BY KEVIN HORRIDGE
Joey Merlino, the man who the FBI believes to be the head of the Philadelphia Mob, has been banned from entering the state’s 12 casinos. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) voted unanimously this week to designate “Skinny Joey” persona non grata, after an altercation at the Sugarhouse Casino in March.
That, and the fact that he was arrested in early August along with 46 alleged mob associates, soldiers and capos, and accused of being one of the ringleaders of a criminal empire known as the East Coast La Cosa Nostra Enterprise.
Skinny Joey and his associates have been charged, variously, with illegal gambling, extortion, gun-running, fraud, good old-fashioned racketeering, and other crimes. He is currently out on $5 million bail as he awaits trial.
The PGCB said that it began its investigation following an incident at the Sugarhouse blackjack tables when Merlino and his entourage fell into a disagreement with several other players.
According to documents seen by Fox News, things got heated and several punches were thrown before security broke up the fight. Merlino reportedly then shook hands with one of the opposing group and left.
When he returned to the same casino the following month, he was met by PGCB agents who attempted to serve him with an exclusion order, but he brushed them off and walked out.
Agents again attempted to serve him the order when he appeared at Harrahs Casino in Chester, and were again waved away by the reputed gangster.
“We tried to serve him at his restaurant, his home, at Harrah’s, at SugarHouse,” said board spokesman Doug Harbach. “It’s a permanent ban unless he petitions the board to be removed and provides the board with ample reason why he should be removed from the list.”
The arrests last month came as the result of a joint investigation between the FBI and New York’s organized crime task force and is believed to have spanned several years and involved infiltration by an undercover FBI agent into the ranks of the organization.
Investigators say they have collected thousands of hours of testimonies gathered through wiretaps and the cooperation of a witness. The 32-page indictment unsealed last month details incidents of assaults, threats and arson.
Merlino has beaten murder charges in the past, but has served prison time for racketeering. He has already been barred from all Atlantic Citycasinos.
Judge flips the script at sentencing in $14M organized crime scheme
by Barbara Boyer, Staff Writer
The prosecutor asked for a five-year term. The defendant, in a plea deal, agreed to that. Millions were stolen, a reputed member of the mob already had received a 30-year term, and the judge was known to be tough.
So what happened in federal court in Camden on Thursday was unexpected.
U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler turned to Cory Leshner; called him a "good person" with no criminal history; noted that the 33-year-old defendant with a law degree had a wife who was expecting their second child, a supportive family, and a job waiting for him; and sentenced him to a two-year term.
And Leshner, of Berks County, Pa., will not have to report to prison until Feb. 2, after his wife gives birth to their son. The couple already have a 4-year-old daughter.
Kugler earlier prompted an emotional testimonial to Leshner's character - and his help as a cooperating witness - from retired FBI agent Joe Gilson.
Leshner had done well in life but made bad decisions working for reputed mobster Nicodemo Scarfo Jr., son of former Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, the judge said, turning aside the sentence prosecutor Adam Small requested.
"Mr. Leshner, good luck to you," the judge said before leaving the bench.
In his early 20s, Leshner was among a group who orchestrated the takeover of a Texas-based mortgage firm, FirstPlus Financial Group Inc. They stole more than $14 million, using the money to buy fancy cars, a yacht, and expensive gifts for mistresses in 2007 and 2008.
In 2011, Leshner and Scarfo were among 13 defendants indicted. Before trial, Leshner made a decision that again changed the direction of his life. In 2014, he testified against the others, for days describing the greed and manipulation that fueled the conspiracy.
Prosecutors convinced the jury that Scarfo and Salvatore Pelullo, 48, of Philadelphia, took control of First Plus, dismantled the board of directors, and put in their own people to run the scam. By May 2008, millions had been siphoned from the institution through bogus consulting contracts. The firm was driven into bankruptcy.
It was Leshner's testimony, in part, that led to Scarfo's conviction and a 30-year prison term Kugler imposed in July 2015.
Leshner was the last to be sentenced.
"I'm sorry," Leshner told Kugler. He offered no excuses and told the judge he wanted to do good.
Kugler, known to come down hard on criminal defendants, flipped the script. First, he asked Gilson about a call the former agent had received from Leshner early this summer.
Gilson, his voice at times cracking with emotion, described the call as "the most profound" he had ever received from a defendant.
"I just wanted to call you and thank you for saving my life," Gilson recalled Leshner saying. The agent had grown fond of Leshner, who he said provided "unparalleled cooperation," more so than any other he had seen throughout his career.
He told Kugler, "I came to admire him as an individual for his courage." He said he wanted to attend Thursday's hearing to support Leshner.
Leshner's current boss, Maher Ahmed, said he, too, respected Leshner for his courage. At first, Ahmed said, he hired Leshner as an attorney for his Harrisburg cab business.
When Leshner surrendered his law license after the conviction, he became a dispatcher and manager, volunteering to work weekends so Ahmed could spend more time with his family. He was kind to workers, and they respected him, Ahmed said.
Leshner's attorney, Rocco Cipparone, told the judge that his client was a "game changer" for the government who told the truth "to be true to himself."
The judge acknowledged that Leshner was sincere, in stark contrast with the wiseguys who fought the charges. The judge also noted that it was an unusual plea arrangement, with prosecutors agreeing to a five-year sentence if Leshner agreed not to ask for less time.
Why, the judge asked, did Leshner agree to cooperate? Leshner said Cipparone convinced him, saying that if not for his lawyer, "I would have made all the wrong decisions."
Kugler said he was not bound to impose the five-year term. As a result, he said, he was going to lower the sentence, something he has rarely done. The judge also ordered three years of supervised release, and more than $14 million in restitution.
"You must have been very proud of what you accomplished," Kugler said of Leshner's life beyond the conspiracy. He noted that Leshner was young compared with the other defendants, and that Leshner's wife in the courtroom. "It's just a terrible tragedy for your family," he said.