By Jeremy Roebuck, Inquirer Staff Writer
Former Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino could be headed back to prison mere days before his court-ordered supervision is scheduled to end this week if federal authorities have their way.
His probation officers say the 52-year-old ex-don violated the terms of his release in June with a night on the town with one of his former mob captains and two convicted felons in Boca Raton, Fla.
The terms of his probation prohibit Merlino from associating with convicted felons or members of La Cosa Nostra.
For Merlino, who publicly swore off the mob and moved to South Florida after his release from federal custody three years ago, the new allegation could bring an abrupt halt to postprison plans that range from opening a restaurant or bar to launching a late-in-life acting career.
Merlino's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs, did not return calls for comment Saturday.
According to an affidavit filed in a Philadelphia federal court last week, authorities in Broward County, Fla., conducted surveillance on a June 18 dinner between Merlino and the ex-cons at an Old World Italian restaurant in a Boca Raton strip mall.
The foursome later departed for after-dinner drinks in the VIP area of the swank Havana Nights Cigar Bar & Lounge, the document states.
In attendance were John Ciancaglini, a mob captain convicted alongside Merlino in 2001; Brad Sirkin, a convicted fraudster and money launderer; and Frank Fiore, the cigar bar's owner, who has a record of his own.
Though it remains unclear why Florida authorities were surveilling Merlino at the time, he may have simply picked the wrong bar and the wrong drinking companions. A month after the former mob don quaffed drinks at Havana Nights, federal authorities raided the bar and charged Fiore in a conspiracy to sell counterfeit Xanax, Viagra, and steroids.
In a separate violation, probation officers say, Merlino refused in May to answer questions about one of his business transactions, a breach of a requirement that he provide any financial information sought by his monitors.
The new allegations come more than a decade after Merlino was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his conviction in a racketeering conspiracy case.
His sentence included a standard three-year term of postprison probation that is scheduled to end Thursday.
In the same case that sent him to prison, Merlino stood charged with more than half a dozen shootings, including those of a video-poker operator who refused to pay street tax, a rival mob leader, and the brother of a witness in an earlier mob trial.
The mobster denied the allegations, and jurors acquitted him of those counts.
Ever since, federal investigators have kept a close eye on his activities.
In late 2011, they sent a wired mob turncoat to secretly record a conversation with him at a Florida Dunkin' Donuts. They alleged in court filings that he still ran the Philadelphia mob.
In an interview last year with the website BigTrial.net, Merlino said he left all that behind the day he left prison and laid out big dreams for his next career move - a list that at the time included opening a Philly cheesesteak restaurant in Florida or cashing in on his colorful past with an acting career.
The Miami Herald's gossip columnist reported last week that Merlino had recently finalized plans to invest in a "high-end, South Philadelphia-style Italian place."
But the probation violation charge could throw all that into doubt.
It will require him to return to Philadelphia at least temporarily. U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick had not yet scheduled a date for a hearing.
Is Joey Merlino getting into the restaurant game?
By Molly Eichel
POSTED: SEPTEMBER 04, 2014
IS FORMER mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino getting into the restaurant business in Florida? GossipExtra.com, run by Miami Herald contributor/former New York Daily News reporter Jose Lambiet, seems to think so.
Lambiet reports that Merlino and investors will open a restaurant "in the heart of Boca Raton," which Merlino has called home since completing his 14-year prison stint for racketeering. Lambiet quotes business broker Daron Tersakyan, who was not familiar with Merlino but confirmed that investors "want to set up a high-end, South Philadelphia-style Italian place."
Maybe Merlino and Co. can get advice from Steve Martorano, the celeb chef and nephew of wiseguy Raymond "Long John" Martorano, who, after years of South Florida cooking, opened a namesake restaurant at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City.
I reached out to Eddie Jacobs, Merlino's attorney, about the possible venture. "I've heard tons of rumors about my client, but it's got rumor status, nothing more," Jacobs said.
When asked about the restaurant deal, Christopher Warren, Merlino's former attorney, said he knew nothing about it.
"But it wouldn't surprise me, because I know he was thinking about doing that," said Warren, who served as Merlino's co-counsel in a 2004 murder trial in New Jersey. Merlino was acquitted.
Merlino also told as much to former Inquirer reporter George Anastasia in an interview on BigTrial.net, lamenting that he could not find the proper rolls in South Florida.
Jerry Blavat, who has known Merlino since he was a kid, hadn't heard about the venture but thinks it's an excellent idea. "He's a smart, bright kid and I think he'll do really well," Blavat said.
Lambiet didn't mention a name for the spot and there's no listing under Merlino's name in the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations, so let's give him a helping hand. What do you think Merlino should name his eatery? Send your best response to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Merlino eatery" and I'll print my favorites in the paper tomorrow.