A former Niagara County bar proprietor who allowed his establishment to become a hotbed for cocaine-trafficking was put on probation for three years Monday by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara.
Joseph Tomasino, 46, who used to run the popular JT Wheatfield's bar in Wheatfield, will spend six months of his sentence in home confinement. He also paid $25,000 to settle a forfeiture action.
His lawyer, Herbert L. Greenman, said Tomasino and his family still operate a restaurant in the former Wheatfield's building. Greenman said the family rents out the bar portion of the building to a woman who has her own liquor license and runs a business called the Rock Bar.
Arrested in July 2009 after a drug investigation by the FBI Safe Streets Task Force, Tomasino pleaded guilty last year to a felony charge of allowing his business to be used for the trafficking and use of cocaine.
In court papers, Tomasino admitted that he used cocaine at JT Wheatfield's and allowed two large-scale cocaine dealers -- Keith Simmons and Anthony Lamarand -- to sell drugs there.
Speaking in the courtroom, Tomasino apologized for his actions and told Arcara that he has no one to blame but himself.
The judge said he agreed.
"He's got a wonderful family, a wonderful wife, young kids, a successful business why would you mess around with drugs?" Arcara said of Tomasino. "I can understand a 17-year-old kid, but a 46-year-old man involved with drugs?"
Under advisory sentencing guidelines, Arcara could have sent Tomasino to prison for up to a year. The judge said he gave him a break because "there were other people who were a lot more culpable" for the drug activity at JT Wheatfield's.
About 25 other people were arrested in the July 2009 drug raid, and most of them -- including Simmons and Lamarand -- have pleaded guilty to felony drug counts, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael L. McCabe said.
Court records show that Simmons and Lamarand pleaded guilty last year and are awaiting sentencing.
According to Greenman, Tomasino and his parents used to run the bar but lost their liquor license after the FBI investigation.
Greenman said the family now runs a barbecue restaurant in the JT Wheatfield's building at Niagara Falls Boulevard and Ward Road. He said the family rents part of the building to another individual who runs a bar there.
Before the arrests made by the FBI task force, Tomasino's parents -- Grace and Joseph A. Tomasino -- had "no idea" that their son was involved with drugs, or that he was allowing cocaine to be used and sold on the premises, Greenman said.
Greenman said his client feels terrible about how his criminal actions hurt the business and members of his family.
"He fell prey to the underworld, the underbelly of our society, and began using drugs," Greenman said.
In a letter to Arcara, Tomasino, a North Tonawanda resident, said he first started using cocaine in college about 25 years ago and rarely used it more than a few times a year.
He said his involvement with cocaine and coke dealers made him abuse the trust of "family, friends, neighbors and customers." He said he has not used drugs since his arrest and is determined to become a better person.
"I used to run one of the largest bars in Niagara County I now help my parents run a small barbeque restaurant located across the hall from the bar I used to run," he said.
As a partner in the corporation that used to run the bar, Tomasino had to pay $25,000 to the federal government to settle a forfeiture action that was filed after his arrest.
The liquor license for J.T. Wheatfield's had been issued to Tomasino, his mother and his father. It was suspended on Sept. 19, 2009, and revoked on Oct. 24, 2009, said William Crowley, a State Liquor Authority spokesman. The Tomasinos also were fined $7,000.
They later asked the authority to reconsider the amount of the fine, since their income was dependent on the license. The fine was reduced to $4,000 and was paid on Jan. 4, 2010, Crowley said.
A liquor license was issued for Rock Bar on July 2 to Lindsey M. Meyers, of Wheatfield, who runs the bar in the former JT Wheatfield's site.
The new license was issued following a background check, including fingerprinting and a review of financial statements -- typical authority procedure, Crowley said.
The authority conducts the review, in part, to determine whether there are any undisclosed business interests. A new license would not be issued if there were ties to a former owner who had a previous license revoked, Crowley said. Anyone with a felony conviction cannot hold a liquor license unless they receive a certificate of relief from civil disabilities, according to the Liquor Authority. That certificate can be issued by a court, a judge, a parole board or through an executive pardon.
In a related case involving another Wheatfield bar called Papa Joe's, at 2546 Niagara Falls Blvd., owner Stephen Catone, 42, of Wheatfield, faces a Feb. 25 sentencing.
Catone was charged last year with conspiring to distribute cocaine and maintaining a drug-involved premises. On Sept. 29, he pleaded guilty to a felony count of making his business available for the use and distribution of cocaine.
In court papers, Catone admitted that he "stored, purchased and used cocaine at this premises" and that he purchased cocaine from Simmons and other dealers, and at times, sold cocaine at Papa Joe's.
Papa Joe's still has its liquor license, which is in Catone's name.
The Liquor Authority on Nov. 24 filed charges, which could mean Catone will lose the license, Crowley said.
The next hearing date for Catone's license has not been scheduled.
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