By George Anastasia
Joe Mastronardo said he tried not to take the gambling case that has landed him and his father in jail personal.
But he said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Bologna took it there during a sentencing hearing earlier this month.
"He stood up, looked at me and said, 'Don't be like your father,' " said Mastronardo. "I thought that was petty and unprofessional ... If I turn out to be half the man my father is that would mean I'm an exceptional human being."
"My father is the greatest, smartest, toughest guy in the world ... My dad told Nicky Scarfo to go fuck himself? Who does that? My father's got a big set of balls."
Sitting in a coffee shop in Jenkintown over a breakfast of coffee and a six egg-white omelet, Mastronardo, 33, talked at length about the case, about his family and about the criminal justice system.
The son of gentleman gambler Joe Vito Mastronardo, 65, and the only grandchild of the late, legendary Philadelphia top cop and mayor Frank L. Rizzo, Joe Mastronardo said he is prepared for the five-month prison sentence (followed by five months of house arrest) that he received during that hearing in U.S. District Court on March 3. His father, sentenced at an earlier hearing, got 20 months in jail.
Both are scheduled to report to prison next month. In all 15 defendants pleaded out in the case federal authorities built around the high end, multi-million dollar gambling operation that Joe Vito Mastronardo operated. (Joanna Mastronardo, who is Joe's mother, Joe Vito's wife and Rizzo's daughter, was originally charged with a money-laundering infraction, but that charge was dropped as part of the plea negotiations that resolved the case.)
Joe Mastronardo said he ran errands for his father, that he made collections and some times delivered cash to gamblers. He was not deeply involved in "the business," but like his father he doesn't shy away from the allegations.
"I don't think what my dad does is a crime," he said. "He doesn't hurt anyone and he never took a cent from anyone who didn't have it."
The numbers, of course, are staggering. But they are just numbers.
More than $1.3 million in cash seized at the Mastronardo home in the Meadowbrook section of Huntingdon Valley, including $1.1 million stashed in PVC pipes buried in the back yard. Another $1.7 million in bank accounts frozen by the feds, part of a seizure action that totals more than $6.3 million. And a money trail of wire transfers in excess of $3.2 million to financial institutions in Sweden, Malta, Antiqua and Portugal.
Wiretap and gambling records showed players betting $20,000 to $50,000 on a single game and one gambler "settling up" his debt by delivering a $250,000 payment to the Mastronardo operation.
But after years of investigations -- Joe Vito and his gambling partner brother John were targeted, arrested and jailed several times -- there has never been any indication that anyone who gambled with the Mastronardos was hurt, threatened or intimidated.
If you lost and refused to pay, your punishment was you couldn't bet any more with Joe Vito.
(See a profile of the Gentleman Gambler, Bigtrial, October 31, 2013.)
"What purpose, other than getting a pound of flesh, does the punishment in this case serve?" asked Christopher Warren, who represented young Joe Mastronardo.
"They called this a racketeering case," added Warren, whose clients have included mobsters and drug dealers indicted in what he said were "real" racketeering cases. "This was a gambling case, nothing more. If the last big mob case against (mob boss) Joe Ligambi was racketeering lite, then this case wasn't even on the same shelf as the lite beer."
Like his client, Warren believes the feds made it "personal" because of Joe Vito's long history of thumbing his nose at authorities, of taking a pinch for gambling, forfeiting large sums of cash, spending short terms in jail and then going right back in business. At the same time, he managed to bob and weave away from wiseguys like psychopath mob boss Nicky Scarfo who tried to get a piece of his action.
For Mastronardo, gambling was a way of life. It's what he did. It's what he was good at. And despite failing health - throat cancer, a stroke, bouts with pneumonia and a feeding tube inserted in his stomach -- Joe Vito stayed at it.
"My dad was sick and he asked me to do some things for him, so I did it," Joe Mastronardo says of his "involvement" in the gambling operation. He makes no apology. His father needed his help and he gave it to him.
But, he adds with a wry smile, it wasn't always easy working for his dad.
"He's the smartest guy I've ever seen," he said. "Even with all his health problems. But he could be difficult, especially with me. He could be absolutely brutal, drive you out of your mind...The way he thinks, the way he explains things, it can be exhausting. It was hard...But the thing was, he was almost always right. I say almost because there had to be one or two times when he wasn't, I just can't think of them."
Joe Mastronardo has a degree from St. Joseph's University and a masters in business administration from Drexel. But now he also has a conviction for racketeering, gambling and money-laundering that will cloud any future job resume.
He says he's not worried.
"Realistically, I shouldn't do a day in jail," he said. "This was a non-violent gambling case and I was a first-time offender. I ran errands for my dad...The government's had a vendetta against my family for a long time. That's what this is about."
"It's spite. I don't think there's anything wrong with what my father does."
He is, nonetheless, prepared for the jail time. He says he has dealt with more serious problems and that gives him perspective.
"Rushing my dad to the hospital at 4 a.m. with his lungs filling up with fluid," he said. "Sitting in the hallway waiting and not knowing if he was going to make it, that's tough. Look at what he's been through. Most people with the cancer he's had don't make it. All his other problems...That shit's scary. This is no big deal."
He takes a sip of coffee and says, once again, of his father, "He's one of the smartest, toughest guys I've ever seen."
Later, he will concede that his grandfather might also fit in that category. Frank L. Rizzo died when Joe Mastronardo was nine. But he says he has vivid memories of his "Pee-Pop."
He remembers hearing a story about his grandfather as a beat cop summoned to break up a rowdy party. During a confrontation, one drunk told Officer Rizzo, "If you didn't have your badge and gun you wouldn't be so tough."
"My grandfather went out of his patrol car, took off his badge and gun and went back inside and said to the guy, 'I don't have my badge and gun now.' "
Rizzo pummeled the big mouth. Then put his badge back on and drove away.
"My dad and my grandfather," Joe Mastronardo said. "Two of the most unique individuals you could know. They used to have breakfast every day. My father would drive him to work sometimes. My grandfather used to call my father 'genius.'"
So when a federal prosecutor tells Joe Mastronardo, "Don't be like your father," it's very personal.
"He doesn't have any idea who my father is, where he came from or what he's about," Joe Mastronardo said. "I couldn't say anything in court that day, but what I was thinking was that my father is a thousand times better than you and I can only hope to be half the man he is."
George Anastasia can be contacted at George@bigtrial.net