Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Guilty Pleas And $3.7 Million In Forfietures For Mastronardo Gambling Ring

By George Anastasia

First came the guilty pleas.

Now comes the cash.

A federal judge yesterday entered a preliminary forfeiture order that will have gentlemen gambler Joe Vito Mastronardo forking over $3 million seized by authorities during an investigation that targeted his international bookmaking operation, including more than $1.2 million stashed in PVC pipes that had been buried in the backyard of his posh Italianate mini-mansion in the Meadowbrook section of Abington Township.

The government will get an additional $700,00 from co-defendants in the case, including Mastronardo's brother John. The authorities also get to keep Joe Vito's 2001 Cadillac DeVille and a 2009 Nissan Altima used by another key figure in the bookmaking operation, according to the preliminary court order signed by U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois.

The forfeitures come in the wake of a global guilty plea entered by Mastronardo and 12 co-defendants in January. As part of that plea deal, prosecutors have agreed to drop a money-laundering charge against Joanna Mastronardo, Joe Vito's wife. She was the only defendant not charged with racketeering.

Joanna Mastronardo is the only daughter of the late Frank L. Rizzo, the former law-and-order Mayor and Police Commissioner of Philadelphia. Joe Vito was Rizzo's son-in-law. The Mastronardo's only child, a son named Joe, was Rizzo's only grandchild. Joe Mastronardo, 31, is a co-defendant in the case and is awaiting sentencing.

Sentencing hearings are not expected until sometime this summer. Based on the plea agreements, Joe Vito faces the stiffest sentence, three years in prison, but his failing health could be a factor when the 63-year-old lifetime gambler appears before Judge DuBois.

"This went beyond a typical bookmaking operation," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Bologna, the lead prosecutor in the case. Bologna said the Mastronardo brothers and several other defendants were charged for a similar operation in Montgomery County court in 2006. In that case, the Mastronardo's forfeited over $2 million that had been seized while pleading guilty to minor gambling offenses.

Everyone involved in that case along with associates who were not charged but were aware of what had happened, "went back and did the exact same thing," said Bologna.That, the prosecutor said showed "a total lack of respect for law enforcement and the judicial system."

Bologna is expected to make those same arguments when sentencing hearings are held for the defendants. While the prosecutor is expected to ask for jail time for the major figures in the indictment, defense attorneys, as they have already done in pre-trial motions and arguments, are expected to argue that the charges were overblown and to ask for leniency.  The defense contends that the government took a gambling case and turned it into a racketeering enterprise in order to have the kind of leverage it needed to win guilty pleas and forfeiture concessions.

"This is a gambling case that the government is using to supplement its income," said Christopher Warren, the lawyer for Joe Mastronardo, the son of Joe Vito and Joanna.

The forfeited assets will be split between the federal government and Montgomery County. The County DA's office initiated the investigation, but later turned its evidence over to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

A federal indictment unsealed in August 2012 alleged that Joe Vito headed a gambling operation that had hundreds of high end bettors who would wager $10,000 to $20,000 on a single game. Payoffs of wins and collections for losses were usually measured in six figures, authorities charged.

The indictment tracked wire transfers of more than $3.2 million to financial institutions in Sweden, Malta, Antiqua and Portugal, but also made references to weekly meetings at the Cedar Brook  Country Club and the Century House Restaurant in Hatfield where bookmakers and gamblers would

exchange cash.

Throughout his gambling career, Mastronardo has had a reputation for catering to a high end clientele. He has never been accused to engaging in violence and despite the huge sums of money he was generating, he was apparently able to avoid any dealings with organized crime figures.

Bologna said there was nothing in the current case to indicate mob involvement.

Ironically, the Mastronardo case was winding its way through federal court at the same time mob boss Joseph "Uncle Joe" Ligambi and a half dozen co-defendants were being tried on gambling and racketeering charges linked to bookmaking and video poker machines.

Ligambi was acquitted of four counts and the government dropped three others after two juries hung on those charges. Two other defendants were acquitted and four were convicted. Testimony and evidence made references to gambling debts of $500 to $5,000 and loanshark extortion gambits of $25,000.

The Mastronardo indictment detailed bets of as high as $50,000 on a single game.

Both cases, said Warren, who represented two of Ligambi's co-defendants, were gambling cases dressed up as something else by authorities.

"I said this before," Warren said in a phone conversation this afternoon. "You have two guys on a street corner in South Philadelphia taking bets and the government says it's racketeering. When (former governor) Ed Rendell wants to do it to generate revenue for the state, it's called a good idea."

The state and federal authorities will share in the windfall from the forfeitures in the Mastronardo case, although just how the split will occur hasn't been formally announced. Here, based on the prelminary forfeiture order, are the primary sources of the estimated $3.7 million now in the government's coffers:

There was $180,810 in cash found in a safe in Mastronardo's home in the 1600 block of Stocton Road during a raid by Montgomery County authorities on March 30, 2010. At the same time cash amounts of $182, $2,979 and $3,000 were found in the house. In addition, $1,120,300 was found "in sealed shrunk plastic bags stored inside a PVC cleanout drain" buried in the yard of the home. Another $1,720,303 was taken from six Mastronardo bank accounts that were frozen by court order at the time of the raid.

Authorities also seized $395,000 in three safety deposit boxes owned by Harry Murray, a co-defendant who has pleaded guilty. And they found another $198,990 in the home of John Mastronardo on Devonshire Court in Blue Bell.

Under the plea agreement, John Mastronardo, 58, a former standout football player at Villanova University, faces up to nine months in prison, said Bologna. The prosecutor said John Mastronardo   will be credited with jail time served in Montgomery County. In a brief interview late last year, John Mastronardo said he was planning to move to Florida and wanted to put the case and the gambling business behind him.

His brother, Joe Vito, may now be out of the business as well. A potential jail sentence and the forfeiture of millions may not be the reason, however.

According to his lawyer and others, Joe Vito has serious health problems. He has long battled cancer.
He had a stroke over a year ago that resulted in a feeding tube being inserted in his stomach. Most
recently, said his lawyer John Morris, he was hospitalized in intensive care for three weeks with pneumonia and had a breathing tube inserted in his throat. He is currently in a rehab center.

"He tends to understate his problems," said Morris, referring not to the guilty plea and pending sentencing, but rather to Joe Vito Mastronardo's deteriorating medical condition.

George Anastasia can be reached at