The question went to the heart of the case against mob boss Joe Ligambi.
After verbally sparring with an FBI undercover agent over a $25,000 cash payment by Anthony Staino that was either a loanshark transaction or an investment in an illegal (and ficticious) money-laundering scheme set up by the FBI, Edwin Jacobs Jr. asked, "What does Joe Ligambi have to do with that?"
That's the question, applied on several different levels, that Jacobs hopes the jury in the racketeering conspiracy retrial of Ligambi and his nephew George Borgesi takes with it when deliberations begin sometime next month.
Absent a smoking gun (literally and figuratively), the prosecution has built the racketeering conspiracy charge against Ligambi around the criminal activities of other mobsters. Some examples -- a sports betting operation run by Gary Battaglini for mob leader Steven Mazzone; the loansharking/extortion gambit for which Staino was convicted in the first trial earlier this year, and the operation of a video poker machine company (JMA) by Staino.
The prosecution says they support the conspiracy charge; that Ligambi as mob boss approved of and benefitted from the crimes committed by his underlings. The defense says the evidence, weak and circumstantial, does not tie Ligambi, 74, to the allegations.
The only thing that really matters is what the jury thinks. And the anonymously chosen panel probably won't get to debate those points until sometime next month.
The prosecution is expected to conclude its presentation of witnesses and evidence when the trial resumes on Dec. 30 after a one-week break for the Christmas holiday. At that point, the defense will begin calling its witnesses.
The government has also used secretly recorded conversations, some dating back more than 10 years, to support the charge that Ligambi sat at the top of the Philadlelphia crime family.
There was the four-hour lunch meeting at LaGriglia, the North Jersey restaurant, in May 2010 in which Ligambi and three Philadelphia mobsters broke bread with leaders of the Gambino crime family. One of the Gambino soldiers, however, was cooperating and wearing a body wire.
There were tapes of Gary Battaglini discussing bookmaking and loansharking with a cooperating witness in 2002 and, on one tape, telling the cooperator that part of the payment he made each month was kicked up to Ligambi.
And there was Staino, on tape with undercover FBI agent David Sebatiani -- posing as a hustler and financial wheeler-dealer named Dino. Staino boasted about his ties to the mob, describing himself as the "CFO" and a member of the "board of directors" of the crime family.
While more focused than its prosecution in the first trial, the government's case against Ligambi is still largely circumstantial, a fact that Jacobs has alluded to again and again during the six-week trial. Despite an investigation that extended from 1999 to 2012, Ligambi's voice is seldom heard on tape.
And when it is, the mob boss's comments are often innocuous and open to various benign interpretations.
Frequently sarcastic and certainly profane, Ligambi largely kept his own counsel. Even at the LaGriglia meeting, his comments were less than incriminating. He joked about the father of an alleged member of a rival mob faction coming to his door after being told by the FBI that Ligambi planned to kill his son.
"I said, `What the fuck you talking about?'" Ligambi said, recounting the encounter which occurred on his South Philadelphia doorstep. "`Don't ever come around this house again. I don't know what you're talking about.' I mean, that's, that's the kind of nuts you're dealing with."
At another point he told a story about a mob associate who was so broke "the guy was selling cakes out of the trunk of his car." Ligambi also drew a laugh with a comment about the associate's girlfriend whom he described as "the broken down broad he was going out with in Florida."
He referred to Ralph Natale, a mob boss who had become a government witness, as "that rat motherfucker." And drew more laughter when he told the story about a phone call that came to his home from a North Jersey mobster who had gotten Ligambi's number from Rita Merlino, Skinny Joey's mother.
"It was Joey's mother," he said. "I told her, what're you giving this guy my number for? What the hell's the matter with you?"
But there are other comments that support the government's position, including an introduction made by Joseph "Scoops" Licata at the opening of the LaGriglia meeting. Introducing Ligambi to the New York mobsters, Licata said, "Our acting boss, Joe Ligambi, Philadelphia."
With the government's case all but completed, it's clear that it won't be Ligambi's words, but the words of others, that will determine his fate.
The same is true for Borgesi.
The case against the volatile 50-year-old mobster is built almost entirely around the testimony of two mob associates who became government witnesses.
If the jury believes the story Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello and Anthony Aponick told from the witness stand, Borgesi was running a mob bookmaking and loansharking operation from prison where he was serving a 14-year sentence for a 2001 racketeering conviction.
Borgesi's lawyer, Christopher Warren, has attacked the credibility and motivation of both witnesses, claiming they implicated Borgesi with lies and half-truths, presenting a story that curries favor with the government and gets them out from under their own criminal problems.
Several defense witnesses who are expected to be called after the Christmas break will offer testimony to back up that claim.
Who do you trust?
Who do you believe?
Those are the questions that Warren wants the jury to consider.
Both defendants have been in this situation before.
In the first trial, which ended in February, Borgesi beat 13 of the 14 counts he faced and Ligambi was acquitted on five of nine charges. But the jury hung on the other counts, leading to the retrial that began in November.
The jury in the first trial appeared to reject Monacello's testimony (Aponick was not called as a witness in that case) finding Borgesi not guilty of specific loansharking and sports betting charges but inexplicably hanging on the overarching racketeering conspiracy charge.
The jury hung on that same count against Ligambi as well as on two gambling counts and on a witness tampering count which are also part of the ongoing trial. (Overall, after three weeks of rambling deliberations, the jury in the first trial delivered not guilty verdicts on 46 charges, hung on 11 others and delivered just five guilty verdicts. Four of the seven defendants in that case, however, are now serving lengthy jail terms. One, Licata, was acquitted, and Ligambi and Borgesi are still fighting.)
With its convoluted verdict, the jury in the first trial apparently couldn't answer the key question posed by Jacobs earlier this week.
"What does Joe Ligambi have to do with that?"
We're not sure, the jury verdict seemed to say. Or, more to the point, we can't agree.
But this is a different jury. And it has heard a more focused government case. How it answers that question will determine Ligambi's fate. And what it thinks of Monacello and Aponick will go a long way toward determining Borgesi's future.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.