When reputed Philadelphia mob boss “Uncle” Joe Ligambi and six co-defendants entered a courtroom for the start of their federal racketeering trial Thursday morning, they were focused on matters other than the loansharking, illegal-gambling and extortion charges which brought them there.
Joseph Licata, a 71-year-old nicknamed “Scoops,” addressed concerns that just one of two bags with courtroom attire had shown up at the lockup.
When a supporter pointed out that George Borgesi — the 49-year-old still serving his sentence connected to the Joey Merlino mob trial of 2001 — looked like a college student with dress-shirt collar emerging from his sweater, he responded “I am!” with a beaming smile.
And Ligambi, who federal prosecutors say took over the Philadelphia crime family when Merlino went away, asked “How ya been?” of relatives including his sister. She replied she was not doing well, considering she had to attend another “witch hunt.”
Then, all seven defendants and their individual attorneys, took their seats at two tables in U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno’s 15th-floor courtroom for opening arguments in a case expected to take anywhere from two to three months.
Prosecution: Mob intimidation produced illicit profits
Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Labor and Ligambi defense attorney Edwin C. Jacobs — who represented Merlino when he beat beat several murder charges, but was convicted of a litany of charges similar to this case 11 years ago — painted two divergent pictures of the events that led everyone to the packed courtroom.
In a prosecution opening argument lasting just over an hour, Labor told the jury that the seven defendants were engaged in a criminal enterprise “that carried the weight and power of the Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra.”
While no charges involve violence, Labor said that threats of it, and the mob’s history and reputation in Philadelphia, enabled the men to run their enterprise, stoking fear in others.
“They exploited that reputation for violence to make money in the commission of their crimes,” he said. He cited an exchange when someone who owed money through gambling debts was told, ‘I got two f—— gorillas and they’re going to f—— chop you up.’ Those words define what this case is about. … When they said [that], people paid up.”
Addressing the lack of violence in the case, Labor noted there was good reason for that.
“Dead men don’t make payments,” he said. “Terrified men make payments.”
Labor drew an analogy to the Philadelphia Eagles in defining mob hierarchy and staying power: While the roster changes, the organization stays intact one season to the next.
The racketeering prosecution will feature testimony from cooperating witnesses including former members and associates and recordings of conversations recorded since the investigation started more than a decade ago.
It was designed to take down a mob with a long history of crime in Philadelphia, he intimated.
“Ten years of gathering evidence was not done to land a couple illegal-gambling convictions,” Labor told the jury. “That was done to paint a full picture of this criminal enterprise.”
Defense: Even “the mafia says we’re not the mafia”
Labor’s words contrasted starkly with those of Jacobs, who offered his opening arguments before lunch.
The attorney said the defendants “shouldn’t be here,” but are because they’re Italian Americans from South Philadelphia who have rumored organized-crime connections.
“We’ve been targeted, 13 years under a microscope,” he said, maintaining that 40 warrants were served, more than 15,000 conversations recorded and 61 law enforcement agents from the FBI and Pennsylvania State Police spent working a case that discovered shoddy evidence. “We’re not villains. We’re victims in this case.”
Noting that the investigation linked defendants to 30 of 1,000 video-poker machines scattered throughout clubs and bars in the city and an estimated $30,000 in loansharking claims, Jacobs said, “That would not even make an episode of ‘The Sopranos.’ They found some mole hills and made a mountain out of it.”
He then attacked the credibility of government witnesses expected to testify over the course of the next eight to 12 weeks. According to Jacobs, they told investigators what they wanted to hear in exchange for immunity or cooperating and plea agreements. One has received $51,000 in return, and another witness tied to committing and planning murders served just five years in prison.
“Plus, they bought him a car,” Jacobs said. “A Ford Taurus.”
Then, he jumped on the Eagles analogy cited by the prosecution.
“If the quarterback was taking bets in 2002, the right tackle and left tackle lent money in 2005 and the coach was running a video-poker operation in 2009, then, the Eagles are a racketeering enterprise. That’s what they’re trying to say,” Jacobs said. “They’re stretching the proof in the case to the breaking point.
“One side is right and one side is wrong. We’re not on the wrong side.”
After Jacobs’ opening, attorneys for all six co-defendants were scheduled to offer their own throughout Thursday afternoon with testimony starting Friday.