Thursday, October 31, 2013

Joe Vito Mastronardo, Gentleman Gambler, Heads To Court

Joe Vito
By George Anastasia

The numbers are staggering.

More than $1.3 million in cash seized at his 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.

That's the financial picture painted by federal prosecutors in the case against "Gentleman Gambler" Joe Vito Mastronardo Jr. and 15 co-defendants, including his wife, his son and his brother.

"At its peak, the Mastronardo Bookmaking Organization had over 1,000 bettors and was generating millions of dollars of betting activity in a year," an indictment now pending in U.S. District Court alleges.

But that's just part of the story.
Seized Joe Vito cash
Law enforcement has been gunning for Joe Vito for years, in part because of what he has done, but as important because of who he is.

Mastronardo is without question one of the premier bookmakers in the Philadelphia area, if not the country. His clientele includes businessmen and corporate executives who think nothing of placing a $10,000 bet on a football or basketball game and whose wins and losses during a season of betting are often measured in six figures. That's serious gambling action and one reason why law enforcement has been buzzing around Mastronardo, 63, for most of his adult life.

The other is this: Joe Vito is the son-in-law of the late Frank L. Rizzo, the former mayor and the former police commissioner of Philadelphia. His wife, Joanna, is Rizzo's only daughter. His son, Joseph F. Mastronardo, 31, is Rizzo's only grandchild.

Their arrests in August 2012 when the indictment was unsealed set tongues wagging. Rizzo, the no-holds-barred, law-and-order mayor and top cop must be rolling in his grave. That was the media message of the day.

Joe Vito's Estate
Those close to the family say that assessment is inaccurate. More important, they say, it has nothing to do with the allegations they are fighting.   

The Mastronardos, on the advice of their lawyers, are reluctant to discuss particulars of the case as it moves forward. All are currently free on bail. A hearing on a series of pre-trial motions is set for Nov. 18. The trial itself is scheduled to begin in February.

 In a series of off-the-record conversations, however, they have emphasized that the media portrayal of Joe Vito as the "rogue" son-in-law of the legendary mayor and police commissioner is built on speculation and hype rather than reality. Joseph F. Mastronardo said his father and grandfather genuinely liked one another.

He also said the case now pending in federal court is nothing more than a "money grab" by federal authorities, noting that his father and uncle have been down this road before.

In 2006, Joe Vito and his brother John, 58, a former standout wide receiver for Villanova University, pleaded guilty to gambling charges in Montgomery County in a deal worked out with the District Attorney's Office there. In exchange, the DA agreed not to pursue charges against other members of the family. The brothers also had to give up claims to more than $2 million that had been seized in that case, including $500,000 in cash that authorities found in Joe Vito's car which was stopped while he was returning from a trip to Florida.

Joe Vito's father-in-law
The brothers were given suspended sentences and placed on probation. While on probation, authorities now allege, they went back into the gambling business, using the Internet, passwords, numbered accounts and a base in Costa Rica to handle millions of dollars in action.

Montgomery County authorities launched another probe, taping phones (the current case includes over 1,000 secretly recorded conversations) and placing a tracking device in Joe Vito's Cadillac. Investigators also used several informants who were allegedly part of the gambling operation and tracked weekly collections by operatives of the organization.

The Cedar Brook Country Club and the Century House Restaurant on Bethlehem Pike in Hatfield were two favored locations for money exchanges, according to court documents.

The results of the investigation were subsequently turned over to the U.S. Attorney's Office. That upped the stakes considerably for the defendants who, with the exception of Joanna Rizzo, face racketeering conspiracy and gambling charges. She is accused of "structuring" -- allegedly making a series of bank deposits (each under $10,000) to aid the gambling operation in avoiding detection.

But at its heart, defense attorneys say, this is nothing more than a gambling case. Joe Vito Mastronardo's reputation and his marital ties have made it much more, they contend.

For now, the battle will be fought over legal issues and police procedures. The defense is trying to have most, if not all, of the evidence gathered in the investigation thrown out, arguing that Montgomery County detectives failed to follow proper procedures while building the case.

Tapes of the secretly recorded conversations were not sealed in a timely fashion as required by law, the defense contends. Detectives monitoring the wiretaps failed to "minimize," that is turn off the recording device when conversations focused on topics unrelated to the gambling probe. Examples cited in a defense motion include discussions about health issues, dinner plans, the salaries paid to professional athletes and an attempt to "secure tickets to the musical Jersey Boys."

Finally, the defense argues that Montgomery Count detectives played fast-and-loose with the rules, misstating facts in probable cause affidavits in order to win court approved wiretaps.

Authorities alleged that cooperating witnesses said they feared "harassment, retaliation and/or physical violence." In fact, the defense argues, there has never been any indication that the Mastronardos engaged in violence or intimidation.

"If you didn't pay your debt, your punishment was you weren't allow to place any more bets," Dennis Cogan, a long-time attorney for the brothers, said in the 2006 case. He and other lawyers have emphasized that there is no evidence of threats or violence in the Mastronardos' history.

Cogan is currently representing John Mastronardo. He has represented Joe Vito in the past.

Another example of police misstatements, the defense contends, is the identification of Enrique Carlos Molina Sobrino as part of the Florida-based Mastronardo bookmaking operation. In fact, the defense notes, Molina "made a fortune" through his ownership of bottling rights for Pepsi Cola and Diet Pepsi in Mexico. He is also a hotel owner. His properties include the Ritz Carlton in Cancun, the defense points out.

Joanna Mastronardo
The Pepsi connection could figure in a trial defense. A late uncle of the Mastronardo brothers is credited with developing the formula for Pepsi Cola. He was a millionaire in his own right and left much of his fortune to Joe Vito and his family.

The defense will also provide financial documentation to support that contention and will offer tax returns that show that Joe Vito -- a gambler -- paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in income tax on his gambling earnings.

Joe Vito Mastronardo makes no bones about the fact that he is a gambler. He is considered a master at setting a sports betting line and for years others looked to the "Vito line" while setting up their own bookmaking operations.

For more than three decades in the gambling business, according to both underworld and law enforcement sources, Mastronardo avoided doing business with the mob, ducking attempted shakedowns and seeking out a clientele of gentlemen gamblers like himself.

Ironically, the Mastronardo case on the 12th floor of the federal courthouse in Philadelphia moves forward at the same time that mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and his nephew, George Borgesi are being retried on the 15th floor in a racketeering conspiracy case centered around gambling and loansharking. Jury selection in that case began today.

What is even more ironic is that the charges in the mob case are built around video poker machines that might generate $200- or $300-a-week in profit and bookmaking disputes about debts of $5,000 and $10,000. Mastronardo's clients wagered that much and more on a game.

The indictment makes reference to one customer who bet $20,000 on a Syracuse University basketball game and $50,000 on a Kentucky University game. The gambler, identified only by his account number -- 1487 -- eventually "covered his betting loses," the indictment alleges, by sending the Mastronardos $250,000.

The 23-count, 73-page indictment includes dozens of other references to the high stakes action that authorities allege was the Mastronardo Bookmaking Organization.

A close associate said earlier this week that  Joe Vito defined his life by being a bookmaker. It was all he did and all he ever wanted to do.

He is now in poor health -- he is battling cancer, recently had a stroke and has a feeding tube in his stomach. But Joe Vito remains a one-of-a-kind, roguish entrepreneur who has always played by his own set of rules.
Joe Vito

In a series of private conversations over the past year, it was clear that he doesn't draw a distinction between placing a bet and taking bet. It is all gambling. And for most of his life he has made a very good living at it. He just doesn't think it's a crime.

The indictment offers a hint into that mind set, citing a letter he wrote to the Montgomery County Probation Office in September 2007 seeking permission to travel to Costa Rica while still under office supervision in his 2006 case.

"The weather there is perfect for my health," he wrote, "82 degrees and HUMID every day. I traveled at least fourteen times to San Jose last year, 2006, from August to January, leaving on Friday and returning on Monday...Betting is an integral part of my income, and in order to maintain that, San Jose is a legal venue for all types of restricting my gambling to Costa Rica and other offshore betting venues where betting is 100% legal, I will be allowed to make a living doing what I do best and love without being in violation of my probation."

But authorities say Joe Vito never restricted his action. In fact, the indictment alleges, he never stopped bookmaking from his suburban Philadelphia base. That allegation is at the heart of the racketeering and gambling indictment he now faces.

Over lunch at his home, a stylish Italianate mini-mansion in Meadowbrook this summer, Mastronardo talked about his life, his relationship with his late father-in-law -- they were friends and respected one another, he said -- and the future. But for the time being, the thin, silver-haired gambler said he wanted to keep those thoughts private.

He avoided any specific references to the charges, but with a sparkle in his eyes and a smile crossing his lips, he said he liked his chances in court. He talked about his uncle and the Pepsi Cola connection, about his legitimate gambling earnings and the taxes he has paid over the years.

But how, he was asked, did he intend to explain burying over a million dollars in cash in his backyard?

Joe Vito didn't miss a beat. He and his family have been through a lot, he said. Every time the authorities come after him, he said, they seize or freeze his bank accounts, as they have done in the current case.

He buried cash in the PVC pipes, he said, so that his wife would have something to fall back on.

"I wanted her to have something in case they took everything else," he said.

George Anastasia can be contacted at


  1. Phil,How did he get away with not having to deal with the Mob..I can understand with the morons in south Philly today, but 20-30 years ago I would think Scarfo and his ilk would have chopped his legs off...

    1. Nick Caramandi, one of Scarfo's guys, told me they try to "bet in" to Joe Vito in order to shake him down, but he never would meet with them and was always one step ahead of them.
      He's a very smart guy and he dealt with gamblers who didn't want to place bets with mob bookies. It was almost a boutique, high end kind of business. busineisnessve

    2. George why aren't your reporting on this ? This is a much bigger case then Ligambi's petty trial? Also you interested in reporting on a corrupt Montgomery county Judge

  2. Great Story about a GREAT GUY. a true LIVING LEGEND

  3. I see a movie, George.

  4. Good story can't wait to read your book on it.....I can see the feds getting some tax evaison but the gambling charges are really getting old these days, there seems to be bigger issues the feds should concentrate on as opposed to this stuff....he had a set up of high end very esteemed professionals that could afford to bet and lose and win and no threats of violence. This guy outsmarted the philly mob when it was at its height and was never dragged into any of the scarfo-merlino-stanfa indictments back in the day

  5. Good stuff george as always. He.s my hero give. Em hell Joe good luck

  6. Excellent article, George. You have a talent for writing on topics such a these by providing facts to the reader in an unbiased manner. I am lucky enough to know the Mastronardo family personally, and I can't even think of a single negative thing to say about them. Sure they must have made some mistakes for this whole legal issue to come about, but they are incredibly kind and welcoming people that have been a victim to the spotlight of the public. Thanks for a great read.

  7. my mentor; truely a non violent man. he paid his taxes and provides a service. in many countries and nevada, he'd be commissioner of gaming. when will the united states move into the 21st century and focuson violent crimes instead of victimless businesses??

  8. I went to college, Allenwood FCI, in 1993 with Vito. I spent 6 months with him on a bookmaking charge. We knew some of the same people on the outside so we became friends on the inside. He is one of the greatest guys that you would ever want to meet or hang around with. We walked the track and worked together inside. He would make us all laugh and pass time faster during those mundane days. Even though he was an affable guy ,he was the most knowledgeable person on the gambling business that I have ever known in all the years I have been involved. He never, to the best of my knowledge, ever hurt anyone over being stiffed for money. A genuine good guy who loved what he did for a living. I wish him well in his upcoming case and his health- Bigstore.

  9. Yep, you may think this guy is a angel but he had many guys who dealt with him and paid to him that weren't so. Rumors have it, that he dealt many walking informants (dry rats) and he knew it and didn't care about who they were informing on as long as they brought him money. A lot of people went away and he continued taking informants money as long as they didn't inform on him.
    That's not the way it goes, cant have it both ways, in my opinion.

  10. His father in law was Rizzo, thats why Scarfo stayed away from him.


Thoughtful commentary welcome. Trolling, harassing, and defaming not welcome. Consistent with 47 U.S.C. 230, we have the right to delete without warning any comments we believe are obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.