PEGGY WRIGHT, @PeggyWrightDR
Martin Taccetta, a member of the New York-based Lucchese crime family who has spent half his life being prosecuted or behind bars, told a judge in Morris County Thursday that he wants to withdraw the guilty plea he entered in June to racketeering.
A former East Hanover resident, Taccetta, now 64, was among at least 32 suspects charged in December 2007 in connection with an illegal sports betting and money laundering operation that authorities have said brought in $2.2 billion in 15 months and relied on violence to collect debts.
Taccetta, who is serving an unrelated 30 years-to-life sentence out of Ocean County for racketeering, had pleaded guilty to racketeering before state Superior Court Judge Salem Vincent Ahto in Morristown on June 17. He admitted being part of an illegal enterprise that engaged in illicit sports betting between 2005 and 2007 and brought in proceeds, authorities said, that exceeded $7.6 million.
Taccetta, who authorities said is the former New Jersey underboss for the Lucchese crime family, did not admit to acts of violence while involved with the gambling operation.
On Thursday, Taccetta was brought under heavy guard from prison to appear before Ahto for what was supposed to be his sentencing. Instead, Taccetta and defense lawyer Jay Surgent cited multiple reasons why Taccetta wants to withdraw his plea.
State Deputy Attorney General Christopher Romanyshyn told the judge that five other guilty pleas by other defendants charged in the investigation dubbed “Operation Heat” will fall apart because their agreements were contingent upon Taccetta pleading guilty. Based upon what authorities believe were their top-level roles in the gambling operation, Taccetta and the five cohorts were given “Tier 1” status.
Taccetta told Ahto that he disputes the Tier 1 status and doesn’t understand why he had to plead to a first-degree racketeering charge — even though Romanyshyn has recommended he be sentenced as a second-degree offender and get an eight-year stint that would run concurrent to the Ocean County sentence. A sentence for first-degree racketeering ranges between 10 and 20 years.
“Without me, they can’t make the deal. I’m being used as a tool,” Taccetta told the judge.
“I’m looking for five years, your honor,” Taccetta said, but then he chuckled and said: “I’m just joking. A little levity.”
Taccetta hopes to reduce his potential sentence for the Operation Heat charge because he has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his appeal of his Ocean County case. The nation’s highest court has not announced whether it will take the appeal.
If the Supreme Court granted his request, Taccetta potentially could be released from prison on the Ocean County case. If that occurs, he doesn’t want to be still behind bars on the Morris County case.
Surgent said Taccetta also believes that the plea allocution he made in June to the gambling enterprise and its profits could be used by the federal government to prosecute him for tax evasion. He is considered indigent and has public defenders assisting him on his federal appeal but fears the guilty plea in Morris to racketeering could somehow be viewed as evidence of tax evasion, Surgent said.
“We’re really concerned about the fact that if he goes through with this (sentencing), he’ll be prosecuted by the feds,” Surgent said.
“What does the state of New Jersey lose by giving him the five and saying ‘adios, adios?’’ Surgent said.
The judge gave Surgent until Sept. 30 to file a motion for Taccetta to withdraw his plea.
Meanwhile, Romanyshyn stuck to his eight-year plea offer on Thursday while cautioning that plea deals for other Tier 1 defendants were at stake.
For much of the two-hour hearing, Ahto reviewed the plea form and the transcript of Taccetta’s June plea, which showed he was aware of the charge to which he was pleading and the recommended, eight-year penalty.
Ahto noted that he does not have any control over action taken by the federal government. He also said he wouldn’t lower the state’s eight-year plea offer to five.
“With his history, how would I be justified in doing that?” Ahto asked.
In 1985, Taccetta was among 20 people charged under federal law in New Jersey with racketeering, gambling, loansharking, drug distribution, extortion and other crimes. The New Jersey office of the U.S. Attorney prosecuted the case in a two-year trial that ended with acquittals for all and was the subject of a popular book by journalist Robert Rudolph titled “The Boys From New Jersey: How the Mob Beat the Feds.”
Taccetta was then indicted in Ocean County in 1991 for crimes that included racketeering, narcotics, loansharking and the 1984 golf club-beating murder of mob-connected Vincent “Jimmy Sinatra” Craparotta of Toms River.
Taccetta was cleared of involvement in the Craparotta slaying but convicted in 1994 of racketeering — involvement in a criminal enterprise — and sentenced to life in prison, plus 10 years, with 30 years of parole ineligibility. The jury specifically had found that he was a member of the organized Lucchese crime family.
Taccetta served 10 years behind bars for the Ocean County case but won his appeal in 2005 and was released, only to be returned to prison in July 2009 to continue the 30 years-to-life stint when the state Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
He has exhausted all court remedies in New Jersey and lost appeals before U.S. District Court and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals and is pursuing a final appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Operation Heat, a probe undertaken nine years ago, uncovered an international criminal enterprise that transacted $2.2 billion in bets, primarily on sporting events, over a 15-month period. Operation insiders received and processed the wagers using password-protected websites and a Costa Rican “wire room” where bets were recorded and results tallied, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
Staff Writer Peggy Wright: 973-267-1142; pwright@GannettNJ.com.