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Monday, December 28, 2015

Estate of murdered Lucchese family informant seeks to unseal evidence in Bergen County

Frank Lagano
On Monday, Eric Kleiner, attorney for the Estate of Frank P. Lagano filed a motion in Superior Court to unseal evidence in the Bergen County gambling investigation ‘Operation Jersey Boyz’. Lagano ‘s Estate submits that law enforcement has used its secret-keeping privilege to “conceal legally damaging facts”.

The motion seeks to unseal the impounded records, wiretaps, and evidence emanating from the ‘Jersey Boyz’ investigation, which, to date, have never been released to the alleged criminal defendants or to the public.

“Years have passed since Operation Jersey Boyz came to an inauspicious end. Ex parte hearings and closed-door proceedings resulted in suppressed evidence, secret judicial opinions, and sealed records. This motion to unseal is about the control of state-held information, and the ever-changing tension between two conflicting values: secrecy and openness”, wrote Kleiner.

The 2004 crackdown on illegal gambling at Caffe Roma in East Rutherford netted more than $1 million in cash and arrests of dozens of alleged mobsters, but not a single person was charged or has served jail time. At the center of the case was alleged Lucchese crime family soldier, Frank Lagano. Lagano was later gunned down outside his East Brunswick diner in 2007.

In 2012, Lagano’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office claiming that their lead detective outed him as a confidential informant, leading to his murder.

In a civil suit pending in federal court, Lagano’s estate alleges that Michael Mordaga, former Chief of Detectives for the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, the "BCPO", had both a personal and a business relationship with Frank Lagano. When Mordaga and Lagano had a falling out, Mordaga and the BCPO allegedly conspired to arrest Lagano on false charges, then disclosed Lagano's status as a confidential informant to members of organized crime, ultimately resulting in Lagano's murder.

In October 2014, a Federal Appeals Court vacated an earlier order that dismissed the civil suit saying the BCPO and Mordaga could not be sued because the BCPO was an arm of the State of New Jersey, and that Mordaga, as BCPO Chief of Detectives, was a state official.

In overturning that dismissal the appellate court found that “In this case, the amended complaint is replete with allegations that Mordaga and others within the BCPO were not performing the classic functions of law enforcement or criminal investigators. -- These allegations support a reasonable inference that neither Mordaga nor the BCPO acted within their classic investigatory and prosecutorial functions with respect to the state-created danger claim”.

Among claims by Lagano’s estate is that $79.900.00 seized from Lagano’s bank safe deposit box, and $54,528.00 seized from his residence was misdirected by the BCPO. Deposit slips show $79,900 and $54,528 transferred into a "CASH FOR PAYROLL" account maintained by the BCPO at Bergen Commercial Bank-not the legally required seized asset trust account held at Mariner's Bank. According to the brief, an additional $130,000 in cash seized from Lagano has never been accounted for.

In October, Prosecutor John Molinelli announced that he was being replaced by Governor Chris Christie. When asked about his decision to replace Molinelli, Christie responded saying, “the fact is that it’s time for a change in Bergen County. It’s long overdue.” “When that change is officially made, I’ll give you all the reasons why,” the Governor added.

“Unsealing is necessary to examine the alleged nexus between Michael Mordaga, the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, the Bergen County Democratic Party, and Frank Lagano's untimely death,” Kleiner wrote in the brief.

Allegations against John Molinelli made headlines during the recent corruption trial of former Bergen County Democrat boss Joseph Ferriero. Before becoming County Prosecutor, Molinelli served as Treasurer, and then legal counsel, to the Bergen County Democratic Organization under Ferriero.

Questions were raised about Molinelli’s involvement in the criminal case of Dr. Gangaram Ragi, a Teaneck dermatologist who paid $500,000 to Ferriero after a dozen women came forward with accusations they were sexually abused by the doctor during examinations.

With Molinelli’s approval, Ragi received an unprecedented second entry into Pre Trial Intervention (PTI), a program that allowed him to avoid prosecution and may have helped him keep his medical license.

“The officials who investigated Frank Lagano are connected to extortion, patronage, fraud, trading in influence, and other criminal acts. They have not only abused power for profit; they have trod upon the independence of our judiciary and exploited the public trust. Indeed, United States Attorneys have openly accused the Bergen County Prosecutor of playing an active role in a criminal racketeering enterprise,” Kleiner wrote in the brief.

In October, the Bergen Dispatch obtained and published three letters written by Bergen County Freeholder Chairwoman Joan Voss addressed to the New Jersey Attorney General, Governor Chris Christie and Bergen County Assignment Judge Bonnie Mizdol.

Those letters read:

It has been brought to the attention of the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders at a recent Public Meeting that claims have been made against the Office of the Bergen County Prosecutor. It is our understanding that, as the appointing/overseeing authority, your office is the more appropriate avenue for these complaints. We will enclose a transcript of the public comment portion of that meeting as soon as it is available.

The letters were prompted by a group of citizens led by community activist and Molinelli critic, BiIl Brennan, attorney Eric Kleiner and Carlstadt Mayor William Roseman who spoke out at the September 30th public meeting of the Freeholder Board.

Kleiner called upon the freeholder board to invoke their power under NJSA 52:17B-106 to request that the NJ Attorney General supersede the county prosecutor and remove Molinelli from office.

“This motion details over 10 years of unjust, oppressive, and illegal practices occurring under the direction of Prosecutor John Molinelli and his cohorts. The submission reveals public corruption of epic proportions at the BCPO; corruption that has occurred with the full knowledge or tacit approval of Governor Christie, the Office of the Attorney General, and the US Attorney’s Office. Apparently, the corruption occurring at the BCPO is so lengthy, dramatic, and far-reaching that various state and federal agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting these matters would rather sweep them under the rug by merely dismissing Molinelli from office than address the BCPO's unlawful conduct directly,” Kleiner said in a statement.

“For these reasons, the Estate's interest in discovering the true circumstances surrounding the murder of Frank Lagano is matched only by the public interest in exposing-and eliminating- the scourge of public corruption. In furtherance of judicial integrity, fundamental fairness, and public safety, the time has come to unearth the truth,” Kleiner surmised.

“In addition to the public corruption outlined in this motion, Molinelli declared war on innocent police officers for personal and political gain and all were acquitted. The saddest and most heinous part of Molinelli’s actions was that he knew these men were all innocent but he criminally prosecuted them anyway. Thank God for the jury system; which is our last line of defense in what has become one of the saddest chapters in law enforcement in US history. This includes P.O. Castronova [a 911 responder and hero] who was acquitted twice, Captain Garcia and Sergeant Aletta from the Hackensack Police Department and Officer Jeff Roberts and his codefendant from the Bergen County Police,” Kleiner told the Bergen Dispatch in a telephone interview.



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