To win a slots license for his Mount Airy Casino Resort, Louis DeNaples hired some high-powered legal help to address long-standing allegations of ties to organized crime.
He turned to Peter Vaira, a former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, to investigate his background and prepare a report for the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
Why would DeNaples, who was successfully prosecuted by the U.S. government in 1977 for fleecing Scranton of $500,000 in federal funds, seek help from four former federal prosecutors?
''He's hoping to get help navigating through the system and clearly trading on people with high profiles to stand with him,'' said Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York state prosecutor and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. ''It would appear to be enormously expensive, but when you add up that talent pool, it's an enormous tangible benefit and you know the leverage of power.''
DeNaples' all-star team of lawyers brings an intimate knowledge of federal and state law enforcement. Legal talent at this level can come at a price of $500 an hour or more.
Along with Vaira, a U.S. attorney from 1977 to 1983 who directed President Ronald Reagan's Commission on Organized Crime in 1983, DeNaples enlisted J. Alan Johnson, a U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh during the 1980s, to appear before the gaming board and rebut a 2001 affidavit linking DeNaples to a mobster.
Johnson also represented DeNaples' brother Eugene during his appearance on Dec. 27 before the Dauphin County grand jury, which is investigating whether Louis DeNaples lied to the gaming board about alleged mob ties.
DeNaples also has received help from Thomas Marino, the former U.S. attorney for Scranton/Harrisburg. Marino was listed as a reference on DeNaples' gaming application at a time when Marino's office was investigating DeNaples as part of a broader probe. Marino resigned his federal post in October.
Finally, Sal Cognetti Jr., a former assistant U.S. attorney in Scranton who successfully prosecuted DeNaples in 1977, served as a reference on DeNaples' gaming application. DeNaples pleaded no contest to fraud in the Scranton case, was fined $10,000 and put on three years' probation.
Cognetti since has represented several people before the grand jury, including the Rev. Joseph Sica, a Catholic priest and DeNaples confidant who was charged last week with lying to the grand jury.
O'Donnell, the professor, said ethical issues arise if a former prosecutor attempts to skew or thwart a potential investigation. No such claims have been made regarding DeNaples and his lawyers.
''The concern is if [former prosecutors] have reach inside law enforcement and are willing to use that reach, and how they use it, and who they are talking to, and if their calls are being taken,'' he said.
Fran Chardo, the assistant district attorney running Dauphin County's grand jury probe of DeNaples, said hiring a former U.S. attorney typically means getting a top-notch lawyer.
''Aside from that I don't see it as far as influence goes,'' he said. ''That's not going to necessarily translate into the courtroom.''
But Vaira said his former colleagues bring invaluable expertise with ''the vagaries of the federal system.''
''When dealing with organized crime, the press and everybody else paints with a very broad brush,'' Vaira said. ''We know what's real and what's not.''
Marino, Cognetti and DeNaples' spokesman Kevin Feeley could not be reached for comment. Johnson declined to comment because he is representing Eugene DeNaples.
Many of the reports linking DeNaples to organized crime figures were written by FBI agents who were expected to file something monthly, even if there was nothing to report, Vaira said. And many of those reports, he said, cited nothing more than unsubstantiated chatter from informants and others.
''A lot of stuff like that ended up with the old Pennsylvania Crime Commission, and we used to joke about it,'' Vaira said.
Vaira hired Johnson to help do a background check on DeNaples for the gaming board. ''Johnson came in and painted a picture for the gaming board about what's involved in a search warrant and other federal investigative techniques,'' Vaira said.
Vaira also hired Cloud, Feehery & Richter, a West Chester, Chester County, investigations firm composed of two former FBI agents and a retired criminal investigator supervisor with the state police, to do additional background checks and to interview former FBI agents who previously investigated DeNaples.
''We were looking for any information we could find,'' Vaira said.
DeNaples isn't the first man with alleged mob ties to hire Vaira, who was brought in by the late mayor of Rosemont, Ill., in 2004 to investigate claims that the mayor had ties to organized crime.
''We just practice law,'' said Vaira of his work and that of the other former prosecutors. ''I investigate, write a report and submit it.''
The state gaming board awarded DeNaples a license for Mount Airy in December 2006, and the casino is open for business. The Dauphin County grand jury's investigation continues.