Mob functions -- whether in Quebec or elsewhere -- and might provide the commission with valuable insight.
"The Mafia is an organization that was capable of remaining in business for so long only because of its capacity to build relationships with politicians, businessmen, bankers," Nicaso said.
"If they were only violent criminals, they wouldn't have survived this long."
Nicaso says that relationship with politics, legitimate business and the financial world is the key to understanding the Mafia's reach.
Pistone noted in 1988, during testimony before a United States senate sub-committee, that organized crime was already undergoing a culture shift in that country.
"I think it has changed in that with the younger members coming up, they are not as dedicated to the society as the older individuals," Pistone testified then, noting that the new generation was less tied to tradition.
"On the other hand, they have changed by diversifying more in their illegal activities. They are putting more of their illegal proceeds into legal businesses, legitimate businesses."
Charbonneau commission spokesman Richard Bourdon said Thursday that he would not confirm Pistone's presence next week. Witnesses to the commission are made public 24 to 48 hours in advance.
Pistone, who retired from the FBI in 1986, has worked as a consultant to law-enforcement agencies and as an FBI trainer since then. He has also authored several books and worked in film and television.
But the police legend leads a very secretive life.
He reportedly has a $500,000 bounty on his head and, even after three decades and an FBI warning for mobsters to leave him alone, Pistone still treads carefully.
In a 2005 interview with National Geographic about a documentary on the Mafia, Pistone indicated he was still taking precautions and travelling under an assumed name and in disguise.
In a 2008 interview with a journalist in Las Vegas, he changed the location of the interview at the last minute and when they finally met he was accompanied by bodyguards.
-With a file from The Canadian Press