From Casino Manager To Jail Inmate At 71, He Has Lots Of Memories To Relive While Waiting To Be Free.

Posted: June 27, 1993

MARGATE, N.J. — Anthony Thomas Torcasio, better known as Tony T, was getting emotional again.

He was sitting in his musty Margate apartment thinking back on his life, which, in his 71 years, had made him a mini-legend in that world where whom you know counts almost as much as how much money you make: the casino business.

"I used to run the Tropicana, the biggest casino in Vegas," said Torcasio, his beefy face turning red with excitement. "I brought in Joe DiMaggio, Joe Namath. Jerry Vale worked for expenses only, because he owed me a favor."

Torcasio recalled his excitement when, in 1977, Penthouse publisher Robert Guccione called and asked him to come to Atlantic City and run a casino Guccione planned to build.

But the best memory, Torcasio said, is the day he convinced Dean Martin - "I was good friends with Dino" - to present a baton-twirling award to Torcasio's daughter Becky on a Vegas stage, after which Martin warbled ''Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime."

But all that is over now, for there is an ugly scar on Tony Torcasio's neon-lit history.

On Friday, he was taken to Allenwood federal prison, where he will serve a two-year sentence.

His crime: bribing the president of the West Virginia state Senate to convince the senator to lobby for the legalization of casino gambling in that state. Torcasio was convicted of hiring the senator as a marketing consultant for $15,000 in 1985 and in the following year giving the senator two cash ''gifts" of $1,000 each, one for the senator's newborn son and one as a Mother's Day gift for the senator's wife.

His conviction in 1991 was part of a large federal anti-corruption sweep in West Virginia state government that netted 14 people including the former governor, three former state senators, and Torcasio.

Torcasio insists that he is innocent.

"I never took anything that I didn't deserve, and I never gave nobody any money," he said, his voice gravelly and his puffy face crinkling into dramatic sobs. "They're taking my life away from me for something I know nothing about."

And he has tried everything to get people to believe him. He got Joe DiMaggio to testify as a character witness in his trial. The mayor of Atlantic City wrote to the federal judge asking him to go light on Torcasio's sentence.

His friend, former Bergen County sheriff Joseph Job, has been writing and talking on Torcasio's behalf to anyone who will listen.

"It's a kangaroo court, sweetheart," said Job, sitting in Torcasio's apartment. "All of them guys couldn't catch an elephant if it ran across the table."

And several weeks ago, Torcasio appeared to be trying to coax a reporter into writing that he was not guilty.

"Do you like Notre Dame?" asked Torcasio, who is such a rabid fan that his doorbell and his telephone answering machine play the Notre Dame fight song. "I don't mean to bribe you, but, if you want, I could get you an autographed picture of the coach."

His extortion and perjury convictions were upheld by a federal appeals court, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a further appeal.

So, Torcasio is left with his memories, and there are many. They are the

memories of a savvy casino operator who grew up with the casino business and lived for the lounge lizards, the sports stars and the autographs. They are the memories of someone who, friends say, always returned a favor and always helped out people in need.

"Tony was a guy who, in the common language, was very much known as a 'touch,' " said Atlantic City Mayor James Whelan, who, in addition to asking the judge to go easy on Torcasio's sentence, has written to Torcasio expressing sympathy. "He's a stand-up guy. People who were down and out would go to Tony and he'd find a way to give them a few bucks."

And Torcasio's memories are those of someone who, from all appearances, just may have become so seduced by the glad-handing casino world that he went a little too far.

*

Tony Torcasio was a kid in a time and place where backroom casino gambling was getting its start, the 1930s in Steubenville, Ohio, the hometown of Jimmy The Greek Snyder and Dean Martin. (The names of the greats he brushed shoulders with are a source of endless pride to Torcasio: "I was born and raised with Dino," he said, taking out a copy of the recent Dean Martin biography, Dino. "My name's in here about 10 times.")

Torcasio quit school in the ninth grade and became a croupier in the illegal backroom crap and card games at the Rex Cigar Store in town.

"After I learned to deal pretty good, I went to Las Vegas," Torcasio said. "There wasn't one dealer in Vegas that wasn't from Steubenville. That was where you got your start."

He hopped around to casinos in Lake Tahoe ("I worked for Frank Sinatra"), in Cuba until Castro came to power ("I rode back on the plane with George Raft"), and back to Las Vegas in the '60s and '70s, where he was a big shot at the glitzy new MGM Grand and later the Tropicana.

"Tony Torcasio - We Love You! The employees at the Tropicana," read one Las Vegas billboard.

Then there was the call from Guccione, signing him up for a five-year contract to help run his proposed Penthouse casino in Atlantic City. So Torcasio came east.

Problem was, the casino never got off the ground. Penthouse ran out of money and the steel superstructure that was to become the casino will be torn down this year. Since the mid-1980s, Torcasio has worked as a casino consultant in Atlantic City.

His past is all recorded in the stacks of Torcasio's memorabilia: Tony T, the "casino boss," in 1976, chomping a cigar on the cover of Las Vegas Today; Tony getting inducted into the Italian-American Hall of Fame the same year as Nancy Reagan; a Christmas card from Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, and photos of Tony posing with Michael Jackson, Joe Namath, Joe DiMaggio.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Torcasio skirted the edge of the Abscam scandal of 1979. He said he was sent by Guccione to Florida, where he had a meeting with a man who was supposed to provide money for the Penthouse casino. The man turned out to be Melvin Weinberg, the con man-turned-key FBI informant in the Abscam case.

Testimony at Torcasio's trial indicated that he was named in the Abscam investigation, but was never charged with a crime. A 1983 U.S. Senate committee review said that Weinberg was trying to get Guccione to bribe New Jersey officials in return for money for his casino.

Around 1985, Torcasio went to visit his nephew in Weirton, W.Va., and found out that there was a hotel for sale and that the state was thinking of legalizing casino gambling. He went back to Atlantic City and got together a group of investors, including former Atlantic County Freeholder F. Frederick Perone. The investors bought the hotel, named it the Grande Hotel, and appointed Torcasio as manager. They hoped to convert it to a casino.

According to brief filed in the case by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of West Virginia, Torcasio and the investors talked about casino legislation with a number of West Virginia politicians, including State Senate President Daniel R. Tonkovich, who would end up being convicted of extorting money from Torcasio and the investors.

The prosecutors' brief said that at one meeting, Torcasio took Tonkovich aside, "reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful of cash and attempted to hand it to Tonkovich," calling it a campaign contribution. Tonkovich refused the money, but he later agreed to be hired as the investors' "in- state adviser" for $15,000, as long as the checks were written in the name of one of the senator's aides, not the senator.

Prosecutors said that Torcasio continued to court Tonkovich, once asking to meet him at a Charleston hospital on the day Tonkovich's son was born. ''Torcasio gave Tonkovich an envelope which he said was intended as a gift for Tonkovich's newborn son. The envelope contained $1,000 cash," the brief said. Tonkovich said he used it to buy savings bonds for his son.

Another time, in May 1986, Torcasio introduced Tonkovich to Joe DiMaggio, who was appearing at the hotel. Torcasio gave the senator another envelope, ''a Mother's Day gift for Tonkovich's wife," containing another $1,000 cash, prosecutors said.

Later that year, West Virginia newspapers started writing about Tonkovich's suspected conflicts of interests involving unrelated businesses in West Virginia. Tonkovich, prosecutors said, got cold feet about the money from the Atlantic City investors. He returned the $15,000 fee to the investors' lawyer and sent the Mother's Day gift back to Torcasio, who mailed it right back to Tonkovich.

In the end, Tonkovich pleaded guilty to extortion charges, and Torcasio was convicted of aiding and abetting extortion and lying to a grand jury. There was not enough evidence to charge any of the other investors, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael L. Keller.

Tony Torcasio had a hard time facing up to the prospect of jail.

While he waited for months for appeals to be exhausted and the sentence to be imposed, he appeared to be grasping at the glory of his past with no shortage of melodrama.

"I could get you 2,000 names of people who would say that I'm innocent," Torcasio said, weeping again. "I'm 71 years old and I'm going to jail. They took my life, that's all."

|
|
|
|
|