New Jersey Man
Is Accused as
Organized Crime Leader
By KAREEM FAHIM,
NYTimes on the Web, May 24, 2007
ELIZABETH, N.J., May 23 — From
his base on a work site underneath the Goethals Bridge, a member of the Gambino
crime family gained influence in the affairs of two state unions, ran gambling
rings in northern New Jersey and New York and collected a salary from a no-show
construction job, prosecutors said yesterday.
The man, Andrew Merola, 40, was arrested on Monday during a vehicle stop in East
Hanover, N.J., where he lives, the authorities said. He faces charges
including being a leader of organized crime, racketeering and theft by
extortion. Two union officials were also arrested this week, along with
more than 20 other people who prosecutors said played roles in Mr. Merola’s
various criminal schemes.
The investigation into the activities of Mr. Merola and his confederates lasted
about a year, and started after the New Jersey State Police began looking into
gambling operations in central New Jersey, said Theodore J. Romankow, the Union
County prosecutor, who announced the arrests Wednesday afternoon. The
arrests came during raids on Monday by more than 200 officers, from the state
police, Mr. Romankow’s office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other
The authorities said that Mr. Merola, working with associates, inserted himself
into the financial affairs of two unions: Local 825 of the International
Union of Operating Engineers, based in Springfield, which Mr. Merola belonged
to, prosecutors said; and Local 1153 of the Laborers’ International Union of
North America, based in Newark.
Working with a member of the rival Luchese family, Mr. Merola solicited a
$20,000 bribe from a construction company that did not want to hire workers from
Local 825, the authorities said. Another associate of Mr. Merola approved
pay raises and was involved in other employment matters regarding workers in
Local 1153, they said.
“Pay scales were increased for people who didn’t deserve it,” Mr. Romankow said.
“People had worked there for many years, and they were on a lower scale.”
A call to the president of Local 825 was not immediately returned on Wednesday.
Michael Urgola, the business manager of Local 1153, reached on his cell phone,
refused to comment on the case.
Mr. Merola, who legally changed his name from Andrew Knapik when he became a
“made man” in the Gambino family a few years ago, also ran a gambling ring,
according to Mr. Romankow. Prosecutors said the ring was supervised by two
of his lieutenants: Ralph Cicalese, a former investigator in the Essex
County prosecutor’s office, who was convicted in 1989 of protecting a drug
dealer in exchange for drugs, money and other valuables; and Kyle Ragusa, who
prosecutors said joined Mr. Merola’s organization in February, a day after he
was released from prison, having served time for shooting a man.
Prosecutors said Mr. Merola and his lieutenants used a Web site called
Topbettors.com in their operations, but they did not detail exactly how the site
was used. The site bills itself as an offshore facilitator of betting
operations, providing “an offshore call center and accounting services” for
land-based sports wagering interests. A man who answered a phone number
listed on the Web site and who would identify himself only as Frank said no one
was available to comment immediately.
The gambling operations led to loan-sharking, the authorities said, and Mr.
Merola, using two enforcers, “resorted to violence or threats of violence to
collect his debts,” according to a statement released by prosecutors.
As he conducted his schemes, Mr. Merola did not mind cooperating with members of
the rival Luchese crime family, the authorities said. Martin Taccetta, whom
prosecutors called a Luchese member, cooperated in several ventures with Mr.
Merola, and shared the bribe from the construction company, according to
prosecutors. Mr. Taccetta also faces charges including racketeering.
As Andrew Knapik, Mr. Merola served almost four years in prison in the 1990s on
charges including theft by deception and distribution of a controlled substance.