By George Anastasia
It was the underworld's version of a full service financial operation.
It featured bookmaking, loansharking and money laundering. Most of the wheeling and dealing took place in a Newark check cashing business.
The numbers, detailed in an indictment unsealed this week by the New Jersey Attorney General's Office, were staggering. The loansharking business, according to the AG, generated $4.7 million in interest payments. The illegal check cashing business took in $9 million in fees while allowing customers to launder money and avoid federal tax reporting requirements. The sports betting operation, with an offshore wire room in Costa Rica, generated millions more.
"This case is a smorgasbord of mob schemes," said acting New Jersey Attorney General Robert Lougy in a news release that detailed the indictment of 10 alleged members and associates of the powerful Genovese crime family.
The charges stem from an investigation dubbed "Operation Fistful" that began in 2007. The probe was spearheaded by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice and the Waterfront Commission. Among other crimes, the indictment alleges that several defendants took control of a trucking company that transported cars from the Port of Newark to dealerships throughout New Jersey. Authorities allege the trucking firm was a front for a series of mob scams, including forgery and tax evasion.
"The more the Mafia changes, the more it stays the same," said Elie Honig, head of the Division of Criminal Justice, pointing out that while those charged "adopted sophisticated financial systems to hide their profits, those profits came from traditional street crimes such as loansharking and illegal gambling."
Threats of violence and extortion were part of the package, he added.
of Bayside, NY, and mob soldier Vito Alberti, 57, of Morristown. A key player in the schemes, authority said, was mob associate Domenick Pucillo, 58, of Florham Park.
Pucillo owned Tri-State Check Cashing in Newark and later set up another check cashing business in Hialeah, FL. Both companies were cited in the indictment. In addition, Pucillo was accused to setting up a scheme in which a Portuguese restaurant in Newark ran a check cashing operation through which customers laundered money and avoided taxes.
Authorities allege that during one four-year period over $400 million in checks were cashed through the restaurant-based check cashing operation.
The quasi-legitimate nature of the front businesses are part of the ever changing face of organized crime, said authorities, who point to case after case in which traditional mob gambits are given the veneer of legitimacy. But behind-the-scenes, they say, it's business as usual.
Federal and state authorities in the Philadelphia area are currently monitoring the businesses of several organized crime figures who recently returned from prison and are actively involved in construction, mortgage refinancing and other building services. No one has been charged with any crime and those involved have insisted the businesses are legitimate.
In Operation Fistful authorities alleged that legitimate businesses were used to "front" mob activities. Pucillo, for example, is accused of using his check-cashing business to hide a major loansharking operation in which millions of dollars were put "on the street" at interest rates of 52, 104 and 156 percent annual interest.
In street jargon, the loans were placed at from one to three points. A point is one percent interest due each week.
The indictment contends that Pucillo and Genovese crime family associate Robert "Bobby Spags" Spagnola, 68, of Morganville, NJ, partnered in the loansharking business with Spagnola receiving one point on each loan he brought to the operation. Pucillo was also charged with kicking up some of his profits to Tuzzo and Alberti.
"Victims were required to pay interest on a weekly basis," according to the news release announcing the indictment. "The scheme was designed so that, when the victims made loan payments by check, it appeared that they were cashing checks in the ordinary course of Pucillo's check-cashing business. When they took out loans, victims were required to sign partially completed checks, which Pucillo and his co-defendants could complete and cash through the check-cashing business to collect weekly interest or payment of principal."
Customers also had the option of paying "in cash," the AG noted.
The gambling operation, with offshore Costa Rica connections, was similar to one uncovered in another investigation launched by the Attorney General's Office called "Operation Heat." In that case, members of the Luchese crime family were charged with running a $2.2 billion sports book through Costa Rica. Most of the lead defendants in that case have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to prison.
Earlier this month, Joseph Napoli, 80, a one-time member of a three-man ruling commission for the Luchese organization, was sentenced to three years in prison. Matthew Madonna, 80, another member of that ruling body, was sentenced to five years in September. Several other key defendants, including mob capo Ralph Perna and his sons, Joseph and John, were also jailed after pleading guilty in the Operation Heat case.
Nicdemo S. Scarfo, the son of jailed Philadelphia mob boss "Little Nicky" Scarfo, is also a defendant in that case. Scarfo is currently serving a 30-year federal sentence on racketeering and fraud charges.
The sports betting case outlined in the latest indictment echoes the charges that the Luchese group faced. Authorities allege that in one year a group of bookmakers headed by mob associate Vincent P. Coppola, 38, of Union, NJ, handled $1.7 million in bets and pocketed $400,000 in profits.
Coppola is the son of jailed Genovese crime family capo Michael Coppola.
In all, 14 defendants, including 10 alleged mob members and associates, were charged. The government also filed forfeiture actions against real estate holdings and bank accountants linked to many of the defendants. The indictment formalized charges first outlined when eight of the defendants were arrested back in October. Most are free on $400,000 bail.
Attorney General Lougy said organized crime "remains a corrosive presence wherever it can turn a big profit" and that behind the crimes were "victims whose lives were ruined because of their debts or because of their drug or gambling problems."
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial.net.