Mayor: Donations don't buy influence in McKeesport
By Patrick Cloonan
Published: Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 4:26 a.m.
Alleged gambling ringleader Ronald Melocchi made extensive financial contributions to candidates in local elections, according to the Allegheny County Division of Elections' campaign finance records.
Between June 2011 and December 2012, Melocchi and his wife Sue donated $4,050 to the Friends of Mike Cherepko, the campaign committee for the former city council president and current mayor of McKeesport.
On Wednesday, Cherepko said the donations did not translate into influence over his administration's policies.
“Absolutely not,” the mayor said, adding that the vast majority of what is donated to his campaign committee goes to groups and charities throughout the city.
Cherepko said he's donated “$8,000 to $9,000” over the past few months to McKeesport Hospital Foundation, LaRosa Boys & Girls Club, Center for Victims, Noah's Ark Community Center and organizations supporting K-9 officers and McKeesport Area High School football and girls basketball teams.
“As mayor, people expect me to show up for these events,” Cherepko said.
Last week Melocchi, 54, of West Newton and 15 other suspected members of an alleged gambling ring were indicted by a state grand jury. Melocchi's preliminary hearing on four felony counts and 53 misdemeanor counts is scheduled for Nov. 21 before Magisterial District Judge Thomas P. Caulfield in Forest Hills.
Melocchi has served on the McKeesport Recreation Board since his appointment by then-Mayor James Brewster on July 7, 2010.
“He ran the carnival,” Brewster, now a state senator, said on Monday. “He ran the fishing derby.”
Melocchi and his wife donated $2,200 in 2011 to be part of a foursome at Brewster's annual golf tournament.
“Much of the proceeds of those golf outings go to charities anyhow,” Brewster said. Three other area lawmakers said they would divest their campaigns of donations from Melocchi.
In March, Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak, sent $4,000 to Positive Pathways, a Pittsburgh organization that deals with gambling addictions. At least $3,000 was donated to Gergely between 2006 and 2012, according to state campaign finance records.
Rep. R. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen, said an $800 donation to one of his golf outings would be given to charity.
Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, said he will return $400 to Melocchi.
On Dec. 10, 2012, an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge received an affidavit from investigators for the state attorney general's office and authorized raids the following day that resulted in the seizure of 335 video poker machines from approximately 70 locations.
The machines are legal, though state law prohibits their use for gambling. The city charges a licensing fee for businesses to have mechanical devices, including juke boxes and pool tables.
Cherepko said city police enforce compliance with the licensing ordinance.
“Our goal is to focus on the interests of the city,” Cherepko said. “One of the largest concerns is to make sure (the city's) bills are paid.”
Melocchi's record includes pleading guilty in Common Pleas Court to five misdemeanor counts of possession of gambling devices in 2005.
The largest contribution from Melocchi to Cherepko was $2,500 on Sept. 2, 2011.
County records show that, on Jan. 23, 2012, persons listed as Ron Molochi of Elizabeth and Sue Molochi each donated $400 to Cherepko's campaign.
They gave addresses that belong to Mama Pepino's Pizza, Melocchi's restaurants in Elizabeth and McKeesport.
Cherepko acknowledged that “Molochi” was a misspelling of “Melocchi” in his committee's filing.
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.
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