From the Archives: Mario Cuomo’s All-Star Family Feud

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Matilda Cuomo and Mario Cuomo during 1989 New York City Columbus Day Party at Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, New York, United States.
Mario Cuomo with his wife Matilda during the 1989 New York City Columbus Day Party at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.Photo: Ron Galella/Wire Image

This article appeared in the February 13, 1989 issue of New York Magazine.

The family gathered at the three-day wake last fall for Charles Raffa, Mario Cuomo’s strong-willed, 84-year-old father-in-law. Matilda Cuomo, the governor’s youthful, dark­-haired wife, stood by the coffin with her 82-year-old mother, and the four other Raffa children helped greet visitors and accept condolences. Raffa had been an old-world patriarch, a man who believed deeply in the family, and the tab­leau at his wake suggested nothing to disappoint him.

But within a few weeks, members of the Raffa family were facing off against one another in a bitter feud over the legacy of their father, who died without fully recovering from a mysterious beating in 1984. The trouble began with the estate — largely commercial properties and homes — that Raffa left. Some estimates have placed its value as high as $13.8 million, though friends of the family say it’s closer to $5 million. In any case, the will has spawned an angry court battle, with the family bickering over who will control the money.

On one side, Matilda Cuomo, 57, joined by her younger brother and sister, is challenging the validity of the will, which leaves her $700,000 before taxes (under the high estimate) and names her brother Sam as executor of the estate. In court papers, Ms. Cuomo has accused Sam Raffa of be­ing “untrustworthy,” and she has sought to question him about the disappearance of a $100,000 trust fund that her father had set up for her. Sam Raffa, who has his brother Frank on his side, has fought back, claiming his sister is trying to “harass” and “intimidate” him to get a larger share of the estate.

The feud is an embarrassment for the governor, but the court battle getting underway is not so much about Mario Cuomo as it is about his late father-in­-law and the complex relationships among his children. Over the years, as Matilda Raffa Cuomo became known as a key player in her husband’s successful political career, a rift developed between her and her lesser-known brother Sam, a Republican, who is now a deputy county attorney in Nassau. “Sam has had to deal with being the governor’s brother-in-law for a long time,” says a source close to the case.

As it became clear that Matilda Cuomo and Sam Raffa would collide in claiming their legacies, friends and associates warned Matilda that she would certainly face the kind of painful publicity she’d always tried to avoid (she refused to be interviewed for this article, as did the other members of her family). She decided to go ahead with the court fight anyway. “She felt what Sam was doing was wrong, and she made up her mind to go all the way,” says a friend of hers. I don’t think [the governor] had much to do with the decision.”

The case poses questions about Charles Raffa’s competence at the time he signed a codicil to the will and about the true value of his estate. But it also brings into focus the family itself. “A will becomes a reflection of what somebody really thinks of you,” says a lawyer familiar with the case. “You find out what you were worth to them. If it was just about money, you could settle it in 20 seconds.” More feuding lies ahead, and the strain is already showing on the state’s First Family. “They’re like any other people,” says a Cuomo adviser. “You can find 3,000 cases like this in any surrogate’s court. The only difference in this one is the last name.”

Charles Raffa was 23 when he came to this country from Messina, Sicily, in 1927. He had little money, less English, a wife named Mary Gitto, and tremendous ambition. Within a few years, he went from being an uneducated laborer to running his own firm, making supermarket shelves and refrigeration units. He later invested his profits in real estate, including a home in East Flatbush and a summer house in New Jersey.

The Raffa family grew steadily. First came two boys, Frank, now 62, who grew up to be an engineer, and Sam, 59. The two youngest children were Joseph, 45, who lives in California and works with computers, and Nancy, a fortyish housewife in New Jersey. The middle child, Matilda, showed her promise early on. She was accepted at Columbia Teachers College, Brooklyn College, and Hunter. Her older brothers were concerned about her safety in traveling to and from Manhattan, however, and they insisted that she go to the teachers’ college at St. John’s, where Sam attended law school.

In 1951, Matilda Raffa met Mario Cuomo, who was two years behind her brother at the law school. To this day, people close to the family say Sam Raffa has been jealous of the success of his younger schoolmate. “Sam’s basically an insecure guy,” says a family friend. “Here he is, the son of a rich man, and he has to stand by and watch as Mario Cuomo, the son of the guy who ran a grocery store, goes by him and becomes secretary of state, then lieutenant governor, and then governor. It’s got to leave him feeling unfulfilled.”

Sam Raffa’s supporters deny that assertion. “He does not feel he is envious of his brother-in-law,” says lawyer Ed McCoyd. “Some of the press reports have portrayed him as this mastermind schemer. He’s not. He’s a very pleasant guy with a family, who had great affection for his father.”

Nevertheless, as Mario Cuomo continued his political ascent through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Sam Raffa seemed to be the one member of the family who was not consistently included in the winner’s circle. “Everybody in the family gets along, except for Sam,” says one Cuomo aide.

Sam Raffa has worked steadily as a deputy at the Nassau County Attorney’s office handling various municipal matters and today makes $42,620 a year. On the side, he has a small private practice. He lives quietly in Syosset and served as one of several lawyers handling his father’s affairs.

In his later years, most of Charles Raffa’s business involved his real-estate properties. Throughout the ‘60s, Raffa bought up dozens of buildings in Brooklyn and Queens and on Long Island. Five years ago, one of the deals he tried to make turned into a forerunner of the battles that would later erupt among his children. In late 1983, the owner of Red’s, a Brooklyn toy store, became interested in buying a large storefront space Raffa owned on the main street in Long Beach, Long Island. Lucille Falcone, once the law partner and girlfriend of the governor’s son Andrew, was brought in to handle the deal for Raffa, and a contract was signed to sell the property for more than $300,000. But before the deal could close, Falcone was replaced by Sam Raffa. “I think Sam’s feathers were ruffled because he was not the lawyer before,” says Ronald Krakauer, the lawyer for the buyer. “He wanted to be the hero and make the deal for his father.” During one deposition in the case, Sam Raffa tried to explain the situation with his father. “Our relationship is beyond the father-son loving relationship,” he told Krakauer. “I’m his attorney, and I was then and I am now in charge of his affairs.”

The deal soon fell apart, with each side accusing the other of not living up to the terms of the contract. Today, the matter is still in litigation. “If Falcone had not been fired, the deal would have gone through,” Krakauer says. “We just got caught in the first cross fire of a family feud.”

In 1984, the extended Cuomo-Raffa family found itself facing a far more serious crisis. On May 22, Charles Raffa was visiting one of his properties, an empty supermarket on Stanley Avenue in the East New York section of Brooklyn. At about noon, neighbors saw Raffa stumbling out of the building, mumbling incoherently. He had been beaten, and his head had been sliced open so badly that his scalp covered his eyes. He was never able to give a useful description of his attackers, and the police never made an arrest.

Over the months and years that followed, rumors about what had happened multiplied. According to one, Raffa was an arsonist trying to burn down his own building, and the beating was a mob hit. In another, the governor himself had orchestrated an official cover-up of the incident by having his bodyguard (a New York City police detective) wash the car to remove fingerprints linking Raffa with a young man who’d been seen in the car earlier. Nicholas Pileggi showed in an article in New York (“Cuomo and Those Rumors,” November 2, 1987) that most of the stories were false, misleading, or largely unsubstantiated.

In the meantime, though, Raffa’s condition continued to deteriorate, and it became clear that he was no longer able to handle his affairs. Taxes had not been paid on some properties, and some bills were not being collected. Members of the family applied to the Supreme Court in Brooklyn to have a conservator appointed, and the court asked a Manhattan lawyer, Harvey Sackstein, to evaluate the situation. Sackstein reported in June 1987 that Raffa was unable to speak or otherwise express himself and that his real-estate holdings were estimated to have a value of about $5 million. He recommended that a conservator be named to look after Raffa’s business dealings.

From the start, family members jockeyed over who would be the conservator. Sam Raffa came forward, saying he was best suited because he had the most-detailed knowledge of his father’s holdings. But he expected to be challenged by some members of the family, who, his lawyer said in court papers, “will allege that Sam Raffa is slow to take necessary actions.”

Indeed, Mary Raffa told the court in opposing Sam’s appointment, “I have been most disappointed in what Sam has done and not done in connection with his father’s business affairs in the last several years.” Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Sebastian Leone eventually worked out a compromise between the parties so that Frank and Sam Raffa served as co-conservators with Manufacturers Hanover Trust in overseeing the assets.

The truce lasted less than a year and a half. On October 19, 1988, Charles Raffa died at the Jewish Institute for Geriatric Care in New Hyde Park, on Long Island. The first sign of trouble came a few days later, at the reading of the will, signed in 1977. Raffa left his wife, Mary, a third of the estate. He then rewarded Frank and Sam for naming their sons after him by giving each of those two grandchildren shares of his stock holdings estimated in value at more than $1.5 million (he had also said that if Joseph Raffa, who has two daughters, had a son and called him Charles, that grandson would receive an equal share). Finally, the elder Raffa gave each of his three sons 25 percent of the remaining estate and assigned Matilda Cuomo and her sister, Nancy Mazzola, 12.5 percent each. (That means that under the high estimate of the estate’s value, Charles Raffa’s sons would each get approximately $1,400,000 and his daughters $700,000.) He named Ronald Bianchi, an upstate lawyer, as executor of the will.

The real surprise, though, was a handwritten codicil to the will signed in a spidery scrawl by Raffa on September 9, 1984, three and a half months after the mugging and four years before his death. The document revoked the clause naming Bianchi as executor and appointed Sam Raffa in his place, entitling him to legal fees and an executor’s commission to be determined by the court. Sam Raffa later said in court documents that he had drafted the codicil.

Charles Raffa was living at home on the date the codicil was signed. Perhaps coincidentally, his doctor, Philip Moskowitz of New York University Medical Center, wrote a note that day saying that since Raffa had been beaten, he “has had severe difficulties with ambulation, memory, and decision making. He has become totally dependent on others for the activities of daily living.”

Some other people close to the family insisted they were not shocked that Sam Raffa had been named executor in the codicil. In fact, they said, money was not necessarily the prime motivation. “There’s an ego interest involved for Sam,” says one source. “By being named executor, he thinks he’s becoming an important person. This gives him the respect he ‘deserves.’ He steps into Charlie Raffa’s shoes.”

Matilda Cuomo was quickly joined by her younger brother, Joseph, and her sister, Nancy, in challenging the codicil. “For years, Matilda had been giving Sam the benefit of the doubt,” says a friend of hers. “But when she saw that codicil, it was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. She tried to talk to Sam about it, but he wouldn’t listen. She had to take him to court.”

There was also a financial motivation. For Matilda Cuomo, who grew up in a relatively well-to-do family, money seems always to have been a sensitive issue. “Mario gave up his law practice so he could be a full-time lieutenant governor,” she told a reporter just before her husband was elected governor in 1982. “He really sacrificed the family’s needs. I have no aversion to making money. He could have made a lot more money for himself, truly.” Her husband’s growing prominence did not change the feeling. “To some people, [her share of the estate] might not seem like all that much money,” says a family friend. “Not enough to go to court over. To Mario and Matilda Cuomo, it’s a fortune. They haven’t got any money.”

Sam Raffa took the will to Nassau County Surrogate’s Court for probate. The first issue the two sides argued about was whether they were in the right court — a question that hinged on where Charles Raffa lived (or intended to live) toward the end of his life. Sam Raffa claimed that Charles Raffa had actually lived in Sam’s Syosset house for a while before being hospitalized and that he had intended to return when he was well enough. As a result, Sam Raffa argued, the will should be probated in the Nassau County courts — the same courts, of course, in which Sam Raffa had practiced law for many years.

Matilda Cuomo’s side countered that her father had never wanted to leave his Brooklyn home and live with her brother. “The truth happens to be that, in his more than eight decades of his life, he never spent more than a week at the home of Sam J. Raffa,” she said in court papers. She added that if her brother was “so untrustworthy as to misrepresent so elemental a fact as my father’s residence address, for some real or imagined advantage,” he was not fit to be the executor. The proceedings be­longed in Brooklyn, she said.

The battle quickly escalated. In early December, Sam Raffa objected to his sister’s “personal attack on me,” calling it “part of a plan to eventually attack the provisions of my father’s will.” He asked Judge C. Raymond Radigan, of Nassau County Surrogate’s Court, to let him continue as executor. Radigan agreed to a temporary arrangement with Sam Raffa. But the judge forbade Raffa to sell any of his father’s property without court approval until the venue of the proceedings was settled.

In the meantime, an even more ferocious legal wrangle splintered off from the case. Matilda Cuomo’s side brought a separate action against her brother in Manhattan Supreme Court, charging that a $100,000 trust fund her father had set up for her at Citibank had been “invaded improperly” while Sam Raffa had power of attorney for his father.

When Matilda questioned her brother, Sam Raffa, about the trust fund, he denied any knowledge of the trust fund,” her lawyer, Peter James Johnson Jr., said in court papers, “and, in fact, brazenly laughed away her queries concerning the evidence of the account as ‘stupid,’ ‘idiotic,’ ‘You’re crazy,’ and ‘I never heard of any trust fund for you.’”

Sam Raffa got tough, too, accusing his sister of trying to gain an advantage in the Nassau County case. One of Raffa’s lawyers, David Keegan, called the suit “nothing more than a fishing expedition … motivated by disappointed expectations.” Raffa did admit that his father had set up a temporary trust fund, but he said it had been closed before Charles Raffa died. His father, Sam Raffa said, had taken more than $21,000 out of the account to pay off back taxes to the IRS; another $70,000 had gone toward paying off business expenses; and the $6,331.82 left over had gone into a conservatorship account.

Johnson pointed out that all of those transactions had taken place while Charles Raffa was very ill and Sam had power of attorney. “Who’s kidding whom?” the lawyer asked in court papers.

By Christmastime, the court appeared to be leaning Ms. Cuomo’s way. Citibank officials confirmed that the trust fund was in Matilda’s name and that Sam Raffa — using the power of attorney — had transferred most of the money to an insured money-market account. Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Walter Schackman granted that Sam Raffa had told the truth about the account but said, “The court finds it difficult to understand why [Sam Raffa] did not make a full disclosure to this court of the complete circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of the funds and why an IRS levy was made against the account.” The judge then ordered Raffa to answer questions about the trust fund from Ms. Cuomo’s lawyer. That deposition was closed to the press, but at a tense session beforehand, Sam Raffa gestured at the lawyers for the other side and said, “Let’s face it, they have nothing.”

In Nassau County, Judge Radigan is also trying to clear up some of the issues. He assigned Father Alan Placa, a priest and lawyer who is fluent in Italian, to visit Charles Raffa’s widow, Mary. At various times, she has appeared to be on each side of the family split. Father Placa has recommended that a guardian be appointed to help her follow the proceedings. “Her main concern,” says Radigan, “is that the family stays together.” Radigan also assigned an appraiser to examine the records and look at the 50 or so properties Charles Raffa owned in New York, New Jersey, and Italy, so that a realistic value can be calculated for the estate.

The $13.8 million figure has appeared in several press accounts and documents, but people familiar with the case say they don’t know how the number got that high. They claim the old estimate of $5 million is closer to the truth. “A lot of those properties might not be worth that much right now,” says one source. “You’d have to put an awful lot of work into them to make selling them worthwhile.” A visit to some of the sites confirms there are problems. One Raffa building, at 1784 Atlantic Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, is an abandoned two-story warehouse. Its windows are smashed, its front driveway is a graveyard of burnt furniture and old tires, and crack users wander in and out of the building. Around the corner, on Utica Avenue, a vacant lot owned by Raffa is strewn with weeds and crack vials. Besides the properties, Raffa’s estate consists of a few stocks and not much in the way of cash.

While the assessing is going on, the family is trying to deal with the emotional impact of the courtroom battle. The governor has carefully avoided saying anything about the case, but Matilda Cuomo is said to be heartbroken about the family infighting. “In spite of everything, Sam is still her brother,” says a friend. “When Sam comes off badly, it hurts her too.”

Raffa’s lawyer Ed McCoyd says his client also finds the acrimony upsetting, but that does not mean the family is about to work things out. “I don’t know if it’s possible,” McCoyd says. “But I know that before it can happen, a lot of people are going to have to say they’re sorry to each other.”