No one would ever accuse mob boss Joey Merlino of being camera shy. Whether it's on the street outside the federal courthouse or out to dinner and a hockey game, Merlino carries himself as a public figure, even posing for pictures with guests at his South Florida restaurant.
This spring and summer, Merlino has been making the rounds and getting his picture taken at local casinos, from Harrah’s in Chester to the SugarHouse in Philadelphia, where he likes to go for a little late night black jack with his pals. But that could soon be over.
When Merlino visited Harrah's Casin in Chester, on Saturday, June 18th, he was met on the casino floor by agents of the Pennsylvania gaming control board, who wanted to serve him with a document but Merlino refused and promptly left the casino.
The document was a motion for the gaming control board to bar Merlino from Pennsylvania's casinos because he's a convicted felon and identified as a member of organized crime. The document seeks to make Merlino the first mob boss, or former mob boss, to be banned from casinos here since they opened in 2006.
"When you got guys who have a reputation and a history of convictions, it seems to me it's fairly simple. You put together a list together and you ban them from the casinos," mob expert and author, George Anastasia told Fox 29.
Pennsylvania's casino rules provide for an exclusion list. The list consists of "career criminals or professional offenders, cheats and other individuals whose presence in a licensed facility would be inimical to the interest of the commonwealth or license gaming therein." But for some reason, until now, gaming officials never tried to ban Merlino.
Anastasia, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, notes that Merlino has been barred from Atlantic City casinos for 30 years -- even so-- cameras caught him with some of his mob pals playing in AC back in 1998.
"I remember when the casinos opened in Atlantic City. In the early days, they just put guys on it," Anastasia said.
So why bar Merlino in Pennsylvania now? Well, let’s go back to last March, when the Dapper Don was in town from South Florida to celebrate his birthday with some of his boyhood friends. He made a stop at the mob's new clubhouse at 11th and Jackson. Then, later that night, Merlino and 12 of his friends headed for the black jack tables in the SugarHouse casino. All, sources say, caught on tape by the casino's surveillance cameras.
"We'll see what they do now that they have a video of him physically being in there," Anastasia noted.
Court documents obtained by Fox 29 say Merlino and his pals were at the Black Jack tables, when a disagreement lead to some words between the Merlino entourage and several others at the table. Things got heated, there was some shoving and three punches thrown before casino security was called to break it up.
The documents say, "The large group of males, including Mr. Merlino reportedly threatened the other group and threatened that they would wait outside for them. “
"’If you ask him about this situation, currently he'd say ‘Look, we were out socializing, partying, we went to the casino. What's the big deal I wasn't banned? I was allowed in there.’ And he's right," according to Anastasia.
At some point, Merlino shook hands with one of the combatants, and his entourage left the casino. Gaming officials say Merlino returned to the SugarHouse June 17th again with an entourage. This time he was approached by casino gaming agents with that document seeking to exclude him, he brushed the agents off and left.
Merlino is not the only high ranking Philadelphia wise guy still allowed to visit the state's casinos. Reputed mob boss, Joseph Ligambi isn't on Pennsylvania’s exclusion list. Neither is mob boss Steven Mazzone, or mob captains, George Borgesi and John Ciancaglini. But some of Joey's one time mob associates, like co-defendants Angelo Lutz and Ralph Abbruzzi, are barred from Pennsylvania casinos.
"Angelo Lutz likes to gamble. He's down at the casino in Chester, he's excluded. Lutz was convicted along with Merlino, Mazzone, and all those guys in the 2001 trial. He's on the list, they're not. Why is that?" Anastasia asked.
Now Pennsylvania authorities appear ready to make a change. They filed a petition to exclude Merlino from state casinos a month after the March 9th incident at the SugarHouse. They made three attempts to serve skinny Joey with papers at his home here and in Florida. They also tried to serve him at his restaurant in Boca Raton, all in an attempt to place him on the casino exclusion list.
The gaming enforcement agents have now asked for a default judgment against Merlino. They say his failure to respond to their attempts to keep him out of the casinos constitutes a waiver of his rights for a hearing. They have asked the gaming control board to place Merlino on the exclusion list immediately.
Merlino's attorney, Ed Jacobs, says his client has done nothing wrong, has not been properly served with documents, and is being barred "for no other reason than he's Joey Merlino.”