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Pennsylvania Rep. Gergely charged with corruption, conspiracy

| Tuesday, March 1, 2016, 7:54 a.m.
State Rep. Marc Gergely
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Tribune-Review
State Rep. Marc Gergely
Ronald Melocchi
Ronald Melocchi

Teresa “Terri” Ploskina was leery about placing illegal video gambling machines in her McKeesport diner again when she says Rep. Marc Gergely sat down to talk with her on Oct. 10, 2012.

Ploskina had been raided three times, arrested, fined and had her business shuttered for a day because of such machines. Gergely — a seven-term Democrat representing the 35th District in eastern Allegheny County — assured Ploskina that Ronald “Porky” Melocchi was “a good guy” with whom to do business, Ploskina told a statewide grand jury.

Pittsburgh liquor lawyer Louis Caputo was at the table, too. Melocchi, whose Back Alley Vending was a purveyor of illegal gambling machines, considered Gergely and Caputo his “super PAC” — heavy-hitters who could persuade small business owners such as Ploskina to get past their qualms and take his machines, according to the Attorney General's Office.

Gergely, 46, is charged with two felony counts of being part of a corrupt organization and one of dealing in the proceeds of illegal activity, as well as three misdemeanor counts — including conspiracy — related to illegal gambling. Court records indicate Caputo has not been charged in connection with the gambling ring.

No one responded to messages left at Gergely's offices in Munhall, White Oak and Harrisburg.

According to state prosecutors, Gergely was a key cog in the illegal video gambling operation that, when authorities raided it in 2013, amounted to more than $1 million and involved about 335 machines at 70 restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and other locations outside Pittsburgh. More than a dozen people were charged.

Many of Gergely's colleagues did not return calls seeking comment. But House Minority Leader Frank Dermody said the charges were “surprising and disconcerting,” and he defended Gergely's record.

“I want to know more about what's alleged to have taken place,” Dermody said. “Marc Gergely is a longtime member of the House, and I know him to be a strong voice for improving Pennsylvania's schools and the lives of working people.”

Dermody noted that Gergely “has stepped aside as chairman of the Labor and Industry Committee as required by House rules.”

The charges — filed against the lawmaker Thursday at the recommendation of a statewide grand jury and unsealed Tuesday — allege he used his influence in an attempt to persuade Western Pennsylvania business owners to install Melocchi's illegal machines.

“This is an unfortunate case in which the players traded political capital and favors to advance their own agendas and illicit business,” Attorney General Kathleen Kane wrote in a statement. “The evidence clearly shows that Mr. Melocchi relied heavily on his relationships — including with Mr. Gergely — to conduct his illegal business.”

Officials had Melocchi's cellphone tapped and recorded him boasting about Gergely and Caputo's work for him.

The morning of the meeting with Ploskina, Melocchi told a friend: “You know, I'm bringing a state representative that's going to tell her (it's) OK to put the (expletive) games in. And the liquor lawyer that controls 75 percent of the liquor licenses in Allegheny. And she's still scared. (Expletive) her. I give up.”

Indeed, Ploskina rebuffed Melocchi and Gergely's attempts to put the gambling machines back in her restaurant.

Brian Cassidy opened Chick's Grill in McKeesport in 2011 and he, too, resisted Melocchi's pitch.

Cassidy told the grand jury that Melocchi brought Gergely to the restaurant.

He said Gergely told him it would be wise to put the machines in — that it was the only way to make it in McKeesport, according to the presentment. Cassidy said Gergely assured him he would not get in trouble if caught with the machines, saying that would never happen.

Cassidy asked Gergely if he'd put that in writing. Gergely replied that Cassidy knew he couldn't do that, and Cassidy said that, in that case, he would not go along with the proposition, according to the presentment.

A gambling sting in McKeesport led to charges in 2013 against former police officers, a city councilman and Melocchi, among others. Fifty-four of the 57 charges filed against Melocchi were withdrawn.

He pleaded guilty to one felony count of running a corrupt organization and misdemeanor counts of gambling devices and bookmaking — and was sentenced to 10 years of probation.

According to the presentment against Gergely, Ploskina testified that during the meeting, the four discussed trying to identify the anonymous person who had turned her in to law enforcement.

Caputo eventually met with law enforcement after he received a letter indicating he was a potential target of the investigation. According to the presentment, Caputo admitted he reached out to a friend, Charles Rubino, inside the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement and got the name of the person who turned Ploskina in.

Rubino told investigators he knew Caputo personally and professionally, but he had no recollection of giving the tipster's identity to him, and that to do so would be against agency policy. A search of state court records did not turn up criminal charges against Rubino.

Court documents show Gergely also tried to protect Melocchi when he discovered the operation might be brought to light.

On Nov. 8, 2012, an undercover agent delivered a fictitious complaint to Gergely's office, stating that her husband had gambled away their life savings on illegal poker machines belonging to a man named “Porky” and pleading with Gergely for help. The lawmaker's staff called him while he was on a hunting trip in West Virginia to inform him of the letter, according to court filings.

Gergely called Melocchi the next day.

The two chatted about tickets Melocchi provided the lawmaker for an unspecified game before Gergely told him about the woman's letter and her husband's gambling losses.

“Maybe you guys can identify ... maybe you can identify who the guy is and get him stopped, you know what I mean,” Gergely said, according to the transcript. “Before it becomes a problem.

“I just want to take care of you,” Gergely said.

State campaign contribution records show Melocchi donated about $3,000 to Gergely's campaigns between 2006 and 2013.

Megan Guza and Melissa Daniels are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Guza at 412-380-8519 or mguza@tribweb.com. Reach Daniels at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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