CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — Lawyers for the lead defendants in a racketeering and financial fraud trial told jurors Wednesday that their clients are not mobsters but legitimate up-by-the-bootstraps businessmen being targeted wrongfully by prosecutors who want to spice up a case with Mafia connections.
The attorneys started laying out their defense after a government lawyer explained the charges against Nicodemo S. Scarfo, the son of imprisoned Philadelphia-south Jersey mob boss Nicodemo D. "Little Nicky" Scarfo; Salvatore Pelullo; and five other men accused of using threats to take over a publicly traded mortgage company and looting it for $12 million over 10 months.
"The government's case is that where there's Mafia smoke, there must be Mafia fire," said Troy Archie, lawyer for Pelullo. "Now they have to masquerade that Mafia smoke as Mafia fire."
Mike Riley, a lawyer for Scarfo, said the mob allegations are a way to get interest in a financial case.
"That's a distraction," Riley said. "It's unfair. It's an attempt to cloud you view of what happened here."
Riley described his client as someone who made money in the concrete business and a travel business he formed with Pelullo — and that he was so insistent that he wanted to be known as his own man that he went by the name "Nick Promo" rather than his given name.
Archie said Pelullo is a high-school dropout with a mind for business, a quick temper and a proclivity for profanity. Despite a cocaine problem 30 years ago and a couple stints in prison on financial fraud convictions, he managed to launch a cleaning business and other enterprises. Even before he got involved with Irving, Texas-based FirstPlus Financial Group in 2007, he owned a house in Elkins Park, Pa., a penthouse in Miami Beach, Fla., and two Ferraris.
"The government got confused and went from the Mafia to Salvatore Pellulo because he talked like a maniac and he had money and had all these fancy things," Archie said.
During his opening statement, Archie tried to show that the corporate takeover was part of a business strategy to build a dormant company, not a crime.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard Wiener had a different take.
"This is a case about lying, cheating and stealing, and about the concealment of that lying, cheating and stealing," he told jurors.
Wiener laid out the allegations almost gleefully, projecting excerpts from wiretaps to illustrate his points about the fleecing of FirstPlus, which has since gone out of business.
He said Scarfo and Pelullo spent more than $800,000 on a yacht. "They bought it with money they took from FirstPlus," Wiener said, smiling. "And they named it Priceless."
The government says the men conspired in 2007 to get its money from FirstPlus two ways — first by hiring shell companies owned by Pelullo and Scarfo as consultants, then by buying other shell companies they formed. Defense lawyers said the companies were legitimate.
Within a year, Wiener said, FirstPlus Financial's main business account had less than $2,000 in it.
Other defendants include two men who were executives at FirstPlus, along with lawyers and accountants.
Six others have pleaded guilty, including one man scheduled to testify during the trial.
Before opening statements, Pelullo lawyer Michael Farrell asked that journalist George Anastasia — who has covered organized crime for decades, mostly for The Philadelphia Inquirer — be barred from the room. Farrell said that Anastasia could be called as a witness, though he did not specify why.
Judge Robert Kugler said Anastasia, who is covering the trial for a blog sponsored by a Philadelphia law firm, could stay for opening statements. There could be a motion to have him kept out once witnesses are called.
Scarfo's father led the Philadelphia Mafia during a bloody 1980s mob war. His reign ended in 1988 when he was convicted of racketeering and sent to prison for decades.
In 1989, the younger Scarfo was the victim of what authorities have described as an attempted mob hit in a South Philadelphia Italian restaurant. He was shot a half-dozen times.
Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill