With new mob indictment, which Joe is in charge?

Posted: May 04, 2012

It’s an 83-page racketeering indictment designed to cripple the Philadelphia mob, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office is playing a last-minute game of who’s-the-boss while 14 defendants are awaiting trial.

When Joseph “Uncle Joe” Ligambi was busted last year, the indictment described him as a “made” member of the city’s La Cosa Nostra family who “rose through its ranks to become its underboss, then acting boss, and then, after the incarceration of his predecessor Joseph Merlino, the boss of the Enterprise.”

But in last week’s superseding indictment, which added two new defendants and additional charges for Ligambi, prosecutors significantly altered that description. They now say that Ligambi never rose past “acting boss” when Merlino went to jail in 1999.

“If the government contradicts itself, that’s beyond my control,” said Ligambi’s attorney, Edwin Jacobs. “If they have a charging document that says one thing in 2011 and they change it to say another thing in 2012, they’ll have to explain that. That’s not in my job description.”

So, which Joseph has been running the mob in the 21st century? Merlino or Ligambi?

Both. Sort of.

Ligambi is believed to be the “functional boss” who, before his arrest last year, had handled the day-to-day operation, while Merlino still wielded influence from federal prisons in Texas, Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana, according to a law-enforcement official.

“Obviously, he wasn’t in a position to be totally hands-on,” the official said of Merlino, who was released from prison in March 2011 and is living in Florida.

The feds’ shifting description of the mob’s organizational structure is based on secretly recorded conversations in 2010 that weren’t included in last year’s indictment. The conversations were detailed this week in a government motion pertaining to Joseph “Scoops” Licata and Louis “Big Lou” Fazzini, the North Jersey mobsters added in the superseding indictment.

Legal experts said that the prosecution’s contradictory statements about who is running the mob shouldn’t be a major trial issue because the jury is unlikely to see the earlier indictment.

“I think the U.S. Attorney’s Office is sending a message down to Joey in Boca,” said attorney Christopher Warren, co-counsel for Merlino in the 2004 murder trial that ended with a not-guilty verdict. “They’re saying, ‘We’re not done with you.’?” n

Contact William Bender at 215-854-5255 or benderw@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @wbender99.

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