Pennsylvania lawmaker charged in illegal gambling probe

AP News
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Posted: Mar 01, 2016 3:42 PM

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The owner of Chick's Grill was new in town and skeptical about Ronald "Porky" Melocchi's entreaties to install his illegal video gambling machines in his restaurant in a rough-and-tumble town outside Pittsburgh, and that's when Melocchi allegedly brought in state Rep. Marc Gergely.

Gergely, part of Melocchi's "super PAC" of marketing heavy hitters, explained to the restaurateur that he "probably would not make it in McKeesport without the machines," according to a 25-page grand jury document that was unsealed Tuesday and accompanied six charges against Gergely.

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

More than a dozen people were charged, now including Gergely, 46, a seven-term lawmaker whose Pittsburgh-area district includes McKeesport.

Gergely faces three felonies, including dealing in the proceeds of illegal activity and two counts of corrupt organizations, plus three misdemeanors. Melocchi pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year to 10 years of probation.

Gergely, who was first elected in 2002, did not respond to a telephone message left at his White Oak office, and online court records do not name a lawyer who could comment on his behalf.

As a result of the charges, Gergely lost his post as the ranking Democrat on the state House Labor and Industry Committee, House officials said. Gergely is at least the eighth current or former Pennsylvania lawmaker to be hit with corruption-related charges since the beginning of 2014. He was scheduled to appear for a preliminary arraignment on Wednesday morning.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, called the charges "surprising and disconcerting" and said he regarded Gergely as "a strong voice for improving Pennsylvania's schools and the lives of working people."

In the grand jury document, prosecutors said that Melocchi would rely on his connections to local officials to persuade restaurant owners and others to install his machines. Under the arrangement, Melocchi got 40 percent of the proceeds and the owner kept the rest.

In Gergely's conversation with the owner of Chick's Grill, he allegedly told the restaurateur that he had law enforcement connections who could keep trouble away.

In another instance where Gergely allegedly tried to help Melocchi, he met with another skeptical restaurant owner, told her that he supports small business people and that Melocchi was a "good guy" with whom to do business, prosecutors said.

Neither restaurant owner ultimately accepted the machines.

Prosecutors also said Melocchi gave a $2,000 campaign contribution to Gergely, gained at least in part from his illegal gambling business, and that Gergely structured it to conceal the source.

In November 2012, after the investigation began, prosecutors drafted a letter as though written by a wife distraught that her husband had gambled away their money at Porky's illegal machines at establishments she believed to be protected by local police.

"Mr. Gergely, I believe you're the only person I can trust," the letter said. "I don't know if I should call the FBI or State Police."

The next day, a wiretapped phone call captured Gergely calling Melocchi to tell him about the letter. Gergely allegedly told Melocchi that he would not turn the letter over to authorities, and he urged Melocchi to find out the gambler's identity and stop him.

"I just want to take care of ya," Gergely told Melocchi, according to prosecutors. "She obviously has no idea that we have a connection. You know what I mean?"