A federal prosecutor says he is worried about the safety of some of the witnesses who will testify in the upcoming trial of a Cheektowaga strip club owner and a former DEA agent accused of taking bribes.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi expressed those concerns Friday during a conference in court regarding the trial of strip club owner Peter G. Gerace Jr. and retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrative Agent Joseph S. Bongiovanni.
For 65 years, Joseph A. Todaro and his father before him have run La Nova Pizzeria. A trade publication calls La Nova an industry leader. But federal prosecutors say Joe Todaro is really something else: head of the Buffalo mob.
Gerace, 55, is the nephew of Joseph A. Todaro, whom prosecutors and federal agents have identified as the leader of Buffalo’s “Italian Organized Crime” organization.
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Todaro is not charged in the case. He told The Buffalo News he is not involved in organized crime and has had no contact with Gerace in years.
About 100 people will testify at the trial, and there are safety concerns about “seven, eight or nine” of the witnesses, Tripi told U.S. District Judge John L. Sinatra Jr. on Friday.
Some local defense attorneys and Italian American organizations say they are outraged over Joseph M. Tripi’s repeated references to “Italian organized crime” in court and legal papers, including an indictment.
He made no allegations that anyone has been threatened, but said there are some witnesses who could face danger if local criminals – including those who have nothing to do with Bongiovanni or Gerace – find out they are cooperating with law enforcement.
Tripi told the judge that he hopes to keep some of the witnesses’ names secret from defense lawyers and the public past May 10, the date Sinatra has set for him to submit a witness list to the court.
That would be roughly six weeks before the trial is scheduled to begin on June 21.
“Six weeks is a long time (for someone) to be whispered a name, and to be sent on a mission,” Tripi said.
Defense attorneys Steven M. Cohen, who represents Gerace, and James P. Harrington, who represents Bongiovanni, told the judge they need names of witnesses and information on expected testimony as soon as possible, so they can prepare to defend their clients.
The indictment of Peter G. Gerace Jr. is the latest development in an investigation into organized crime in Buffalo, one that has already resulted in the arrests of retired DEA Agent Joseph Bongiovanni, a Buffalo high school teacher, Gerace’s brother and two other men.
Cohen criticized Tripi for suggesting witnesses could be in danger without offering proof. He said his client has never threatened any witness.
“He can’t just say it … that my client poses a danger,” Cohen said. “They have to show cause.”
Sinatra said he will do his best to consider Tripi’s concerns about witness safety, while also trying to enable defense attorneys to get information they need to prepare for trial.
Defendants want separate trials
Friday’s court appearance came two days after Harrington filed court papers saying he hopes to present Gerace as a “key witness” for Bongiovanni’s defense.
Attorneys for former DEA agent Joseph Bongviovanni say federal prosecutors have “imagined the existence” of a powerful Buffalo mob family.
The two defendants, who have denied criminal wrongdoing, have known each other since they were children.
According to both Harrington and Cohen, Gerace is willing to testify as a witness for Bongiovanni, 58, but only if the judge agrees to allow the two to be tried separately.
If the two men are tried together, Gerace would “invoke his 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination,” Harrington said.
Defense attorneys also argue it will be impossible for Gerace and Bongiovanni to get fair trials if they are tried together. They said both men will be tarnished by charges that are filed against only one of them.
Federal prosecutors are looking for organized crime activities in a widespread investigation, just four years after the special agent in charge of the Buffalo FBI office said, “Some of the individuals who were leaders of the Mafia are still around. But their organized crime activities don’t exist anymore."
“The charges against the two are inextricably intertwined, will involve the presentation of extensive and overlapping evidence and are therefore properly joined,” Tripi said. “Gerace is one of the persons whom Bongiovanni believed was associated with IOC and thus wanted to ingratiate himself with.”
IOC is the abbreviation prosecutors in this case use for “Italian Organized Crime,” an entity that defense attorneys deny even exists in 2023 in Buffalo.
Harrington said Bongiovanni’s father ran a clam stand 50 years ago at La Nova Pizza, the Todaro family’s pizzeria, when Bongiovanni was a youngster.
That doesn’t make Bongiovanni a mobster, the defense lawyer said.
The two defendants were not present at Friday’s court appearances due to illnesses, their attorneys said.
Bongiovanni is accused of taking $250,000 in bribes to help protect Gerace and others whom prosecutors say he believed were associated with Italian organized crime from being investigated and arrested.
Gerace, who owns Pharaoh’s Gentlemen’s Club in Cheektowaga, is accused of bribing Bongiovanni and conspiring to engage in drug trafficking and human trafficking at his strip club.
Bongiovanni was arrested in November 2019, five months after a raid at his Town of Tonawanda home. He had retired from the DEA after learning that he was under investigation.
Gerace was arrested in February 2021.
Defense attorneys complain they have been put at an unfair disadvantage because prosecutors have shared little specific information with them about the charges or the government's witnesses.
Cohen described the information Tripi has shared thus far as “600,000 pieces of garbage.”
“How am I to defend my client when the government has not given us one name of a witness or an alleged victim, not one piece of specific information about the crimes they are accusing?” Cohen said.
Attorney Joseph M. LaTona is also part of Gerace’s defense team.