Chapter One of 'The Quiet Don'
The arrest of a priest leads a reporter to investigate a mobster and a governor.
The following is reprinted from 'The Quiet Don' by Matt Birkbeck by arrangement with Berkley, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Two Pennsylvania State Police troopers sat inside an unmarked car waiting for the go-ahead to do something they had never done before, arrest a Catholic priest for lying to a grand jury.
It was early January 2008, and the troopers, Rich Weinstock and Dave Swartz, had been waiting for nearly an hour with the engine off, the cold morning air laying a thin frost on the windows.
The Rev. Joseph Sica was inside the St. Mary of the Assumption Church monastery, likely having breakfast. He usually left just before 9 a.m. for Mercy Hospital, where he was the resident chaplain, and the troopers had planned to arrest him before he left for work. When the call finally came, just after 8:30 a.m., the troopers exited the car and walked briskly to Sica’s front door. He lived in an apartment at the monastery, which was just outside of Scranton, and after several knocks, the door opened and there stood the burly priest, somewhat surprised that he had two guests so early in the morning.
“Father Joseph Sica, I’m Trooper Weinstock, this is Detective Swartz. We are with the Pennsylvania State Police and we have a warrant for your arrest.”
Sica was stunned. He had seen the troopers before, during the grand jury hearings in Harrisburg the previous summer. But he was just a witness and not the target of the investigation. When Sica asked why he was being arrested, he was told he was being charged with perjury.
Weinstock handcuffed Sica and sat him on a chair and informed him he had a search warrant. Within minutes, the troopers found a handgun and $1,000 in cash.
“I have a permit for that,” said Sica of the gun. Irate, the priest threatened Weinstock, telling him that he was opening himself to exposure of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a female trooper. The complaint had been dismissed, so the priest’s threat meant nothing.
The troopers put a coat over Sica’s shoulders and led him to the police cruiser. Several other troopers had arrived to mop up as Sica was put in the backseat for the two-hour drive to Harrisburg.
Within minutes, a fidgety Sica said he had to make a call, and he asked Weinstock if he could use his cell phone.
“Who you calling?”
“A friend. I have to notify my attorney.”
Intrigued, Weinstock pulled out his phone, and Sica rattled off a phone number, after which Weinstock reached back and put the phone to Sica’s ear and mouth. The volume was on high, so the troopers could hear the phone ring and the gruff voice that answered.
“Lou, it’s me. Listen, I’ve been arrested.”
“I’ve been arrested. They’re taking me now to Harrisburg.”
“Don’t say anything. We’ll take care of it, you hear me?”
“Where are you now?”
“I’m in the police car. I’m with the troopers. They’re taking me to jail in Harrisburg.”
“You’re what, inside the car now talking to me? Get off! Get off the phone!”
Weinstock and Swartz heard everything, including the abrupt hang-up, and they recognized the voice on the other end of the line.
“You called DeNaples?” said Weinstock.
It was almost three years earlier, in April 2005, when Ralph Periandi was thumbing through more than a dozen files sitting on his lap on the drive back to the Pennsylvania State Police headquarters, in Harrisburg, from Philadelphia, reviewing his notes from his meeting with the FBI.
Periandi was a lieutenant colonial and a deputy commissioner, which was the second-highest rank within the state police and just one step below the commissioner. Of medium height, clean-cut, his gray uniform pressed to perfection and hair buzz-cut short over a trim and fit figure, Periandi looked the part of a police commander, and he had dressed to make an impression.
For nearly thirty years, he enjoyed a career that took him to different posts throughout the state, from a fresh-faced trooper writing speeding tickets outside Philadelphia in 1975 to running the Bureau of Criminal Investigations (BCI), a prestigious post where he commanded the nerve center for all state police investigations. As a major in charge of BCI, Periandi had his finger on the pulse of crime in the state, and it was from that platform that now, as deputy commissioner, he decided he could commence a probe of Pennsylvania’s popular governor, Ed Rendell, who was the primary reason for the meeting with the FBI.
Rendell had been elected governor in November 2002. He was a rare force of will and personality who, as Philadelphia’s mayor in the 1990s, had gained national acclaim for leading that city’s remarkable transformation. Originally from New York, Rendell attended college in Philadelphia, first at the University of Pennsylvania, and then law school at Villanova. Following graduation, he remained in Philadelphia and served as an assistant district attorney before diving into politics and winning. He won his first political race in 1977 using an anticorruption platform to defeat the incumbent district attorney.
Rendell served two terms as district attorney before making an ill-fated run for governor in 1986. He lost his first bid for mayor of Philadelphia but won on his second try, in 1991, and took over the administration of a crime-ridden, nearly bankrupt city with deep divisions within its multiethnic constituency. But by the time he left office, in 1999, he had led a stunning turnaround, turning a budget deficit into a surplus and, through sheer will and political cunning, erased Philadelphia’s negative national perception and replaced it with a burgeoning pride.
Despite his success, Rendell never took his eyes off his main prize, the governorship, and he resigned as mayor in late 1999 to take up the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), a post he held during the 2000 presidential election and the chaotic weeks that followed as the courts decided the historic outcome between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.
But Rendell’s tenure in Washington, D.C., was a temporary diversion as he plotted his next major political conquest, which became apparent to all after he resigned as DNC chairman in 2001 to focus on the 2002 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election.
The post had been held by two-term Republican governor Tom Ridge, but he resigned following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania to accept the appointment as head of a brand-new federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security.
After announcing his candidacy, Rendell created a campaign strategy that used as its centerpiece the successful legalization of casino gambling. For years, Pennsylvania property owners fell victim to spiraling school property taxes, which crippled many of state’s cities and municipalities. Feeding off voter anger, Rendell devised his Plan for a New Pennsylvania, which would seek legislative approval of slots machines by arguing that the $1.5 billion in expected proceeds would be distributed to school districts to lower property taxes. The initial idea was to allow gambling at horse tracks, but to reach the $1 billion mark and above, the state had to license several stand-alone casinos. The idea was universally rejected.
Gaming had for decades been seen as a panacea for curing many of Pennsylvania’s ills, but it never garnered much support from voters or the legislature. For his part, Rendell pointed to table games in Atlantic City, slots in West Virginia as well as gambling initiatives in other nearby states, such as Maryland, Delaware and New York, and argued that if Pennsylvania didn’t get in the mix now, it would be shut out and forever lose billions in potential tax revenues.
Despite Rendell’s pleas, the public remained decidedly against the initiative, as did a majority of elected officials, including the Republicans and most Democrats in the state legislature in Harrisburg. But that didn’t stop Rendell from working behind the scenes with two of the state’s most powerful lawmakers, Democratic senators Vincent Fumo, of Philadelphia, and Robert Mellow, who represented a large portion of northeast Pennsylvania, including Scranton.
The two lawmakers had for years served as the major power brokers within Pennsylvania state politics but were forced to take backseats during the seven years of Republican leadership under Ridge, who did his best to eliminate many of the “perks” within Harrisburg politics. In one instance, Ridge put the kibosh on a long-standing secretive agreement that traditionally offered control of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) to the party in power. The PTC oversaw and administered the hundreds of miles of Pennsylvania highway, from east to west and north to south, with the toll-road serving as a feeding ground for greedy politicos who received large contributions and even side cash from a deep well of individuals and businesses eager to gain a share of the billions in state contracts. Those favored somehow got the choice assignments, including the handful of major law firms in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh that won lucrative contracts as counsel to PTC bond issues.
Unbeknownst to Pennsylvania’s populace, and to most legislators, there had been for years a gentlemen’s agreement within the legislative leadership that stipulated the party in power controlled 50 percent of all Turnpike contracts, while the other 50 percent was split between the minority party and the governor.
The exception to the agreement was Tom Ridge, a conservative Republican from Erie with designs on the U.S. presidency who tried to limit the patronage that long overwhelmed the state capital. Ridge’s efforts muted the deal making, especially at the PTC.
Rendell won the 2002 election comfortably, and the subsequent Democratic takeover of the House and Senate opened the doors wide to resume the previous practices. Especially for Fumo, who had been the autocratic ruler of the state capital and the most influential legislator in Harrisburg. Fumo’s network reached far beyond government to the most powerful law firms and corporations doing business in Pennsylvania, and his reach also infiltrated the state Supreme Court, which had at times been criticized for putting politics before the law.
Following his election win, Rendell immediately tasked Fumo and Mellow with initiating a report on the potential for gaming legislation. When it was submitted to the Senate Democratic Appropriations Committee, in mid-2003, the “Pennsylvania Slot Machine Facilities: Statewide Revenue Projections” report suggested six so-called racinos and six stand-alone casinos for Pennsylvania, with two in Philadelphia, one in Pittsburgh, one near Pocono International Raceway in Long Pond and two undetermined locations, most likely Allentown and Shrewsbury. The report suggested a one-time $50 million licensing fee for successful applicants, with the state taking 34 percent of all gross daily receipts. The market potential, according to the report, was nearly $3 billion, with more than $1 billion going to state coffers to help weary taxpayers.
Although the plan failed to capture the support of the public, by early 2004, the gaming initiative was moving full speed ahead behind the scenes within legislative circles. For deputy state police commissioner Ralph Periandi’s purposes, early meetings with the Rendell administration had produced a blueprint that would include the state police in the vital role of casino security and the ultra-important role of conducting background investigations of potential casino owners, along with other key personnel and employees. Neither Periandi nor his boss, commissioner Jeffrey Miller, were in favor of the measure, with both men sharing the belief that gaming would attract a bad element. Many legislators, mostly Republicans, shared their negative opinions, and their opposition to the legislation delayed a vote, while Democrats horse-traded with their own leadership. The Philadelphia black caucus, for instance, refused to support the legislation unless one of the casino licenses was awarded to an African-American. The caucus also insisted that an African American was appointed to what would be the seven-member Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board responsible to oversee the new initiative.
Despite the overwhelming public opposition, the arm-twisting and negotiating continued until legislators were called to a bizarre midnight vote on July 4, 2004. When it was originally introduced, the legislation was a thirty-three-line document about background checks at state horse tracks. Fumo’s staff spent weeks rewriting the bill, and when it emerged from the Senate on July 1, 2004, it was now one hundred and forty-five pages long.
Known as the Pennsylvania Race Horse Development and Gaming Act, and commonly known as Act 71, the bill authorized slots gambling throughout the state and paved the way for 61,000 slot machines at fourteen casinos at yet-to-be determined sites. Table games, such as blackjack and poker, weren’t included in the bill, though there was an understanding those games would eventually be part of the mix. Debate on the bill began on Saturday, July 3, and the voting went down party lines, with Rendell, Fumo and Mellow pressing hard on the Democratic majority in the House and Senate, which followed its leadership and approved the legislation.
Pennsylvania had casino gambling, and Periandi had his antenna up.
Miller had been on vacation that holiday weekend in Ocean City, Maryland, but at the behest of Rendell spent most of his time on the phone assuring fence-sitting legislators that the police supported the initiative. Both Miller and Periandi were Rendell appointees, and the reality of the situation called for Miller, as commissioner, to follow the administration’s lead. But privately, both Miller and Periandi had grave doubts about the legislation, and it took just a few weeks for those doubts to be confirmed, but in a way Periandi never imagined.
Just a week after the vote, the police were summoned to a closed-door meeting with Bob Este, Rendell’s chief of staff, and Greg Fajt, the secretary of the Department of Revenue, which was the agency charged with overseeing the early creation of the new gaming initiative. Este and Fajt said that Rendell expected quick clearances on background checks of favored Rendell appointments to the newly created Gaming Control Board. Included among them was Frank Friel, a former Philadelphia police officer whom Rendell appointed as the gaming board’s first chairman. In addition, there would be several favored candidates applying for slots license. Among the names mentioned was Louis DeNaples, an immensely powerful businessman from the Scranton area with deep political ties and long-rumored associations with organized crime who had coincidently just announced his intention to buy the shuttered Mount Airy Lodge Resort in the Poconos and apply for a slots license.
“We’re not going to have any problems with this,” said Este, directing his command to the state police liaison, Captain Ron Petyak.
After receiving the edict from Este, Petyak went back to Periandi with the disturbing news.
“This is not what you think this is. It’s a setup,” said Petyak. “I think this is a scam and we’re being used.”
Periandi and Petyak immediately went to Miller, and his response was measured, acknowledging Petyak’s concerns but telling him and Periandi to stay the course and follow the administration’s lead.
“You should also know the governor is going to appoint Frank Friel as the gaming board chairman. He has a problem,” said Periandi.
“You’re kidding,” said a surprised Miller.
“No, I’m not. I already know some of the issues and you may want to let the governor’s office know it may not be smooth sailing,” said Periandi.
Friel once headed Philadelphia’s Organized Crime Task Force and had claimed that during his tenure, he played a key role in prosecuting members of that city’s Mafia in the 1970s. But Periandi knew from his days heading BCI that Friel had been closely watched by internal affairs after police learned of his friendship with a boxing promoter with alleged mob ties. Friel had also allegedly misrepresented his academic credentials and had been named in a 1974 Pennsylvania Crime Commission report as being one of a group of police officers who allegedly took bribes from a Philadelphia club owner.
Miller again told his subordinates to stay the course, and Friel was appointed gaming board chairman on August 11, after which he submitted a background questionnaire that was short on his personal details. So Periandi ordered his detectives to reinterview Friel and dig into his past. The detectives ran down leads but always seemed to be half-a-step behind the press, which had also taken an interest in Friel, particularly the Philadelphia media.
To keep their information secure and help the administration avoid a potentially embarrassing controversy, Periandi suggested that the state police simply make a recommendation as to Friel’s fitness to hold the position. The administration nixed that idea, and Friel remained the chairman. But when the background investigation was completed, just after Labor Day 2004, Periandi went to Miller with the grim news.
“The administration will be concerned if this Friel report gets out,” said Periandi. “I think the way to get around this is for the administration to tell Friel to step back from the appointment.”
Miller brought the suggestion to Rendell, and the reply was swift: Friel would not step aside. In addition, Rendell wanted to see the full state police report. But the allegations, which were supposed to be confidential, surfaced in the Philadelphia Daily News, and Friel, who vehemently denied any wrongdoing, was forced to step down as chairman less than a month after he was appointed.
Friel’s resignation infuriated Rendell, who during an emotional press conference publicly lashed out at the media for publicizing the allegations.
“You’ve unfairly tarnished the reputation of a good and decent man,” said Rendell, with tears in his eyes. “I hope you understand what you did.”
But it wasn’t the media that drew Rendell’s wrath. Privately, he seethed at the state police and blamed the police for leaking their report. It was a fiasco that not only embarrassed the administration, but created much larger problems for future Rendell appointments. If Rendell’s first gaming appointment could easily get blown out of the water, how would other favorite candidates and appointees with checkered histories pass police muster, especially those seeking gaming licenses, such as Louis DeNaples? The solution came in a report that Greg Fajt and the Department of Revenue had commissioned from a consultant six months earlier.
Spectrum Gaming was a New Jersey firm headed by Fred Gushin, a respected gaming authority and a former New Jersey assistant attorney general. Tasked by Fajt and the Rendell administration with creating the foundation of the new gaming industry, Gushin produced a “Blueprint for Gaming.” The one-hundred-plus-page report was submitted in October 2004, and among Gushin’s many recommendations was tasking the state police with overseeing the all-important background checks. But just days after submitting his report, Gushin was told to immediately stop work and turn over all documents relating to its assignment. No one knew what was going on until December, when Gushin learned that Fajt had changed his report. Among Fajt’s recommendations was the creation of a new agency—the Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement (BIE)—that would be under the control of the gaming board, and would supplant the state police and conduct all background checks. The police role was reduced to performing low-level background checks and overseeing casino security.
Gushin was furious that the administration would pass off the new recommendation as his work product, and he fired off a letter on December 9, 2004, to the new gaming board chairman-designate Thomas “Tad” Decker, a well-connected attorney and partner with the powerful Philadelphia law firm Cozen & O’Connor.
“This report does not reflect our work product and we do not concur in its recommendations and conclusions,” wrote Gushin.
The decision to replace the state police with BIE also stunned Periandi and Miller. Their relationship with Fajt had grown cold, but they had no idea just how frosty it had become. In retrospect, although they thought they were doing their jobs in ferreting out Friel, they derailed Rendell’s first nomination, which was a mistake the governor wouldn’t make twice. By giving background investigations to BIE, the gaming board would effectively control the investigative process, especially for favored casino applicants. But BIE was a civilian agency, and even though it would be stocked with former law enforcement personnel, they would not be privy to the kind of deep, classified criminal information available only to law enforcement agencies, such as the state police or FBI.
That meant anyone applying for a gaming license in Pennsylvania would not be fully vetted.
It was a disaster in the making, and none of this made any sense to Periandi. And as he pondered the administration’s actions, another unsettling issue was developing, and this one had to do with Louis DeNaples.