By George Anastasia
[Reprinted with permission from Gang Land News]
If you picked up a snazzy Merlino's wineglass on your last trip to Boca, don't throw it away. It may soon be a collector's item. It looks like Joey Merlino is out of the restaurant business.
Reports from Boca Raton, where his posh, eponymous nightspot was located, indicate that the restaurant is closed and the property is for sale. In June, Skinny Joey denied a Miami Herald report that Merlino's had gone belly up. He insisted that his joint was shutting down for the summer season and would reopen in the fall.
Who knows? That may have been the plan. But that was before the racketeering indictment that snared him and 45 co-defendants for being part of what federal prosecutors have dubbed an East Coast LCN Enterprise.
When Merlino made bail back in August — friends and family posted real estate to back the $5 million get-out-of-jail ticket — his lawyers said he would be working to get his restaurant ready for the fall season.
But according to sources, Merlino's financing has dried up.
Merlino was apparently hoping to tap Florida buddy Wayne Kreisberg for a new infusion of cash for the restaurant. But like Bradley Sirkin, Kreisberg has his own problems. He is a co-defendant in both the New York racketeering case and in the medical insurance fraud and money-laundering indictment in Tampa.
Other potential financial backers have apparently shied away because of the uncertainty surrounding Merlino's future.
Joey, of course, didn't own the restaurant. As a convicted felon, he is barred from having a liquor license. Instead he lent his name and some of his mother's recipes to the enterprise and was on hand to meet and greet.
It was a good hang while it lasted, but Merlino has more pressing problems.
Like coming up with the cash to pay his high-powered lawyer Edwin Jacobs Jr.
Regarded as one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the area, Jacobs has successfully defended both Merlino and former Philadelphia mob boss Joseph (Uncle Joe) Ligambi in protracted battles with the feds.
But the Atlantic City-based attorney doesn't come cheap.
Word on the street is that the price tag is $250,000 up front and then a weekly stipend that could double the price once the trial gets under way in Manhattan. Expenses for hotel accommodations and meals would also be part of the package.
Merlino is said to be depending on members of the Philadelphia crime family to kick in for a defense fund. Reports are that a "fundraiser" is in the works. There have been grumblings, however. Some of the guys from downtown who were routinely sending cash to Merlino while he was living in Florida were surprised to learn that Joey had other sources of income that he neglected to mention.
The indictment puts him in the middle of a mob-run bookmaking operation involving professional gamblers and tens of thousands of dollars in weekly action. Details are sketchy because the feds in Manhattan have thus far offered a vaguely written account of the charges as they pertain to Skinny Joey. That may be a reflection of the nature of their case or it could be the curtain raiser with a stronger, superseding indictment waiting in the wings.
In terms of the gambling charge, was Merlino taking the action or placing the bets? Or both, as some sources say. Was he extorting gamblers? Or was he, as he had done frequently in Philadelphia, "guzzling" bookmakers?
Guzzling is a term used by Merlino and several associates to describe a scam in which they used straw parties and fake names to place bets, collecting when they won and "disappearing" when they lost.
Bookmakers in Philadelphia used to run when they saw Merlino coming because of his reputation as a no pay. Guzzling was a way for him to stay in the game.
The indictment also hints that Merlino was in on the highly lucrative medical insurance scam involving compound creams that required prescriptions and that sold for thousands of dollar per tube.
Not too many of his Philadelphia associates knew about the scheme and few, if any, shared in the windfall. Again, the New York indictment offers little detail, but the Tampa case involving both Kreisberg and Sirkin details a money-laundering and insurance fraud scam in which, it is alleged, more than $600 million was billed and more than $157 million in fraudulent reimbursements were paid by insurance company victims.
Was the scam that is alluded to in just one paragraph in the New York indictment similar or the same as the scam in the Tampa case? If so, what was Merlino's piece of that action?
Those are the kinds of questions being asked in underworld circles in Philadelphia where Joey's wheeling and dealing have once again given his top associates agita.
They've seen it all before.
They shake their heads, roll their eyes and chalk it all up to Joey being Joey.
Ronnie Previte, the mobster-turned-government informant who helped the feds convict Merlino and six associates of racketeering charges in 2001, said it best.
"Joey's agenda on Monday is to get to Tuesday."
Get the money, spend the money. Have a good time.
Previte wore a wire for the FBI for more than a year back in the late 1990s, helping the feds make a case against Merlino, then mob boss Ralph Natale and a dozen other members of the organization.
The fact that Previte, a former ally of Merlino rival John Stanfa, was able to get close to Merlino and Natale after Stanfa and his crew were indicted, says a lot about economics in the Philadelphia underworld.
Money trumps all.
Previte said he always brought an envelope stuffed with cash to meetings with Merlino and Natale. It was his tribute payment, part of his street income, he would tell them. In fact, it was money supplied by the FBI to maintain Previte's street cred.
In the pending case, it looks like mob associate turned government informant J.R. Rubeo played that same card. Merlino is street smart and a survivor. Over the years, two Philadelphia mob bosses and a major drug kingpin wanted him dead. He's outlasted them all. But money often clouds his vision.
His restaurant was supposed to be his way to ease into a leisurely retirement. But those who know him say Joey just can't stop being Joey.
Also This Week in Gang Land:
Unknown Racketeering Defendant Linked To The Mob, Mulch and Medicare Fraud In Three StatesIn the pecking order of the racketeering indictment of 46 mob-connected defendants with ties to five crime families now pending in Manhattan Federal Court, Bradley (Brad) Sirkin would appear to be a minor player.
His name appears next to last in the long list of defendants from five states and he earns little more than a passing reference in the 32-page indictment that charges him and all the others with racketeering conspiracy.
"He's stayed under the radar," a law enforcement source said.
But the former Staten Island resident has some major league mob connections from New York to Florida, said that same source.
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