Thursday, January 30, 2014

Judge Rules Anastasia Can Cover Scarfo Trial

By Ralph Cipriano

U.S. District Court Judge Robert B. Kugler ruled today that veteran crime reporter George Anastasia is free to cover the fraud trial of Nicodemo S. Scarfo and Salvatore Pelullo.

After a 50-minute hearing at the federal courthouse in Camden, Judge Kugler decided that Anastasia's right to cover the trial under the First Amendment trumped any issue raised by the defense.

J. Michael Farrell, a lawyer for Pelullo, had listed Anastasia as a potential witness in the fraud case. The lawyer wanted the reporter to testify that prior to the issuing of a search warrant in 2006, Anastasia had never heard Pelullo's name mentioned as a member of organized crime.

The names of potential witnesses are kept on a sequestration list. They're not supposed to show up in the courtroom prior to their appearance on the witness stand. By putting Anastasia on that list earlier this month, the defense, in effect, had barred Anastasia from visiting the courtroom as a reporter. But the judge granted a motion today to take Anastasia's name off that sequestration list.

The judge said the defense can still call Anastasia as a witness, but the judge told Farrell from the bench that it might not be advisable for the defense to go down that road.

"Frankly, "I'm not convinced at all that Mr. Anastasia has any admissible evidence," the judge was quoted as saying in a story about the hearing written by Julia Terruso of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

If he allowed Farrell to ask Anastasia the question he wanted to ask, what would it prove, the judge said. The issue of whether Anastasia had heard Pelullo's  name prior to 2006 mentioned as a member of organized crime was irrelevant.

And, the judge said, if he allowed Farrell to ask his question, he would have to allow the government to ask Anastasia what he had written since 2006, such as the allegations that Pelullo and his co-defendant Scarfo had looted a Texas-based mortgage company.

Pelullo, an Elkins Park businessman, is one of seven defendants in the federal fraud case being tried along with Scarfo, the son of jailed former Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo.

The government alleges that Scarfo and Pelullo, along with several lawyers, orchestrated the systematic looting of FirstPlus Financial by secretly taking  control of the board of directors in June 2007. Over the next 10 months, authorities allege, the defendants helped themselves to $12 million.

George Anastasia has been covering organized crime in Philadelphia for nearly 40 years. After he retired from The Philadelphia Inquirer as its ace mob writer in 2012, he's been blogging for big

Anastasia was represented in court today by Max. S. Kennerly, a lawyer from The Beasley Firm, the sponsors of big Kennerly said the judge recognized the importance of the First Amendment, but kept future options open.

"The court agreed that there was no reason to keep George out of the courtroom, but did not yet rule on the First Amendment issues," Kennerly said. "If any of the defendants want to try to call him as a witness later -- which the court said was likely a very bad idea -- they can try to do so, and we will sort out the First Amendment issues then."

Kennerly said a database search of published articles could produce the same information that Farrell was seeking from Anastasia, so it wasn't necessary for the reporter to appear as a witness.

"I assume this is the end of the issue, but if they try anything else with George, I am happy to come back and defend his right to report on the trial," Kennerly said. He would also be happy to continue to defend  "the public's right to know what's going on in their courtrooms, by way of George's singular expertise."

Kennerly said the real credit for today's victory in court goes to Kim Loutey, a third-year law student who did the research, developed the arguments and drafted the brief that the judge sided with.

"All I did was show up," Kennerly said. "The argument was there, and it was irrefutable."

Anastasia was happy with the ruling.

"I think the judge saw the issue for what it was and recognized the importance of the First Amendment," Anastasia said. Also the judge recognized "I don't have any first-hand information," Anastasia said. "That nothing I could have testified about would have added anything to the case."