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Housing authority worker linked to rackets, job-selling scandal

Monday, March 24, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Sixteen months ago, the Pittsburgh Housing Authority hired Gabriel S. Fontana to work in its modernization and development department.

The 28-year-old, originally from Lawrenceville, makes about $42,000 helping to see that renovation projects are on schedule.

But authority officials didn't know much about Fontana when they hired him.

He told them about his "drug-related conviction" in U.S. District Court.

But what about his involvement in a job-buying scheme at the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority in the late 1990s, which played a key role in bringing down former city Councilman Joe Cusick and former state Rep. Frank Gigliotti for public corruption?

The authority said it didn't know.

And what about his role as the key government witness in the recent federal case against Adolph "Junior" Williams, one of the most notorious numbers kingpins in city history?

Housing officials said they didn't know that, either.

Of course, they do now.

"We're certainly sensitive to the matter, but we're an agency that believes in giving people a second chance," said director Keith Kinard.

"Since we've had him on board he's done a wonderful job. Legally, we don't plan on taking any action at this time. But we're certainly sensitive to what's been in the newspaper."

What's been in the paper lately is the prosecution of Williams, 69, of Scott, and his brothers and sisters, for running a numbers business that grossed up to $8 million a year. Two weeks ago, Williams pleaded guilty.

The Williams clan, associated for decades with the Western Pennsylvania La Cosa Nostra family, was convicted in the mid-1990s of the same crime.

According to the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, Williams took over part of the numbers racket controlled by the late Tony Grosso when he went to prison in 1986.

An Internal Revenue Service report says the case against Williams began in 1998 when Fontana struck a deal with the government in a 1997 drug case and agreed to provide information.

Fontana had worked for Williams in the mid-1990s, according to IRS Agent Jean Seneway, preparing weekly tally sheets, collecting bets, paying off customers and turning over profits to Williams.

Fontana's criminal case in federal court is sealed because of his ongoing cooperation, and he couldn't be reached last week at the housing authority.

But on July 24, 1998, he pleaded guilty to money laundering as part of a cocaine conspiracy in which he acted as a distributor for drug dealer Richard Marchese Jr., who is now in prison.

A 1997 forfeiture filing indicated Fontana, then 23, had been involved in drug dealing since 1992 and used a leased Ford Expedition to transport cocaine.

Prosecutors eventually took the vehicle and his Lawrenceville townhouse.

In October of 1998, he was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison.

The following year, the U.S. attorney's office filed a motion to cut his sentence to three years and five months in exchange for his cooperation in the Williams case and other investigations.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, he was released from custody on Sept. 13, 2001, although he had apparently already been let out of prison before that date because he started work at the housing authority on Aug. 20, 2001.

Most likely he was serving the remainder of his sentence in a halfway house or some similar arrangement, which is not uncommon for federal inmates.

Kinard said Fontana filled out an application like anyone else and disclosed his conviction.

The agency confirmed the criminal record in a background check, but Kinard said the authority cannot discriminate against employees solely on the basis of a criminal conviction.

"A prior conviction, taken by itself, will not necessarily disqualify an applicant but will be evaluated in terms of the available job," says the housing authority's hiring policy. "Failure to disclose or providing false information about misdemeanor and felony convictions will be considered falsification of the application for employment."

Gerald Voros, chairman of the authority's board of directors, said he plans to review the hiring policy to make sure the agency knows the full background of applicants.

He said the authority used to rely on the FBI to provide background checks until the FBI started charging for the service and it proved too expensive.

"I still don't know how he got hired," Voros said of Fontana. "That's what I want to find out."

He said the part of Fontana's history that especially bothers him is his involvement with Cusick at Alcosan because it is a public agency like the housing authority.

A criminal record check wouldn't have turned up anything about that case because he was never charged, but his name appeared in the newspapers during that investigation.

Cusick pleaded guilty in federal court to filing a false income tax return for failing to report $11,300 that he had received in a job-selling scheme while he and Gigliotti served on the Alcosan board.

Fontana was the person who was hired in the scheme, and he cooperated with authorities.

He was hired in September 1996 but lasted less than six months at Alcosan and apparently didn't do much work.

In a court hearing in the Cusick case, a federal prosecutor said Fontana was eventually fired for "basically not showing up and sleeping on the job."

Fontana started work in October 1996 as a laboratory helper making $12.14 an hour and was fired April 9, 1997.

Within a month of that, the U.S. attorney's office filed its civil forfeiture to take his property as part of the drug investigation.

Prosecutors accused Fontana of providing false information about his income in 1994 and 1995 on bank documents to obtain a mortgage on a Penn Avenue house.

Fontana was also accused of making "substantial improvements" to the townhouse with proceeds from illegal activity.

Prosecutors never filed criminal charges against Fontana, but he agreed in July 1998 to forfeit the Lawrenceville townhouse to the government.

Before the forfeiture suit was settled, Fontana provided prosecutors with information about the Cusick job-selling scheme.

Cusick, in turn, provided investigators with information that helped them obtain an indictment against Gigliotti for accepting bribes from contractors in exchange for Alcosan contracts.

Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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