Thursday, December 5, 2013
What was said in a taped telephone conversation or written in the letter or Christmas card was not in dispute.
But what the words meant was the focus of nearly four hours of cross-examination today as mob informant Anthony Aponick, 43, spent a second day on the witness stand in the racketeering conspiracy retrial of George Borgesi and his uncle, mob boss Joseph Ligambi.
Aponick, a New York mob associate who was Borgesi's cellmate in a federal prison in Virginia for parts of 2002 and 2003, clashed repeatedly with Christopher Warren, Borgesi's defense attorney.
Warren, trying to underscore in the jury's mind that much of what Aponick has testified to is uncorroborated, came back again and again to a simple query.
"We just have to take your word?" the lawyer asked.
"It's the truth," Aponick responded.
The verbal tap dance went on for most of the day and will likely continued tomorrow when Warren concludes his questioning and Ligambi's lawyer, Edwin Jacobs Jr., takes his turn at discrediting the second key prosecution witness to testify in the case.
Aponick was forced to concede that some of the conversations and letters he had received from Borgesi and Borgesi's wife Alyson were, in fact, about legitimate business ventures they hoped to undertake in the Philadelphia area, including home building and remodeling.
But he said mobsters often use legitimate businesses as "fronts" or "covers" for illegal activities and that was what he said he and Borgesi were planning.
To which Warren again posed the question, "To give that criminal meaning we again have to believe you?"
At other times Aponick said words like "house," "chick" and "paper" that appeared in letters or were spoken in taped conversations were coded references to Borgesi's demand that Aponick cough up $10,000 in order to become a member of Borgesi's mob crew in Philadelphia.
Warren also focused on the $134,000 federal authorities had spent to relocate Aponick and provide him with a monthly stipend and other expenses while he was a cooperating/protected witness. An itemized rundown of the payments that was part of the cross-examination resulted in a barbed exchange between the witness and lawyer.
"I'm confused," Aponick said at one point.
After Warren had gone over some numbers again to clarify, the lawyer asked, "Still confused?"
Aponick quickly replied, "A little bit. I think everybody is."
The expenses the government paid, Aponick said, included surgery for an eye problem. And in an apparent reference to a comment made by Borgesi, he said, "Now I'm not a cross-eyed, junkie fat rat, I'm just a rat."
That, in its own way, was another reference to the debate over words and meanings. That Aponick is a former mobster turned cooperating witness -- a rat in underworld terminology -- is not in dispute. Whether he is telling the truth is the issue.
At another point Aponick told Warren that the lawyer had a problem with "past, present and future tenses" when framing his questions. In his turn, Warren asked Aponick again and again about Christmas greetings, holidays cards and references to food, football games and family members that were part of the written correspondence between Aponick and the Borgesis.
"Is this some cryptic, hidden Mafia meaning?" Warren asked a half dozen times after pointing to seemingly innocuous comments. Aponick conceded in most cases the words were simply what they implied....but not always.
Neither the witness nor the lawyer gave an inch during the verbal sparring match.
Aponick conceded he had "betrayed" the trust federal authorities had placed in him by committing eight bank robberies after his release from prison in September 2003 and while he was working as a confidential informant for the FBI in building a case against Borgesi.
"I made some bad personal choices," he said. But then he offered a classic underworld explanation,
Aponick said he was in debt to members of the Colombo crime family for about $50,000 in gambling losses.
"I figured all the government could do was put me back in jail," he said. "They (the Colombos) could kill me." He said about $25,000 from the bank robberies went to the Colombos, but stumbled when asked about the total amount he had grabbed and what the rest of the money was used for.
He denied Warren's inference that he was a drug addict -- "I haven't used drugs since 1997," he said -- but said the money went for "expenses."
Aponick also tried to refute Warren's contention that he has consistently "played" the government by working deals to get out from under his own criminal problems. When he was asked if he hadn't offered to cooperate back in 1997 when he was arrested for a series of armed robberies, Aponick said he had "talked" with authorities, but never agreed to cooperate.
"If I had cooperated," he said, "the entire Bonanno crime family would be in jail and we wouldn't be here."
Warren also hammered away at a "pitch" letter Aponick wrote to authorities seeking their help yet again after his arrest for the bank robberies. In the letter, Aponick said he was hoping for a three-year sentence, rather than the four-to-eight years he was facing. He said if the feds would vouch for him, he'd gladly go back to work on the Borgesi case, writing that he'd be "back in business against old Georgie Boy" and offering to "work for free."
Warren zeroed in again, asking Aponick if his entire plan was simply to "set Georgie up" in order to curry favor with the government.
Aponick denied it.
"I'm just here to tell you what he told me," he said.
He also admitted that he had been drummed out of the Witness Security Progam again in August after an arrest. But he said the charge was unfounded. While the judge has barred specific questions about the incident, a pretrial hearing provided some details.
Aponick was arrested in a domestic dispute case for allegedly throwing his wife out of a moving car. Those charges were later dismissed. Judge Eduardo Robreno said at the pretrial hearing that he would not allow the conspiracy trial to become a stage to rehash that case.
The conspiracy case against Borgesi is based primarily on the testimony of Louis "Bent Finger Lou" Monacello and Aponick. The government alleges that while serving a 14-year sentence for a racketeering conviction in 2001, Borgesi continued to run a mob operation from prison.
Monacello, who testified earlier, has been described as Borgesi's "point man" on the street in gambling and loansharking businesses. Aponick said he was to join Monacello in those businesses and expand them for Borgesi.
The debate over what was said and what it meant is expected to continue when Aponick returns to the stand tomorrow. A key issue for the defense is trying to offer a legitimate reason why Aponick, a New York mobster, ended up meeting with Monacello in a Ninth Street Italian restaurant shortly after his release from prison and why Borgesi, from prison, called Monacello while the dinner meeting was in progress.
The tape of that call has been played twice for the jury with both Monacello and Aponick offering explanations of what was said and what was meant. That meeting and that phone call go to the heart of the case against Borgesi.
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net.