By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Business boomed. Records obtained by the Daily News for a series of stories about Martino's operation in September 1995 showed that just five of his phone numbers drew half a million calls per month. Payroll records showed Martino was pulling in about $3 million a year in declared salary. At the same time, federal and state regulators were swamped with complaints about the bills, many from angry parents who said their kids had run up thousands of dollars and others from adult consumers who said they had been deceived. Civil actions filed by officials in Massachusetts, New York, and California against firms in partnership with Martino were settled by the payment of millions of dollars in fines.
Lawyers for Martino and LoCascio don't deny those problems, or their clients' success. But they say their financial dealings were all open and aboveboard and that there is no evidence of any rough stuff by Gambino gangsters or anyone else in the charges. As for the extra costs allegedly larded onto telephone and credit card bills, any "reasonably prudent consumer" should have figured out how to avoid them, defense attorneys insist.
"The only cramming going on in this case is that the government has taken two civil investigations in disparate industries and they are cramming this case into the structure of an organized crime indictment," said Maurice Sercarz, an attorney representing LoCascio.
LoCascio's lawyers have also filed motions to dismiss the charges, claiming that the feds knew all about their client's business affairs when they accepted his guilty plea in 1999 and agreed not to prosecute him for related crimes.
The feds have countered by offering evidence of organized crime ties. They have provided the defense with copies of FBI video surveillance of Gotti's old Ravenite club on Mulberry Street conducted from 1987 to 1991while the computer and phone businesses were growing. LoCascio, they allege, appears on more than 90 of them.
Employees of Martino's who were put before the grand jury, court records show, whispered and joked about their boss's rumored mob connections. But sometimes it wasn't so funny. "I do not recall hearing a person that angry," said one employee describing Martino dressing down a co-worker. "There was a very hard and cold quality to his voice. . . . Something . . . very creepy."