NEW YORK (AP) — A reputed Philadelphia mob boss known for beating murder raps, surviving attempts on his life and reinventing himself as a restaurateur is back in court facing federal fraud charges.
Opening statements in the trial of Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino are set for Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan.
Merlino, 55, was among nearly four dozen defendants arrested in a 2016 crackdown on an East Coast syndicate that prosecutors say committed crimes including extortion, loan-sharking, casino-style gambling, sports gambling, credit card fraud and health care fraud. It operated in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida and New Jersey.
Most of the defendants pleaded guilty to lesser charges, with Merlino the only one so far to go to trial. He has pleaded not guilty to charges that he conspired to bill insurers for unnecessary and excessive prescriptions for expensive compound creams in exchange for kickbacks.
The government plans to call mob turncoats as witnesses, including an associate with the New York-based Genovese crime family who made secret recordings of conversations with Merlino. The recordings captured him “supervising a number of individuals, questioning whether certain associates were ‘rats,’ collecting illegal gambling debt, engaging in a fraud against health insurers and conducting at least one sit-down to resolve a debt,” court papers say.
Another witness is a government agent who served a five-day suspension after being accused of mishandling cooperators and investigative reports in the case, a topic the judge ruled the defense could cover in cross-examination.
The trial had originally been scheduled to begin in mid-January but was postponed for two weeks after Merlino, who has been free on $5 million bond and living in Florida, sought treatment for chest pains and shortness of breath.
The sharp-dressing Merlino once controlled the remnants of a Philadelphia-south Jersey organized crime family that was decimated by a bloody civil war in the 1980s and 1990s. Federal authorities say he was frequently targeted by murder plots after rivals put a $500,000 murder contract on his head.
He became a main suspect in a failed hit on another mob figure on Halloween 1989, but was never charged. He also served time for a $350,000 armored truck heist that same year.
In 2001, a jury acquitted Merlino and six co-defendants of three counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder that could have put him in prison for life. He was convicted of lesser racketeering charges and served 12 years in prison before being released in 2011.
Merlino claimed that he retired from the mob for good by running an upscale Italian restaurant in Boca Raton. The since-closed restaurant was called Merlino’s. In a 2013 interview, he said that life in the Mafia wasn’t worth the stress of being double-crossed.
“Too many rats,” he said. “I want no part of that.”
By TOM HAYS
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