State Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak, last month at the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
State Rep. Marc Gergely is expected to turn himself in this morning for arraignment before West Deer District Judge Tom Swan.
Dot's Family Restaurant on Fifth Avenue in Mckeesport.
Ronald "Porky" Melocchi
By Jonathan D. Silver / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 2012, Teresa Ploskina, the owner of Dot’s Family Restaurant, a down-home corner eatery in McKeesport, was a businesswoman trying to make a living in a depressed town.
By October of that year, Ms. Ploskina’s place had been raided on three occasions in the prior 18 months after someone tipped off law enforcement that Dot’s harbored illegal video gambling machines. She fretted about what might happen if there were a fourth time.
Ronald “Porky” Melocchi, who authorities say ran a million-dollar video gambling ring in the Mon Valley, knew that, according to a statewide grand jury presentment released Tuesday. Desiring to supply Ms. Ploskina with new machines, but aware that she was leery, Melocchi set up a meeting at Dot’s on Oct. 10, 2012, and called in his heavy hitters — what he referred to as his “super PAC” — state Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak, and prominent Pittsburgh liquor license lawyer Louis Caputo.
On the morning of the meeting, Melocchi briefed a friend named Emilio Navarro, who said Tuesday that he knew Melocchi but “I really don’t know what that conversation is about ... I don’t remember anything.”
“Now I’m bringing Louis and Gergely, now if that can’t [expletive] do it. You know, that’s the super PAC, bringing them two,” Melocchi told Dr. Navarro on an intercepted telephone call. “You know I’m bringing a state representative that’s going to tell her, OK, to put the [expletive] games in. And the liquor lawyer that controls 75 percent of the liquor licenses in Allegheny. And she’s still scared, [expletive] her, I give up.”
Together, according to the grand jury presentment that led to criminal charges filed last week by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office against Mr. Gergely, the trio worked to get Ms. Ploskina’s business for Melocchi.
“Gergely explained to Ploskina that he understood small business people depended on illegal video gambling machines to make their businesses work,” the presentment said. “He further explained that he supports small business people, and that ‘Porky’ Melocchi was a ‘good guy’ with whom to do business.”
Mr. Gergely, 46, and Melocchi, 55, longtime family friends going back 25 or 30 years, appeared to enjoy doing business together, judging by the tenor of their wiretapped conversations. They had something else in common: They both liked Dot’s soup, praising it while investigators listened in.
Ultimately, their alleged efforts were fruitless; Ms. Ploskina turned Melocchi down. But extensive wiretaps conducted on Melocchi as part of a lengthy probe into his dealings revealed what authorities claim was illegal conduct by a sitting state legislator, hinted at corruption in the Pennsylvania State Police’s Liquor Control Enforcement bureau, and brought to light the type of crooked business practices that locals privately discuss as being endemic to — and epidemic in — the Mon Valley.
“As members of Melocchi’s ‘Super PAC,’ Gergely served as a demonstration of Melocchi’s connections to high government officials and thus ‘protection,’” the presentment said. “Caputo served as a ‘perk’ in the sense that he could consult with and advise prospective owners/operators on any legal issue relative to their liquor license and/or the placement of illegal video gambling devices within their business.”
The AG’s office has charged Mr. Gergely with six crimes; they include three felony counts of corrupt organizations and dealing in the proceeds of illegal activity, and three misdemeanor counts involving conspiracy, gambling and an election law violation. He ignored reporters this morning as he turned himself in for arraignment before West Deer District Judge Tom Swan.
No one else has been charged, but the investigation is ongoing, the AG’s office said. Mr. Caputo received a target letter from investigators.
Mr. Gergely, who Tuesday resigned his position as ranking Democrat on the House Labor and Industry Committee, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Charles J. Porter Jr., did not return messages. Mr. Caputo’s attorney, Robert Del Greco, declined comment.
Bruce Carsia, Melocchi’s attorney, described his client as a “little teddy bear” and said he did not anticipate any new charges. He added that he was not allowed to comment on whether Melocchi testified before the grand jury against Mr. Gergely.
Government watchdogs Tuesday called on Mr. Gergely to step down and suspend his campaign for re-election.
“This is old-fashioned influence peddling. Gergely got to be the big man on campus, and there doesn’t have to be a financial gain or a ticket stub to prove illegal behavior,” said Eric Epstein, coordinator of Rock the Capitol.
“I can’t believe these guys never learn,” said Barry Kauffman of Common Cause, adding that if Mr. Gergely is guilty, “he should step down and allow the seat to be filled by someone who can devote their time to the public interest.”
Mr. Gergely’s Republican challenger, Fawn Walker-Montgomery, called it “another sad day for the hardworking people of the Mon-Valley.”
In addition to describing Melocchi’s efforts to expand into Dot’s, the grand jury detailed alleged interactions between Mr. Gergely and the owners of another establishment — Chick’s Grill in McKeesport. The grand jury said that Mr. Gergely met with Chick’s owner, Brian Cassidy, who was reluctant to install illegal machines.
At one sit-down, the legislator made his pitch, according to the presentment.
“Gergely advised Cassidy that it would be wise to put the machines in,” the presentment said. ”Gergely explained that if he wanted to make it in McKeesport, this was the only way to do so. Gergely told Cassidy that he should use Melocchi if he wants to put the machines in ... Gergely made it clear to Cassidy that he would be covered and made reference to the fact that they (either Gergely or Melocchi) had family members in law enforcement.”
If nothing else, the charges against Mr. Gergely, long rumored to be the subject of a grand jury probe, reflect the efforts of law enforcement to go up the ladder in a criminal investigation and arrest the proverbial big fish. After state police and the attorney general’s office seized 335 video gambling machines in December 2012, mostly from the Mon Valley, they arrested the vendor behind the equipment — Melocchi — and 15 of his accomplices in “Operation Pork Chop.”
Editor’s note: The presentment contains foul language, reader discretion is advised
Melocchi pleaded guilty in June to three offenses and was sentenced to a decade of probation. Some of the people charged and convicted — including former Melocchi cronies Dan Carr, James Cerqua and Mark Holtzman — pop up in the Gergely presentment.
Part of the alleged effort to pressure Ms. Ploskina involved trying to root out the anonymous person who tipped authorities off to her illegal gambling machines, the presentment said. “Caputo and Melocchi told Ploskina they had the ability to find out the identity of this person ...”
Investigators unraveled the mystery, learning that Mr. Caputo had a connection in the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement — a “citizen officer” named Charles Rubino, the grand jury alleged. In intercepted phone calls, Mr. Caputo is heard calling the whistleblower a “degenerate” and planning strategy with Melocchi about how to handle Ms. Ploskina.
Mr. Caputo met with investigators and admitted that he called Mr. Rubino “and obtained the identity of the complainant who turned in Ploskina. Phone records obtained by investigators corroborated this information,” the presentment said. Mr. Rubino did not deny or admit being Mr. Caputo’s mole.
Jonathan D. Silver: email@example.com, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg. Staff writers Chris Potter and Andrew Goldstein contributed.
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