Chief Justice Castille still has some explaining
to do: Matt Birkbeck
On Oct. 9, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a rare statement calling into question claims made in my book, The Quiet Don.
Released by Penguin on Oct. 1, the book reported, among other things, that the court intentionally interfered in the prosecution of businessman Louis DeNaples and his priest, Rev. Joseph Sica, for lying to a grand jury about their alleged ties to Mafia leader Russell Bufalino.
The grand jury had been impaneled to determine if DeNaples lied to the state gaming board about his alleged mob ties to obtain a gaming license for his Mount Airy Casino.
The court’s interference, which delayed the prosecution for a year, frustrated law enforcement officials to the point where Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico finally agreed to drop the charges in return for Mr. DeNaples giving up ownership of the casino.
Chief Justice Ronald Castille took issue with that narrative, saying the book contained a “misleading and incomplete portrayal” of the courts actions.
“The book in question provides a well-known account of a northeast Pennsylvania crime syndicate, but also attempts to weave assertions of impropriety on the part of this court that are not remotely supported by facts,” Chief Justice Castille said. “There is no doubt that Mr. Birkbeck failed to fully research and understand the legal process about which he writes. Consequently, his narrative falls so far short of a complete story as to merit comment.”
But Castille did comment further, writing that the court intervened on behalf of DeNaples to address accusations by DeNaples’ attorneys of so-called “grand jury leaks” to the press that covered the prosecution.
“There was nothing extraordinary in the Supreme Court’s actions in agreeing to consider the petition,” wrote Castille. “Staying a lower court’s orders is a normal procedure when the Court considers a petition and the Court has exclusive direct review responsibility over Grand Jury issues.”
What Castille failed to say is that the court rarely ever intervenes in a grand jury investigation. In the DeNaples case, his court intervened not once, but twice. And that intervention had a profound effect on the DeNaples’ prosecution, freezing the investigation for over a year. And for good reason: Mr. Marsico planned to have William D’Elia testify at DeNaples’ preliminary hearing.
As I report in the book, D’Elia assumed the leadership of the Bufalino crime family after Bufalino died in 1994 and had agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors after he was charged in 2006 with conspiring to kill a witness and launder drug money.
D’Elia subsequently testified before the state grand jury investigating DeNaples and he told me later, through his attorney, what he told the grand jury: That he had a 30-year business and personal relationship with Mr. DeNaples.
D’Elia was prepared to testify to that relationship in open court, testimony that would have been devastating to Mr. DeNaples and to his many supporters, which included several state legislators and former Gov. Ed Rendell. (“I happen to know Mr. DeNaples, and know him well,” said Rendell after the charges against DeNaples were dropped).
Perhaps most interesting, Castille’s narrow explanation didn’t in any way refute the thrust of the narrative, which had been culled from interviews with, among others, senior law enforcement officials involved in the DeNaples prosecution: The Supreme Court participated in a conspiracy with Rendell, several state legislators and the state gaming board to get DeNaples’ his gaming license.
Castille ended his letter, which is posted on the courts website, by writing that, “Facts matter and misinterpretation of facts can be damaging to the trust that is necessary to sustain our court system. As the response details, this court’s handling of cases in question was nothing but straight forward.”
I would suggest that the court’s actions in DeNaples case and the entire gaming fiasco was anything but “straight forward,” and that Justice Castille has a lot more explaining to do to earn the trust that he correctly says is necessary to sustain our court system.
Matt Birkbeck is an author and journalist.