Lawmaker remains vague on gambling investigation

A Pennsylvania state lawmaker caught on a wiretap talking to an accused Mon Valley gambling ringleader issued a brief statement Monday but failed to address their relationship or explain what appeared to be an attempt to cover up for the suspected kingpin.

Continuing to decline interview requests, Rep. Marc Gergely left unanswered plenty of questions about the most significant aspects of the conversation captured by state agents probing Ronald "Porky" Melocchi's alleged million-dollar gambling operation.

Mr. Gergely, D-White Oak, broke his silence by issuing a four-paragraph statement by email through the House Democratic Caucus Legislative Communications Office, in which he said he cooperated with investigators and donated campaign contributions from Mr. Melocchi to a counseling service that aids gamblers.

The statement did not touch upon Mr. Gergely's relationship with Mr. Melocchi, whose Glassport-based business, Back Alley Vending, was targeted by the state police in 2010.

Nor was it clear why the state House Democrats were serving as a conduit for Mr. Gergely's statement.

The state attorney general's office last week charged Mr. Melocchi and 15 others with being involved in a video gambling, illegal lottery and bookmaking operation.

During the investigation of Mr. Melocchi, dubbed Operation Pork Chop, agents fabricated a letter from a phantom woman who claimed that video poker machines in McKeesport run by "Porky" bankrupted the family. A female agent dropped the letter off in November at Mr. Gergely's office.

"I received a letter from a woman who claimed to be my constituent, stating that her husband had gambled away all their money on illegal video poker machines and asking for help," Mr. Gergely's statement said.

The statement said that Mr. Gergely asked his staff to research the matter, then to contact her to offer phone numbers for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement.

"I also directed staff to provide her with the phone number for Gamblers Anonymous," Mr. Gergely said. "Unfortunately, several attempts by my staff to reach this 'constituent' were unsuccessful, because her voice mail was never set up."

As part of the probe, investigators intercepted a Nov. 9 call from Mr. Gergely to Mr. Melocchi in which the lawmaker said he would not pass the complaint on to liquor enforcement officials.

"I just want to take care of ya," Mr. Gergely is recorded telling Mr. Melocchi. "She obviously has no idea that we have a connection."

Mr. Gergely's statement said he and his staff cooperated when law enforcement asked about the letter, "providing dates and times for our various attempts to contact the woman."

None of those claims about the letter could be independently verified, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette corroborated Mr. Gergely's statement that he gave away Mr. Melocchi's campaign contributions.

"When I became aware of the criminal investigations against Mr. Melocchi late last winter, I donated an equivalent amount of his campaign contributions to Positive Pathways, an organization dedicated to helping those with gambling addictions," the statement said.

Online campaign finance reports show three $1,000 contributions to Mr. Gergely's campaign from Mr. Melocchi in 2006, 2008 and 2012. A $750 contribution in 2010 was listed under a misspelled last name.

Michael Connelly, president and owner of Positive Pathways in the West End, said he was surprised to receive an envelope in March from Mr. Gergely with two $2,000 checks.

"I thought it was a joke or something," Mr. Connelly said. "It was strange. I'd never met him nor did I know of him."

Mr. Connelly said he called Mr. Gergely -- he believes the letter was on Mr. Gergely's legislative stationery and that one check was from a personal account and the other from a campaign account -- to make sure the lawmaker knew Positive Pathways was a for-profit enterprise.

"He said he did research about our company and found we treat gamblers who have problems in Pittsburgh and chose to give us a donation," Mr. Connelly said. "He did state that he had friends who had gambling problems and wanted to make a contribution in that area."

Also Monday, an attorney for Mr. Gergely's chief of staff, Thomas Maglicco, confirmed that his client testified June 17 before an investigating grand jury.

Attorney Douglas Sughrue declined to provide details of his client's testimony.

Neither Mr. Maglicco nor Mr. Gergely has been charged with any crime.

Mr. Maglicco is a McKeesport Area school board member, as is Forward police Chief Mark Holtzman, who has been charged in the case and who agents believe ran Mr. Melocchi's operations in a McKeesport establishment called the Coffee Pot.

Tom DeRosa, chairman of Forward's board of supervisors, said Monday that Chief Holtzman will remain on the job despite the charges against him, which include two felony counts of corrupt organizations.

breaking - region - electionspa - neigh_south

Jonathan D. Silver:, 412-263-1962 and on Twitter: @jsilverpg. First Published September 9, 2013 2:15 PM


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