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Scottdale men charged in video poker machine scheme

Paul Peirce
| Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, 8:18 a.m.

A three-year investigation into an illegal gambling operation based in Westmoreland County resulted in the arrest Friday of two Scottdale men as well as the seizure of 126 video poker machines and more than $660,000 in cash and assets, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced.

James Tartal, 54, and Edward DeLuca, 50, were charged by state police with operating a corrupt organization, conspiracy, possession of illegal gambling devices and dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities. Shapiro said the pair operated Zucco Vending on Pittsburgh Street, Scottdale.

Shapiro said during the investigation that began in 2014, police seized poker machines from 25 bars and clubs throughout Fayette and Westmoreland counties.

“These defendants took in hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal proceeds, while law-abiding businesses played by the rules,” Shapiro said. “That's unfair and against the law, and it's organized criminal activity.”

No bar owners or club operators were charged criminally but could face administrative sanctions from the state Liquor Control Board, Shapiro said.

“They are all cooperating,” he said.

Shapiro said state police working undercover as part of “Operation Bar Bluff” identified bars that were paying out illegal winnings in the fall of 2014 and identified the machines as being owned by Zucco Vending. He said the fact that undercover officers were able to receive cash payouts during the investigation made them illegal.

“When a poker machine player accumulated enough credits from playing, they went to the bar owner and received a cash payout in return. ... That's illegal,” Shapiro said during a news conference in North Huntingdon.

“The Zucco Vending machines were flush with cash because the players knew they were playing for illegal payouts, so they played more and spent more in hopes of winning cash in return. That was the lure of the payout that made this illegal gambling enterprise so lucrative,” Shapiro said.

All machines seized were equipped with illegal internal knock-off devices, where after receiving a cash payment someone would “knock off the credits, making way for the next gambler,” Shapiro said.

During the course of the investigation, Shapiro said police seized $312,000 in cash from a safe in a hidden room inside Tartal's home and another $84,000 in cash from a Zucco warehouse in Scottdale.

Another $241,422 was frozen in five Zucco bank accounts the company maintained at PNC Bank, investigators said.

Shapiro noted that Tartal and DeLuca did not pay taxes in connection with the operation. He said Zucco Vending is no longer in business.

“Operating illegal gambling machines is organized crime, and we will not stand for it in Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said.

He said investigators observed both Tartal and DeLuca “intermingle” cash from poker machines, dart boards and pool tables Zucco supplied the bars and clubs.

A grand jury in Allegheny County recommended charges be filed against Tartal, who is listed as vice president of Zucco in the presentment, and DeLuca, who is named as an employee. DeLuca's brother, Carmen, is listed as president. He is not charged.

The owner or operator of the clubs “generally received 50 percent of the proceeds” although sometimes the split was 60/40 in favor of the bar or club, court documents said.

Court records indicate Tartal and DeLuca will be represented by Greensburg attorney William J. McCabe, who said he would not comment on the cases “prior to the preliminary hearing.”

Neither Tartal nor DeLuca have prior criminal records, according to online dockets.

In 2015, another Westmoreland County vending machine supplier, Ronald M. “Porky” Melocchi, 58, of West Newton, admitted to being the mastermind behind a McKeesport-area gambling ring headquartered in Glassport. He was sentenced in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court to 10 years probation.

Melocchi was the last to be sentenced out of 16 “Operation Pork Chop” defendants who entered pleas after the 2013 indictment by a state investigative grand jury. In that case, investigators seized 354 video machines and more than $1 million in cash.

No jail terms were issued in any of the “Operation Pork Chop” cases; 12 defendants were given probation, while others were fined.

On Aug. 15, state Rep. Marc Gergely pleaded guilty, also in Allegheny County, to two misdemeanor charges of conspiracy and accepting illegal campaign contributions. Those charges were related to Melocchi's illegal gambling machine ring.

Gergely, a White Oak Democrat, pleaded guilty to charges filed in March 2016 by the state Attorney General's office.

Pittsburgh attorney Louis Caputo also pleaded guilty to one count of criminal solicitation related to illegal gambling devices.

Sentencing for Gergely, who remains in office, is set for Nov. 6.

Maj. Scott T. Miller, director of the state police bureau of liquor enforcement, said the investigation of Zucco was initiated “after receiving tips from the public about unlawful gambling activity.”

Tartal and DeLuca were released on $25,000 unsecured bond following their arraignments pending preliminary hearings Sept. 29 before Norvelt District Judge Roger Eckels.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860, ppeirce@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.

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