McKeesport-area legislators to give donations from accused gambling kingpin to charity
Two state lawmakers said on Monday that they are turning over to charity the donations that were given to them by an alleged gambling ringleader, and a third said he probably will return a donation made to his 2010 campaign.
“When I became aware of the criminal investigations against (Ronald) Melocchi late last winter,” state Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak, said in a statement issued by the House Democratic Caucus, “I donated an equivalent amount of his campaign contributions to Positive Pathways, an organization dedicated to helping those with gambling addictions.”
Gergely did not give a dollar figure in his statement, but Pennsylvania Department of State records show Melocchi donated at least $1,000 in 2006 and again in 2008, and $1,000 in gift cards in 2012.
On Thursday, Melocchi and 15 others were arraigned on charges that they conspired to conduct an illegal multi-million-dollar operation focused mainly on wagers using video poker machines.
Allegedly it involved a numbers racket based on the state's daily lottery drawings, and wagering on sporting events.
State Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, said three payments totaling $2,200 made to his campaign committee in 2011 by Ronald and Sue Melocchi went toward a foursome at his annual golf tournament.
“Much of the proceeds of those golf outings go to charities anyhow,” Brewster said.
Democratic Reps. R. Ted Harhai of Monessen and Bill Kortz of Dravosburg received contributions from Melocchi between 2006 and 2012, according to state records.
Kortz said on Friday he will return $100 he received in 2008 and $300 he received in 2012. On Monday, Harhai said he likely will return $800 he received in 2010.
“I'm going to talk to some of my campaign people,” Harhai said. “We got it legally. It was for a golf outing. I think it is probably best all around to return it.”
Harhai plans to reintroduce a bill to legalize video poker gambling, with 30 percent of proceeds going to the vendor; 30 percent to the veterans or social hall where a machine is placed; and 40 percent to the state.
“I don't think it adversely affects the casinos,” Harhai said. “If we can make it work it would alleviate a lot of heartache and headache.”
Gergely's involvement with Melocchi drew attention from the state attorney general's office. A phone conversation between the two was recorded and transcribed in a search warrant affidavit.
Phone lines were tapped under an order by Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on May 12, 2011.
Gergely called Melocchi on Nov. 9, a day after an agent from the attorney general's office left a fictitious letter at Gergely's White Oak constituent office.
“My husband has a very bad gambling problem,” the Nov. 8, 2012, letter said. “He has wasted all of our savings.”
The letter said the husband “has been spending our money at poker machines” at the Polish National Alliance Club and the Coffee Pot, a restaurant reputedly run by former McKeesport police deputy chief Mark Holtzman that was raided in December.
“The machines are all run by a guy named Porky,” the woman wrote. “I have tried to go to the local cops but have not got any help.”
During the phone call, Melocchi asked if Gergely would turn the letter over to the state police Liquor Control Enforcement office, which enforces laws against gambling in bars and taverns. Gergely replied, “Who me? Not me.”
Gergely told Melocchi it was obvious she “has no idea that we have a connection.”
Gergely said on Monday that he received the letter and “directed my staff to contact the ‘constituent' and provide her with phone numbers for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement (and) for Gamblers Anonymous.”
He said several attempts to reach the constituent were unsuccessful.
Gergely said he and his staff cooperated fully when contacted by law enforcement.
Holtzman, 57, who was indicted last week, is police chief in Forward Township.
Township Solicitor Matthew Racunas said no action has been taken against Holtzman.
“It is a personnel matter,” Racunas said. “We are not discussing it.”
Holtzman and Gergely's chief of staff Thomas Maglicco serve on the McKeesport Area school board.
Maglicco testified on June 17 before the grand jury, whose presentment was opened last week.
“He was subpoenaed by the attorney general's office to appear,” Maglicco's attorney Douglas Sughrue said. “He testified openly and honestly and fully, and with the knowledge of Rep. Gergely supporting him while doing that.”
Sughrue said Maglicco's appearance was “not very long at all,” coming in the midst of other matters before the panel.
Sughrue declined to discuss Maglicco's testimony, citing concern that disclosure might hinder the investigation.
Brewster normally has 120 participants in his annual golf tournament. This year's outing at Youghiogheny Country Club drew county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa Jr., D-Forest Hills, among others.
“I'm not endorsing any sort of criminal activity,” Brewster said. “I won't criticize law enforcement. They did their job.”
The senator and former McKeesport mayor said that “in small communities you are going to have interaction in community events. It is very difficult to come in as an elected official and try to sort things out. My knowledge of that (gambling) business is zero.”
Brewster said he wants to be “as honest and as forthright as I can,” and acknowledged that he knows many of the figures named in the grand jury presentment, including Melocchi.
“He ran the (McKeesport City) Carnival. He ran the (annual Lake Emilie) fishing derby,” Brewster said.
Melocchi, 54, lives in West Newton but served on McKeesport's recreation board. He faces one third-degree and three first-degree felony counts as well as 53 misdemeanor counts, 49 of them for having illegal gambling devices.
“Some of the folks that were involved in this were people I went to high school with,” Brewster said. “Dan Carr is a person I met four years ago. I didn't know him well.”
Carr, 55, owner of the Viking Lounge, was elected to city council in 2011. He faces two counts each of involvement with a corrupt organization and illegal possession of gambling devices, and one count of conspiracy.
“He has been a good councilman who has done a lot for the city,” Brewster said. “This man puts hours of time in to make our community a better city. Those things have to be said.”
He said the former McKeesport police officers on the indictment list “always did a good job. They did the job they were supposed to do. I don't know where you separate what they did professionally with what they did privately.”
Holtzman faces two counts of corrupt organization and one each of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, gambling devices and conspiracy.
Former Lt. Arthur Pero, 56, of McKeesport faces two counts of accepting lottery bets. Retired city Sgt. Ronald D. Prest, 65, of White Oak faces two counts of corrupt organization and one apiece of dealing in proceeds of illegal activity, criminal use of a communication facility, gambling devices and conspiracy.
Also indicted were James A. Cerqua, 57, of Clairton, Timothy John Minkus, 31, of West Mifflin; Frank C. Reese, 61, of McKeesport; Rodney Elia Iannelli, 53, of Ohio Township; Robert Bogesdorfer, aka Bo Wagner, 67, of Irwin; Eugene “Red” Kowalski, 65, of North Huntingdon Township; Kirk A. Mollica, 46, of Elizabeth; Catherine Gouker, 55, and Jeffrey F. Risha, 59, of Belle Vernon; Terence P. McNelis, 52, of Whitehall; and Mark Novakovich, 55, of White Oak.
All are free on nonmonetary bond.
Hearings for Melocchi, Pero, Carr and 10 other co-defendants are scheduled for Thursday at 9 a.m. before Magisterial District Judge Thomas P. Caulfield in Forest Hills.
As of presstime, hearings for Holtzman, Novakovich and Cerqua had been continued until Oct. 3 at 9 a.m.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org.