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Gambling raid nets kingpin, 14 others

Tuesday, October 24, 2000

From wire and local reports

A weekend gambling raid disrupted a major organized crime gambling operation in Allegheny and Fayette counties and resulted in the arrests of 15 people, including a man authorities say is a high-ranking member of a Pittsburgh crime family.

Thomas "Sonny" Ciancutti ran an operation that brought in $500,000 a week during the pro football season, keeping 10 percent of the money for himself, state Attorney General Mike Fisher said yesterday.

A grand jury in Harrisburg accused Ciancutti, 70, of Arnold, and 10 others of participating in the sports betting operation. They were arrested at various times on Sunday. In addition to those 11 suspects, one person was charged with running an illegal lottery, one person was charged with running an illegal video game, and two people were accused of insurance fraud.

All of the defendants have been released on bail.

They will be prosecuted in Fayette County, where Fisher said many of the bets are alleged to have been placed during the last three years.

"We have been able to bring down a major gambling operation," Fisher said. "More arrests are expected."

Fisher said the crime family of Michael Genovese of West Deer "still exists and has some influence in western Pennsylvania." He said Ciancutti is a "made" member of the family, meaning he was inducted.

State police Cpl. Jeffrey Shaw said the people beneath Ciancutti were obligated under the organization's rules to pay him some of their earnings. He said Ciancutti was taped talking about the gambling ring during a trip to the Ladbroke at The Meadows harness racing track in Washington County.

Fisher said the organization took individual bets of $300 to $500 on NFL games to capitalize on the popularity of the sport in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Bets also were taken on NBA games and NCAA men's basketball tournaments, the grand jury said in documents made public yesterday.

The grand jury found that Jeffrey Risha, 47, of Uniontown and Ralph Maselli, 60, of Brookline were two of Ciancutti's key lieutenants. The grand jury found that Risha oversaw much of the organization's sport betting and numbers rackets in Fayette County and that Maselli ran the Allegheny County operation and also was involved in the placement of video poker machines.

The grand jury said it found that Risha had the responsibility of ensuring that the betting was profitable for the organization by moving money from one bookmaker to another, Fisher said.

The moving of bets helped bookies make money by ensuring that they would not be vulnerable to taking several successful bets on one game, particularly an upset, the grand jury said. Bookmakers typically kept 10 percent of any given bet, police said.

"[Risha] made sure the book was even so nobody got hit too bad," Fisher said. "They spread things around."

He said many bets seized Sunday night had been placed earlier in the day. Fisher, an Upper St. Clair Republican, is up for re-election Nov. 7 but said the arrests had nothing to do with his campaign. Rather, he said, they were tied to Sunday's NFL games.

"Law enforcement," Fisher said, "doesn't take a vacation just because of an election."

Many of the gambling incidents on which charges were based involved relatively small bets. But the grand jury report also describes internal operations and daily intrigues, from hanging out at a private card club to hiding large amounts of cash with relatives and allegedly maintaining a phony company to cheat Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield on health insurance premiums.

The investigation employed wiretaps and surveillance. Several gamblers were given immunity from prosecution to compel their testimony before the grand jury. One cooperating witness, according to the grand jury report, is an unidentified "made member" of the Pittsburgh mob who will be made available to testify at trial.

Fisher said the most money was seized from Maselli. There was no answer at Maselli's home yesterday.

The grand jury said Risha and Maselli operated out of an elderly woman's apartment in Pittsburgh until the ring was moved into the New Beacon Club in Bloomfield.

Risha's attorney, Charles LoPresti, said state police contacted Risha about 10 months ago about the connection he might have with Ciancutti. LoPresti said he could not comment on the details of Risha's discussions with the police, but Risha hired LoPresti at about that time.

"I've never heard the name Ciancutti before today," LoPresti told The Associated Press yesterday. "He never had responsibility for books or ensuring anything."

Ciancutti and Maselli, who have unlisted numbers, did not return messages left for them at the club.

Maselli's sister-in-law, Mary Merlina, told the grand jury that he had been a bookmaker for 27 years.

After a promise that she would not be prosecuted, she told the panel about hiding Maselli's money in her house in envelopes or brown bags containing $15,000 to $20,000 each.

Investigators contend that Maselli gave Risha the "line," or point spread, on athletic contests. Then Risha passed the information to his sub-bookmakers, recorded the wagers and reported the information back to Maselli.

Risha's sub-bookmakers include two brothers, Mark Borkovich, 48, and David Borkovich, 44, both of Penn Hills, Thomas K. Ferris of Uniontown, Mark Anthony Howard, 39, of Uniontown, Louis M. Cutone Jr., 63, of Greenfield, Joseph Ernest Scarillo, 42, of Bethel Park, James Michael John, 45, of Uniontown, Carl L. Abt, 52, of Millvale.

Risha's driver also connected him to Maselli. Ronald Seftas testified that he collected money from Risha's customers for 12 to 14 years. In the mid-1980s, he said, Risha began an association with Maselli. Seftas claims that he delivered money, typically $10,000 to $20,000 at a time, from Maselli to Risha.

Risha admitted that he is a bookmaker, the report says, when he testified under a grant of immunity. He said he distributed the betting line to others, accepted wagers from others, and kept the total amount of wagers accepted. Risha testified that Maselli was primarily responsible for collecting and paying out money to bettors.

Ciancutti's enterprise, officials said, offered several of its members health insurance. But in doing so, authorities said, they defrauded Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield of $93,882 from 1992 to 2000.

The officials said Ciancutti used a defunct company, S&S Vending of Arnold, to illegally obtain a group rate for insurance. The beneficiaries of the policy included Thomas and Sylvia Thorpe Ciancutti, Ralph and Karen Maselli and her two children.

Ciancutti was president and sole stockholder of S&S Vending, according to state records, but in 1985 he sold its assets to August Campana, an employee, who later renamed it Arnold Coin. Campana ceased doing business in 1989 or 1990.

But S&S continued to maintain the group health policy that it had taken out in 1975. Highmark requires an insured group to be a viable company.

S&S paid Highmark $183,720 from 1992 to 2000. Had the beneficiaries paid for their insurance individually, their policies would have cost $277,602, or $93,882 more.

Ciancutti, the grand jury report says, told investigators that he maintained the health insurance through S&S because "it's cheaper to use the company hospitalization plan than to pay an individual premium."

Investigators also studied state income tax records and discovered that neither Ralph nor Karen Maselli filed state tax returns in 1996 and 1997. In 1996, the grand jury report says, Ciancutti reported income of $10,716 from gambling and lottery winnings and $6,250 from Wright Industries Inc. in Green Tree.

Ciancutti listed himself as an executive on his W-2 tax form. But an office manager testified that Ciancutti was never actually employed and that company president James C. Robinson ordered her to list Ciancutti as an employee in 1996.

Fisher said the investigation is continuing and he expects more arrests.

The trial to be prosecuted in Fayette County. Deputy state Attorney General Mark A. Serge will handle the cases.

Staff Writer Bill Heltzel and Jeffrey Bair of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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