Sunday, August 1, 2010
Legendary Pittsburgh IRS Agent Retires
'He's one of those agents who crosses the line into legendary status,' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Teitelbaum, who prosecuted the Mafia here in 1990. Mr. Reiser, 56, of Burgettstown, retired last month as a special agent in the criminal division of the Internal Revenue Service, and last week the federal law enforcement community held a roast of sorts for him at a Moon hotel.
'If ever there was a cause for celebration within the criminal element in the Western District of Pennsylvania, it was the day Ed Reiser retired,' said Mike Ivory, a federal prosecutor who worked with Mr. Reiser on interstate drug cases. 'If there is evidence out there, Ed will find it.'
Federal agents have to retire by age 57. The idea is to keep the workforce vital, but it's tough on those who love the job.
A laid-back sort quick to laugh, he belies the stereotype of the chiseled, two-fisted federal agent made popular by Hollywood. He was less likely to nail a suspect with a right cross than with a receipt for that Grand Cayman trip taken four years ago to squirrel away money.
'If you ever wrote a check or ever made a purchase, he could find it and prove it,' said Roger Greenbank, a retired FBI agent who teamed up with Mr. Reiser against the Mafia. 'If you're working a good case, it's not tedious,' Mr. Reiser said. 'It's like a big puzzle.'
He's taught agents how to build those puzzles at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. Techniques he helped pioneer in the 1980s, after the federal government created the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force program, have become routine on large drug cases.
He inspires near-universal admiration. When Mr. Teitelbaum fielded a call last week from a mobster in the federal Witness Protection Program, the man made a point to ask about Mr. Reiser. 'Even the bad guys respected him,' Mr. Teitelbaum said. At the end of the mob trial in 1990, Melvin Schwartz, lawyer for underboss Charles Porter, blasted everyone on the government team as corrupt -- except Mr. Reiser, whom he called the 'only honest' agent. For his part, Mr. Reiser never let anyone get under his skin, the secret to his success as an interviewer and a trial witness. A self-described 'Type B' personality, he's a contrast to most agents who fall squarely in the Type A category.
Despite the fact that some of his targets were 'despicable people,' he said he never felt animus toward them. 'I've never had a case where there's been a real, deep personal hatred. The mob says it best: 'It's just business.'
Mr. Reiser grew up shy and quiet in Coraopolis and Moon. His dad was a steelworker, his mom a waitress. He graduated from Coraopolis High School in 1971. Good at math, he attended Robert Morris College for an accounting degree while working full time at various jobs, including a Shop'n Save where his future wife, Leslie, was a cashier.
He graduated in 1975 and applied to the federal government for a job, but in the meantime decided to explore the West. He drove to Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, sleeping in a pup tent.
When he called home, he learned that the IRS wanted to interview him in Des Moines for a job as a revenue agent investigating civil cases. He called the office to set up an appointment, then bought a shirt and tie to go with his beat-up corduroy jacket. At the Des Moines office, the branch chief met him in the lobby. Mr. Reiser found out later that the man told the interview panel that the interview would be short because 'you should see how this Reiser guy is dressed.'
But Mr. Reiser explained that he was on a solo camping trip and his outfit was the best he could do. The interviewers ended up talking to him for an hour about the trip, impressed by his independence. He spent 15 months there before returning to Pittsburgh as a special agent investigating criminal cases. His first station post was Sharon, where he investigated a kickback scheme at Crucible Steel in Midland.
While most people think the IRS just collects taxes, the agency investigates any case in which criminals launder illegal proceeds. Like the FBI, agents carry guns and make arrests. But in the media, the IRS has always played second fiddle to the FBI. It's a sore point, but Mr. Reiser jokes about it. Even his own family has been occasionally confused. When his daughter was in grade school, her class had to explain what their dads did for a living. 'When it was her turn, she said, 'He works for the FBI,' ' he laughed.
Like any IRS agent, Mr. Reiser worked tax cases, including one against Solomon & Teslovich, a Uniontown trucking firm that ducked paying millions in corporate taxes.
'There were over 300 grand jury subpoenas,' recalled retired IRS Agent Joe Lawlor. 'Eddie was like our computer. He had all these index cards, everything cross-referenced. He was absolutely amazing.'
The 1980s was the cocaine decade, and one of Mr. Reiser's biggest cases involved the Mafia's attempt to control its distribution. Agents chipped away at the Pittsburgh family, eventually developing La Cosa Nostra member Joe Rosa as a star witness. But Mr. Reiser and Mr. Greenbank needed to corroborate what he told them about drug deals by Mr. Porter and the mob's other underboss, Lou Raucci.
That process was painstaking. In one instance, Mr. Rosa recalled meeting a man he knew as "Buddy" in a courtyard of an apartment complex near a Florida intersection. Mr. Reiser, Mr. Greenbank and another agent flew to Florida and at first couldn't find the place. Finally they drove a few hundred yards up one of the streets and saw the courtyard, just as Mr. Rosa described. They asked the building manager if he knew a man that fit Buddy's description, without using the nickname. When the manager produced his rental file, Mr. Greenbank saw handwritten notes referring to 'Buddy' next to one of the renter's names. 'Buddy,' they learned, was Irwin Levie -- the Pittsburgh mob's chief cocaine source.
Mr. Reiser proved an asset in court because of his organizational ability. In one instance, a lawyer argued that the money a drug dealer used to buy a Penn Hills office building could have come from his mother, not from drugs. Mr. Reiser said it was not possible. When the lawyer asked why, Mr. Reiser immediately recited the woman's precise income, in the low $20,000s. Then he asked to review his records. He pulled out her tax return, adding: 'And 57 cents.'
In the end, 40 people went to prison and the local Mafia was crippled, although agents never developed enough evidence to prosecute the reputed godfather, the late Michael Genovese of West Deer. 'He was so secretive that even his lieutenants didn't know what he was doing,' Mr. Reiser said.
In later years, Mr. Reiser helped build the Rincon Indian casino case, in which the Pittsburgh Mafia's Youngstown branch tried to take over the reservation's casino near San Diego. These days, however, La Cosa Nostra is all but dead in Pittsburgh. 'I think the era of the old-fashioned Mafia has gone the way of the dinosaur,' Mr. Reiser said.
But there are other kinds of organized crime. This decade, he tracked the money trail of Stefan Stricker, a cage fighter from the Netherlands who supplied a network that shipped Ecstasy into the United States and Canada behind the glass of tabletop cosmetic mirrors.
The pills ended up sold to students at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Penn State and other college campuses. Part of the case also involved members of a Russian organized crime group from New York who were using a Strip District club to distribute the drug.
Mr. Reiser had a personal connection to the investigation, although he didn't immediately know it. During a 2001 debriefing with a defendant, Eric Osselborn, Mr. Osselborn kept staring at Mr. Reiser and Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Brett Pritts. 'He kept looking at us, saying he knew us,' recalled Agent Pritts, now a supervisor. 'Finally he said to Ed, 'You were my teacher.'
Mr. Reiser had taught Mr. Osselborn in his class on financial investigations at IUP. Agent Pritts and his roommate, now a DEA agent in Chicago, were in the same class. Agent Pritts said he was impressed by the evidence Mr. Reiser assembled in the Ecstasy cases.
'He would come to our meetings with these huge spreadsheets that were so detailed and made the case easy to understand,' he said. 'If you're a defendant sitting at the table and you hear the name Ed Reiser, you know you're done.'
While Mr. Reiser was most comfortable digging through records, he did participate in dangerous arrests. While working on the last case of his career, a California-to-Pittsburgh drug ring, he heard shots for the first time when a suspect opened fire during a February raid in Oakland, Calif. Mr. Reiser came home unscathed. He can't talk about that ongoing investigation, but those who know him say it's typical that he was working hard up until the end. 'When the general public thinks of IRS agents, they think of Eliott Ness,' Mr. Ivory said. 'I think of Ed Reiser.'"
You'd think with my accounts of bad lawyers and worst law enforcement you'd not find this sort of profile on Bad Lawyer, but some stories are just too interesting to ignore and deserve wider attention for the light they cast on the workings of the justice system. Agent Reiser is the antithesis of the Bad Cops I usually feature, here, he's the sort of gentleman who breeds respect for the rule of law. The terrific profile by Torsten Ove should give you a sense of what's involved in the war on crime at the agent level.