Two decades ago, John Mariotta worked with his hands in his tool-and-die shop in the South Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium. He had two employees; he eked out a living.

That was long ago, before the dollar signs multiplied and then multiplied again, before President Reagan called him a hero of the 1980s, before his Welbilt Electronic Die Corp. became Wedtech.Now Mariotta's waiting for a jury to begin deliberations on charges that he and five co-defendants, including Rep. Mario Biaggi, turned the company into a racketeering enterprise that dispensed millions in bribes to secure government contracts.

Mariotta, 58, is an illiterate who by dint of know-how and enthusiasm turned Wedtech into a success story.

Mariotta's parents were natives of Puerto Rico and he was born in Spanish Harlem. He dropped out of high school and joined the military. Once out, he tried to start a business but it failed, as did his next two businesses.

But by all accounts he is very good with his hands, a mechanical genius. And in 1970 he hooked up with Fred Neuberger, a mechanical engineer.

Together, they built Wedtech. With Mariotta as chairman and chief executive officer the company expanded, obtaining Pentagon contracts set aside for minority-owned companies on a no-bid basis.

Wedtech hired welfare recipients, drug addicts, gang members. Soviet emigres, Cambodian boat people, Indians, blacks and Hispanics all were represented among the employees, and financial analysts joked that the company had to hire translators and hold its meetings at the United Nations.

Mariotta fired the company with his can-do spirit. He spoke to each new employee to infuse them with Wedtech's up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy.

When layoffs struck, he delivered groceries to the workers. An employee with a sick parent in Puerto Rico would receive time off and a ticket home.

When the contracts rolled in, eventually, the company employed 1,500 people and did $100 million in business annually. Mariotta lived in the exclusive Westchester community of Scarsdale.

At a Republican dinner in Manhattan in March of 1984, Ronald Reagan saluted Mariotta as "a hero for the '80s." And the next year, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department named him minority entrepreneur of the year.

Then it all came apart. He was ousted as chairman and chief executive director in February 1986. Wedtech eventually closed shop and sought protection under bankruptcy statutes.

The prosecution says Biaggi, 70, a 10-term congressman, extorted nearly $4 million in Wedtech stock in exchange for helping the company. The defense maintains the stock was given to Biaggi's law firm to settle unpaid legal fees owed by Wedtech.

When prosecutors asserted that Mariotta knowingly broke the law, his answers were emphatic and to the point:

"No ways, no how."