Recorded mob conversations could play a role in racketeering trial

Joseph Ligambi was at a dinner meeting.
Joseph Ligambi was at a dinner meeting.
Posted: August 18, 2012

It was just a bunch of guys sitting around a table, eating, drinking, and talking about the old days. There were a few bottles of wine, some antipasto, several nice entrées, and then a little anisette.

And all the while there was lots of conversation.

The talk focused on business - murders, robberies, "making" ceremonies - but then, what else would nine mob guys talk about over drinks and dinner?

That was the scene at La Griglia, an upscale Italian restaurant in North Jersey one day back in May 2010.

The question now is whether any of that talk - secretly recorded by a cooperating witness - is relevant to the pending racketeering case against Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and key associates Anthony Staino, Joseph "Scoops" Licata, and Louis "Big Lou" Fazzini, all of whom were at the meeting.

Defense attorneys say there is no relevance. They argue that nothing from the meeting, which was recorded by a cooperating figure who later killed himself, should be entered as evidence.

Prosecutors contend that the discussions help set the backdrop for the case and that they provide an unguarded account of the way organized crime operates.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno is scheduled to hear arguments on the issue Friday. His ruling could determine how the racketeering trial set to begin in October will play out.

To date, only snippets of the tapes, made by Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli, have been made public. They were referred to in a superseding indictment handed up this year and in a detention memo filed by the government in May.

Prosecutors say Licata, 71, a capo who represents the Philadelphia crime family's interests in North Jersey, set up the meeting and dominated the conversation. Among other things, they allege, he joked with Ligambi about the murder of John "Johnny Gongs" Casasanto; complained about problems with the Lucchese crime family; and waxed philosophical about the need for quality over quantity in La Cosa Nostra.

There are more detailed accounts in a 150-page government document, not yet made public, that includes partial transcripts from the meeting at La Griglia in Kenilworth and from a second restaurant meeting, attended only by Licata, Fazzini, and Stefanelli, at the American Bistro in Belleville in October 2010.

The government document will be the focus of the legal arguments on Friday.

What is clear from memos already made public is that on May 19, 2010, Ligambi and Staino traveled more than 80 miles to break bread with Licata, Fazzini, Stefanelli, and several reputed leaders of New York's Gambino crime family, including brothers John and Joe Gambino and Lorenzo Mannino.

Ligambi, 73, was introduced to the New Yorkers as "the acting boss" of the Philadelphia mob; Staino, 54, was described as a capo, or captain.

The meeting lasted several hours and included rounds of drinks and lots of food. La Griglia touts its pasta and steak and chops dishes.

Some samples from the menu: Spaghetti served with lobster, toasted herb bread crumbs, and roasted shallots in a sherry lobster sauce goes for $24. A rack of lamb chops served with fingerling potatoes and broccoli rabe in a rosemary-balsamic reduction is listed at $38. And a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino, a classic Tuscan red, costs $85.

What Ligambi and the others ate and drank that day has never been detailed. What they discussed has already been alluded to in several government documents.

At a hearing last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Labor, one of the prosecutors in the case, said the 150-page government memo includes transcripts of about 90 minutes of conversation gleaned from more than seven hours of mob chatter.

How any of the discussions recorded by Stefanelli fit into the racketeering-conspiracy case now pending is the fundamental question.

The answer may depend in part on how much of the history of the Philadelphia mob Robreno is prepared to allow the jury to hear.

Defense attorneys contend that none of the topics discussed has anything to do with the racketeering-conspiracy charges pending against Ligambi and the others.

The case includes allegations of gambling, loan-sharking, and extortion built around sports betting and illegal video poker machines.

The defense contends that violence tied to other mob regimes, particularly from the bloody Philadelphia crime family headed by Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo in the 1980s and the organizations run by John Stanfa and later mob boss-turned informant Ralph Natale in the 1990s, has no connection to the current case.

References to murders and acts of violence from those periods, they argue, are both unfair and prejudicial.

"The issue here is not what the mob was, but what it is today," said Gregory Pagano, Staino's attorney, sounding a theme that was repeated by other defense attorneys and that will likely emerge as a talking point in the coming trial.

The theme seems to imply that while the defendants may be mobsters, they're not the gun-toting, head-bashing gangsters who preceded them.

Edwin Jacobs Jr., who represents Ligambi, said at that same hearing last week that the government was trying to build its case on "an outdated reputation of an organization that is not on trial. ... They're trying to present these people as every bit as evil as those who went out and committed murder for Scarfo."

But prosecutors say the Ligambi organization is a continuation of a mob family that stretches back decades, and that Ligambi and his codefendants played off the mob's reputation for violence to extort and intimidate in the 21st-century Philadelphia underworld.

At last week's hearing, the prosecution drew a comparison between the mob and the New York Yankees.

Murderers Row, the famous Yankees juggernaut of the late 1920s, was a team from the past, Labor said, but today's Yankees are part of the same organization.

"These defendants used threats of violence and exploited the history and reputation of La Cosa Nostra" to control the underworld in which they operated, he said.

That reputation and that history, he contended, were the things discussed as they sat around a table at La Griglia eating good food and drinking fine wine.


Contact George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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