Mob defendant: New law makes case questionable

Anthony Borgesi leaves the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on November 7, 2013. Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and George Borgesi are on trial on a racketeering conspiracy charge. ( David Maialetti / Staff Photographer )
Anthony Borgesi leaves the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on November 7, 2013. Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and George Borgesi are on trial on a racketeering conspiracy charge. ( David Maialetti / Staff Photographer )
Posted: November 21, 2013

PHILADELPHIA A day after Pennsylvania lawmakers moved to open the door for legal small-scale gambling in bars, Philadelphia mob figure George Borgesi posed what to him seemed an obvious question.

"So what are we doing here?" he asked a reporter Tuesday during a break from his retrial on racketeering conspiracy charges.

Tapping a newspaper story on the state's proposed gaming expansion with one hand and gesturing to his codefendant and uncle, Joseph Ligambi, with the other, the 50-year-old added: "That's what they want to lock him up for."

Well, not exactly.

Illegal gambling is just one of the accusations federal prosecutors have lodged against Ligambi, the reputed head of the Philadelphia mob, and Borgesi, his purported consigliere. And both men face federal, not state, charges.

But as their case entered its second full week, Borgesi's question echoed a theme defense lawyers have subtly emphasized over six days of testimony: Compared with the city's past high-profile Mafia trials, which featured tales of murder, mayhem, and mob-style justice, the current case, with its allegations of illegal payouts on video poker machines and bookmaking, seems like small change.

And in a state that has increasingly embraced gambling as way to fund public initiatives, are these charges worth a 13-year investigation? Ligambi's attorney, Edwin Jacobs Jr., put that query to jurors during his opening statement this month.

Authorities are making too big of a deal out of the case, he said. Later, he borrowed loosely from President Abraham Lincoln, describing the government's case as "as thin as a broth made from a shadow of a starving chicken."

Of course, the law is the law, and to hear prosecutors tell it, Ligambi, 74, and Borgesi repeatedly broke it.

The feds allege both men profited from a mob network of video gaming machines installed in bars, coin laundries and corner stores across South Philadelphia and managed by underlings. Ligambi, they say, also oversaw a shell company formed with two mob associates that muscled out competition with implied threats of violence.

But even some of the government's witnesses have replied to questions about illegal gaming with a halfhearted shrug.

Testifying Friday, bar owner Rhoda Burke said she still pays out money to winners on the video poker machine at her nightspot, Coley's Lounge. The authorities "can come and take the machine," she said. "I don't care. It doesn't belong to me."

Frank DiClaudio, owner of DeNic's Tavern at 15th and Snyder, said that whenever authorities seized a mob-managed machine from his bar, he would usually replace it within "a day or two."

On Tuesday, an FBI forensic examiner walked jurors through a how-to course on the poker machines in question. Ligambi and Borgesi don't deny that several mob associates ran an illegal gaming network. They say they weren't involved.

But the legislature's move this week to expand legalized gaming in bars may not offer the validation Borgesi believes.

Under the bill, passed Monday and awaiting Gov. Corbett's signature, certain establishments could obtain licenses to pay winners of drawings, raffles, and pull-tab games. Payouts from video gambling machines would still be illegal, and individual prizes would be limited to $2,000 for a single game.

Though Corbett has signaled he will sign the bill, it will have no bearing on Ligambi and Borgesi's case. They are charged under federal law for alleged acts that occurred well before the latest round of gaming expansion was up for debate in Harrisburg.

Still, Borgesi tapped at The Inquirer's article about the bill throughout Tuesday's break in testimony, repeatedly nodding his head.

The trial resumes Wednesday.


jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-925-2649 @jeremyrroebuck

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