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Trooper says slip of tongue led to gambling case

| Thursday, Jan. 18, 2001

Ronald Amati bought a Rolex wristwatch for $3,500 from an undercover informant and dined at a Downtown steakhouse on the FBI's tab during an investigation into his alleged illegal gambling ties, according to court testimony Wednesday.

The Washington County district justice also received a Christmas gift of cigars and liquor from a government informant, Pennsylvania State Trooper Anthony Cornetta said during the sixth day of Amati's trial in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

Amati, 46, of Donora, and an acquaintance, school teacher Debra Vlanich, are charged with operating an illegal video gambling enterprise in a Finleyville coffee shop.

Indicted in April, Amati faces charges of gambling, conspiracy and obstructing law enforcement. Vlanich, 48, of Monongahela, is charged with one count of conspiracy for her alleged role in handling gambling proceeds.

Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney James Wilson, Cornetta said that he and Amati had dinner once, paid for by the FBI, at Morton's of Chicago, Downtown.

Cornetta later told the FBI that Amati was interested in the trooper's Rolex watch. An agent said he would get one for the district justice 'at a greatly discounted price.'

Amati paid for the watch in installments, including a $500 payment that Amati took out of proceeds from video-gambling machines at a Finleyville coffee shop, Cornetta said.

Cornetta, Amati and Robert Hanson, of Clairton, bought the coffee shop in May 1998.

A slip of the tongue launched the federal inquiry into Amati, Cornetta testified.

During a 1997 meeting, Cornetta asked Hanson what he knew about Amati. Hanson was cooperating with the state in its investigation of video gambling in the Monongahela Valley.

'He's as dirty as they come,' Hanson said.

The assessment was based on Amati's offer four years earlier to help Hanson find a location for a video gambling business, Cornetta said.

Cornetta said yesterday that he inadvertently confused Amati with somebody else during his talk with Hanson.

Cornetta said he told the FBI about Hanson's information and Hanson later introduced him to Amati.

Amati has raised an entrapment defense in the case, claiming that he was lured into striking a deal for the coffee shop.

Hanson called or visited Amati five times between October 1997 and January 1998, attempting to pin down a site for a video gambling business. The contacts included a stop at the magistrate's office in December to drop off cigars and alcohol, according to prosecutors.

The trial will resume today before U.S. District Senior Judge Gustave Diamond.

Christopher Zurawsky can be reached at (412) 391-8793.

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