"I am not in no racket," Carlos Marcello once testified."I am not in no organized crime."

The government has never believed that claim since the days of the Kefauver Committee almost 30 years ago, but it has never been able to make much of a couurt case against the man whom many experts regard as one of the most powerful Mafia bosses in the country.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy deported him to Guatemala in 1961, with an assist from the CIA. Marcello came back. A Bureau of Narcotics report in 1962 called him "one of the nation's leading racketeers." He has been convicted of nothing in recent years -- beyond losing his temper and socking an FBI agent at the airport here in 1966.

Now, it is clear, the Justice Department believes it has compiled some strong evidence against Marcello in a wide-ranging investigation of political corruptions from here to California. The allegations, which have yet to be sifted in the courts, include influence-peddling with state officials, improprieties in his fight against deportation, and scheming to bribe a federal judge in Los Angeles on behalf of a fellow Mafioso.

A look at Marcello's record suggests there is a long legal battle ahead. With Carlos Marcello, very little is certain, not even where he was born.

"There was just no way of penetrating that area," a former FBI official once said of Marcello's organization. "He was too smart."

He has been accused, officially and unofficially, of virtually every crime in the book, even complicity in the assassination of President Kennedy. But neither indictments nor rhetoric have made much of a dent. In "the Gret Stet of Loosiana" where boisterious politics and bizarre alliances are a way of life, Marcello, now 70, is still flourishing.

By Marcello's account, he was for a long time little more than a tomato salesman who was earning, just a few years ago, "a salary of about $1,600 a month," traveling to various fruit stands and markets in the New Orleans area. (He is not supposed to leave the state for more than 48 hours without the permission of federal authorities). In testimony before the House Select Committee on Crime in 1972, he also allowed that he made additional income through land investments.

According to the Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans, Marcello and his enterprises -- often placed in the names of family members and trusted lieutenannts -- were generating more than $500 million a year in illegal gambling activities alone as far back as the early 1960s. Untold millions more, according to the commission's recently retired director, Aaron M. Kohn, came from diverse "legitimate interests," syndicate-controlled bars and taverns, prostitution, professional burglaries and holdups, narcotics, and trafficking in stolen commodities.

The portfolio is far different today. Marcello no longer describes himself as a tomato salesman. "I am an investor," he told the Reader's Digest in a rare interview in 1977. "I deal in real estate, in apartments and in land." He might have added hotels, restaurants, sightseeing buses, nightclubs, meat distribution and other businesses to the changing list as well.

In Kohn's view, it still adds up to "legitimate interests illegitimately operated" to the frustration of the Internal Revenue Service and believers in clean government. "They are much more sophisticated," he says. "They are no longer predominant in the vice, gambling and street-crime business. They've learned, with the help of lawyers and accountants, how to make their money work for them."

Friends and enemies allike seem agreed on one thing: Marcello's political power. Even the governor, Edwin Edwards, allowed last week that he happened to meet with Marcello once, in a coffee shop, for reasons that the governor chose not to disclose.

"Everybody knows Mr. Marcello knows Louisiana state politics," says Washington promoter-lobbyist I. Irving Davidson, a longtime acquaintance. "He knows everybody in the state."

"Marcello is constantly at work expanding his influence," says Kohn. "It's the power of the Godfather and he's constantly exercising it. Marcello today is a power broker. He's at work doing that all the time and getting a piece of the action."

Perhaps the best demonstration came in 1968 when Marcello was convicted in Houston, after a second trial, of assaulting the FBIman at New Orleans International Airport. (The first trial, in Laredo, produced a hung jury.)

More than 30 leading Louisianans wrote the trial judge to urge clemency and attest to Marcello's fine character. The list included a sheriff, a former sheriff, a state legislator, two former state legislators, two former state police commanders, the president of a waterfront labor union, a bank president, two bank vice presidents, a former assistant district attorney, one chief juvenile probation officer, a former revenue agent, three insurance agencies, five real estate men, five physicians, a funeral director and six clergymen.

The judge sentenced Marcello to two years in federal prison. He served less than six months.

The influence was more flagrant in earlier years. In its final report in 1951, the Kefauver Committee attributed Marcello's domination of organized crime in Louisiana largely to the "personal enrichment of sheriffs, marshals and other law enforcement officials," who had received payoffs for "their failure to enforce gambling laws and other statutes related to vice."

Kohn told a House Judiciary subcommittee in 1970 of Marcello and his organization in the 1940s and 50s:

"Their criminal enterprise required, and had, corrupt collusion of public officials at every critical level, including police, sheriffs, justices of the peace, councilmen, licensing authorities, state legislators and at least one member of Congress."

However the influence is described, it is quite an accomplishment for a noncitizen who, it is generally believed, was born in Tunis, North Africa, on Feb. 6, 1910, with the name of Calogero Minacore.

Marcello's first brush with the law came in 1929 when he was arrested in a local bank robbery. The charges were later dropped. He was convicted of assault and robbery in 1930 for a grocery store holdup but he served less than five years of a 9-to-14 year term. The governor of Louisiana, O. K. Allen, pardoned him at the behest of an Algiers, La., politician doing a favor for Marcello's parents.

(Gov. Allen's "penchant for following the direction of others became legend," according to historian T. Harry Williams. "Earl Long said that once when the governor was sitting in his office signing official documents, a leaf blew in the window onto his desk. Allen signed the leaf, Earl said sarcastically.")

From then on, according to a lengthy staff study by the House Assassinations Committee that was completed last year, Marcello was on the way up, offset by little more than 1938 federal narcotics conviction for which he served less than 10 months. He was also fined $76,830 but he pleaded poverty and was permitted to settle up for $400.

Longtime Marcello watchers here describe him as a protege of the late New York underworld boss Frank Costello whose in-laws still live on the same block with Marcello in suburban Metairie. In 1935, Costello later told a federal grand jury, he made a deal with Sen. Huey Long (D-La.) to introduce slot machines in New Orleans -- for a yearly fee to the Long organization of $30 a machine. Marcello reportedly joined Costello's slot machine network in the 1940s.

"They needed a local man to do the collections and strong-arm stuff," asserts one source who has been keeping tabs on Marcello for years. "Frank Costello made him what he is today." Kohn suggests that local Mafia leaders such as Silvestro Carollo and Francesco Coppolo, both deported to Italy in the late 1940s, also helped.

Pressures for Marcello's deportation began in 1951 with the Kefauver Committee hearings at which Marcello invoked the Fifth Amendment and was cited, unsuccessfully, for contempt of Congress. Deportation proceedings began in early 1953. The litigation is still going on today. As the House Assassinations Committee pointed out last year, there are no practical limits on the number and frequency of appeals and other legal steps that can be taken to forestall deportation.

By 1961, according to the committee, Marcello was "widely recognized as one of the 10 most powerful Mafia leaders in the United States . . . a La Cosa Nostra boss whose businesslike approach, political influence and power were particularly respected in the underworld." That same year, within a few weeks of taking office, Attorney General Kennedy tried to cut through the red tape of deportation law in a controversial move that still has even Marcello's opponents shaking their heads with disapproval.

According to one knowledgeable source, the Justice Department learned from an informat that Marcello had a forgery expert doctor the birth records in Guatemala -- in case deportation could not be avoided.

Kennedy saw no point in waiting. Early in 1961, the CIA station in Guatemala, busy with plotting for the Bay of Pigs, got a puzzling assignment from Washington. It was instructed -- on authority of the attorney general and with the approval of the president -- to check the birth records in San Jose Pinula 40 miles to the north and look for any irregularities in the entries for a particular year.

The CIA complied and found what Washington wanted -- an entry in the name of Cologero Minacore, reportedly without the requisite number and sandwiched between two properly, and consecutively, numbered entries.

The information was cabled back to Washington and the Immigration and Naturalization Service obtained an entry permit from the Guatemalan government on March 15, 1961. Before long, according to an informed source, the CIA station in Guatemala City was sent additional instructions: to arrance for the arrival of a "black" (unauthorized) flight from the United States and the arrest, upon arrivals of its principal occupant: a Guatemalan citizen named Minacore, also known as Carlos Marcello.

"We suggested [to the Guatemalan authorities ] that you've got either an illegal immigrant here or a Guatemalan citizen without identification papers," one source says.

On April 4, 1961, Marcello was arrested on his regular visit to the INS office here to report as an alien, put in handcuffs, and rushed to the airport for the flight south. He was arrested on arrival in Guatamala City. News reports at the time said he was detained in connection with what were described as false citizenship papers he presented to Guatemalan authorities.

Marcello was put in jail, but not for long. Within a few days, he moved to the Guatemala Biltmore. But it wasn't like New Orleans.

"You know," he reportedly told an acquaintance several weeks later, "they say I'm a crook. But let me tell you, it's cost me $75,000 to stay out of jail here."

Much of the expense, sources say, was prompted by one of President Migirel Ydigoras Fuentes' closest confidants who suggested that Marcello, as San Jose Pinula's most famous citizen, would no doubt want a new school there. That, it is said, cost him $50,000.

On May 4, 1961, the Guatemalan government ordered Marcello expelled. He was driven to El Salvador and released late at night.From there, he made his way back to the United States, reportedly through Honduras.

In its report last year, the House Assassinations Committee cited threats Marcello reportedly made against the Kennedys because of what had happened to him. Marcello, testifying before the committee under a grant of immunity in 1978, denied such talk.

Once back in the United States, Marcello was tried on federal charges of conspiracy in connection with his alleged falsification of a Guatemalan birth cirtificate. He was acquitted on Nov. 22, 1963, in a New Orleans courtroom, shortly after news of President Kennedy's assassination arrived. He was indicted again, in 1964, on charges of having bribed a member of the 1963 jury and of having requested the murder of the chief government witness in the 1963 trial. But the government witness was reportedly unwilling to testify and that accusation was dropped. Marcello was acquitted of the bribery charges.

By all accounts, Marcello has been living quietly in recent years, investing his wealth in seemingly sedate enterprises, until the FBI's Operation Brilab struck. Working with a go-between named Joseph Hauser, an insurance swindler who evidently gained Marcello's confidence, the FBI has reportedly implicated Marcello in a number of bribes and kickbacks to politicians and union leaders here and in other states.

Hauser began working with the FBI in the spring of 1979 and was commended to Marcello by lobbyist Davidson, who was apparently unaware of the "sting." But according to Davidson, it was not the first time Marcello and Hauser had met.

Back in 1976, Hauser had, with Davidson's help, secured a lucrative Teamster's Union insurance contact. Then Hauser began looking for a licensed insurance company to buy and settled on the National American Life Insurance Co. of Baton Rouge, which was up for sale. At the time it was owned by Rober LeBlanc, who used NALICO's assets to finance real estate deals.

Davidson said he warned Hauser to be careful and took him "to meet Carlos" for advice. Marcello, Davidson said, sent Hauser to New Orleans financier Louis Roussel, a former owner of NALICO. Davidson said Roussel advised Hauser to make sure he had a good lawyer.

Contacted Friday by phone, Roussel began shouting at the first mention of Davidson's name. Told that Davidson had said he introduced Hauser to Marcello in 1976 and that Marcello had then introduced Hauser to Roussel, Roussel exclaimed, "He's a goddamn liar," and hung up the phone.

A round-faced, benign-looking grandfather who works out of an office behind his Town & Country Restaurant in Jefferson Parish, Marcello has had no public comment on the new controversy swirling about him although he has described himself in the past as a man unjustly harrased by the FBI and maligned by members of the press.

The Justice Department takes a different view of the situation. When it first informed U.S. District Court Judge Harry Pregerson of Los Angeles last November of Operation Brilab, it emphasized the need for continued secrecy.

". . . . [B] ecause some of the potential defendants in this case are La Cosa Nostra members, including a powerful family boss," the government's lawyers said, premature disclosure "will endanger the lives" of both Hauser and the FBI undercover agents working with him.