Wednesday, November 20, 2013
By George Anastasia
They ate and drank and laughed and joked.
They offered a toast to "all the good guys!"
And, the prosecution contends, they discussed mob business.
The jury in the racketeering conspiracy trial of mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi got to listen in today to secretly recorded conversations from a four-hour lunch Ligambi shared with nine other mobsters at a posh New Jersey restaurant in May 2010.
The defense has portrayed the session as a "social" gathering. Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Labor, the lead prosecutor in the case, calls it a "meeting of the board of directors of organized crime."
The conspiracy charge that Ligambi, 74, is fighting, could hinge on which version the anonymously chosen jury decides is accurate.
The toast was offered by Joseph "Scoops" Licata, one of three members of the Philadelphia crime family who attended the meeting with Ligambi. The six other mobsters were members of New York's powerful Gambino crime family, including crime family soldier Nicholas "Nicky Skins" Stefanelli.
While no one knew it at the time, Stefanelli, then 67, was wired for sound. The mobster had begun cooperating with the FBI a year earlier and had recorded dozens of conversations. The recording of the lunch at LaGriglia, a restaurant just off the Garden State Parkway in Kenilworth, is one of the first Stefanelli tapes to be played publicly. Stefanelli committed suicide in April 2012. (See The Saga Of Nicky Skins, Bigtrial, Nov. 11, 2013).
The LaGriglia tape was introduced as evidence in Ligambi's first trial which ended in February. A jury convicted four of the seven defendants in that case, but hung on conspiracy charges against Ligambi and his nephew and co-defendant George Borgesi. Both are being retried.
Licata, 71, was found not guilty.
Prosecutors hope the LaGriglia meeting will establish Ligambi's leadership role in the crime family, a key element in supporting the racketeering charge against him. Borgesi, 50, was in prison at the time. The tape is not expected to have any impact on the charges against him.
Snippets of conversation culled from the four-hour lunch were played with mob expert and former FBI Agent Joaquin "Big Jack" Garcia on the witness stand. Garcia, working undercover as Jackie Falcone, had infiltrated a crew of the Gambino organization in 2002 and was eventually proposed for membership in the crime family.
He spent the morning outlining mob protocol and structure for the jury, then was asked to comment on conversations picked up on Stefanelli's body wire.
When Stefanelli introduced John Gambino as "caporegime...with the administration," Garcia said that indicated that Gambino was not only a captain in the crime family, but also a member of a ruling group known as the administration.
In turn, Licata is heard on tape introducing Ligambi as "our acting boss," a designation that placed Ligambi at the top of the family tree. Ligambi was running the family while mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino was serving a 14-year sentence for racketeering.
But not every comment needed to be explained.
When Ligambi referred to mobster-turned-informant Pete "Pete the Crumb" Caprio as "that piece of shit," the jury didn't need clarification. Caprio's testimony earlier in the trial was interrupted because he broke his knee. He is expected to be recalled later.
And when Ligambi talked about "this rat motherfucker Ralph," the only thing the jury needed to be told was that Ralph was former mob boss Ralph Natale, who like Caprio, became a government witness.
How well the tapes play into the conspiracy charge is an open question. Clearly they were not enough for the jury in the first trial. None of the discussions focus on the gambling and loansharking charges that are the basis for the conspiracy the government alleges Ligambi orchestrated.
But the prosecution believes the tape establishes Ligambi's role as the boss.
Earlier in the day, Garcia had told the jury "in the mob, money...flows up, never down." Members and associates have to "kick up" a piece of their earnings to their capo who in turn kicks up to the boss, he said.
That's the chain that the government alleges existed in the Philadelphia crime family from 1999 through 2012. And during that period, authorities contend, Ligambi was at the top of that chain.
Garcia is expected back on the stand to face cross-examination when the trial resumes Thursday. The veteran FBI agent, who co-wrote a book "Making Jack Falcone" about his exploits undercover, was challenged repeatedly by the defense during that first trial and will likely experience more of the same this time around.
Shortly before he took the stand, the affable and burly former agent (he appears to weigh more than 300 pounds) just shook his head about the prospect of testifying again.
"I'd rather be undercover," he said.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.