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Few insiders bet against Scranton-area businessman Louis DeNaples when he bought the shuttered and decaying Mount Airy Lodge resort in Mount Pocono for $25 million and declared his intention to enter Pennsylvania's budding slot-machine casino industry.
DeNaples, 67, had just about everything going for him: He was powerful, wealthy and well-known in northeastern Pennsylvania. He had given lavishly to politicians of all stripes. And his main competitor for a highly coveted slots license was an interloper from New Jersey.
So it was hardly unexpected when the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board gave its unanimous approval to DeNaples in December 2006, awarding him a license after what it called an "extensive investigation" into his background.
But now that a grand jury has accused DeNaples of lying to the board about his relationship with a pair of reputed mobsters, the owner of the $412 million Mount Airy Casino Resort is under fresh scrutiny — as is the process by which Pennsylvania was supposed to shield its newest industry, slots, from organized crime.
"This particular license has been fraught with problems from the very beginning," said Rep. Doug Reichley, R-Lehigh, a slots critic. "It has raised a lot of concerns about the manner in which the license was awarded."
The gaming board has said that its background investigation of DeNaples turned up nothing to indicate he was of "unsuitable character" to own a casino.
Indeed, he came with a sparkling resume.
From humble beginnings (his family couldn't afford to send him to college), DeNaples built an empire that includes two landfills, an auto parts store, and interests in banking, real estate, garbage disposal, heavy equipment and scores of other businesses.
He has said he owns and operates nearly 100 businesses. His land holdings are vast. He's held seats on a number of boards, including Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
DeNaples is also a philanthropist, donating large sums to Scranton Preparatory School — where he sent his seven children — the University of Scranton, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton, the United Way and many other charitable and nonprofit institutions.
The lone blemish on his record, a felony conviction from 1978, did not disqualify him from getting a casino license under state gaming law because it was more than 15 years old. Gambling regulators did not even take note of it when they filed their official "adjudication" explaining their reasons for giving DeNaples a license.
But that case has long provided fodder for speculation about DeNaples' alleged ties to the underworld.
Prosecutors said DeNaples, who supplied heavy equipment to Lackawanna County to clean up damage from Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, plotted with three county employees to falsify records to obtain $525,000 in federal reimbursements.
DeNaples was tried for fraud, but the trial ended in a hung jury when one juror — whose husband had been bribed by a reputed mobster — held out for acquittal. DeNaples subsequently pleaded no contest to a conspiracy count, paid a $10,000 fine and spent three years on probation.
An FBI investigation later revealed that James Osticco, alleged underboss of the Bufalino crime family of northeastern Pennsylvania, bribed the holdout juror's husband with $1,000, a set of tires and a pocket watch to influence his wife's vote.
Osticco was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. DeNaples himself was never accused of wrongdoing and he denied having any knowledge of jury tampering.
DeNaples' supporters say he has long since redeemed himself for a 30-year-old mistake.
Sal Cognetti Jr., the former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted DeNaples, recently acted as a character witness on his slots application.
"You judge a man by his whole life, not something that happened 30 years ago and I think when you judge Mr. DeNaples by his whole life, he is an honorable person," Cognetti told the gaming board in October.
But while DeNaples has been able to put his Agnes woes behind him, he has been less successful at shaking persistent rumors about the mob.
Some of the information connecting DeNaples to the Mafia is contained in old reports by the Pennsylvania Crime Commission. The state agency investigated organized crime and public corruption, but wielded no prosecutorial power and was disbanded in 1994 amid criticism that it treated rumor and hearsay as fact.
Commission reports from the 1980s said that William D'Elia, a reputed member of the Bufalino crime family of northeastern Pennsylvania, sold space at DeNaples' Keystone Sanitary Landfill. Informants later alleged that DeNaples paid "protection money" to D'Elia.
According to a 2001 federal affidavit, one informant claimed that DeNaples and D'Elia met weekly for many years and that "DeNaples has become a rich man through D'Elia's contacts in New York and New Jersey."
While under law enforcement surveillance, D'Elia was twice spotted visiting DeNaples Auto Parts in Dunmore, according to the affidavit, which was filed in support of a search warrant for D'Elia's car and home. DeNaples was not charged, nor were his properties targeted for searches.
Prosecutors said DeNaples also lied to the gaming board when he denied any connection to the late Russell Bufalino, a notorious mob boss from Scranton who died in 1994 at age 91.
Bufalino was said to have helped organize the infamous 1957 summit of Mafia bosses in Apalachin, N.Y., which was broken up by police. A Senate subcommittee once called him "one the most ruthless and powerful leaders of the Mafia in the United States." D'Elia, who once served as Bufalino's driver, allegedly took control of the remnants of Bufalino's organization in the early 1990s.
Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, an outspoken gambling critic, says DeNaples political connections were the No. 1 factor in getting a gambling license.
Campaign finance reports show that DeNaples has given heavily to Republicans and Democrats alike, pouring more than $500,000 into Pennsylvania politicians' coffers in 2004 and 2005 alone.
Among the recipients of his largesse was Senate Democratic Leader Robert J. Mellow of Lackawanna County, who twice appointed people to the gaming board with at least indirect ties to DeNaples.
This article originally appeared on Pocono Record: DeNaples' rags-to-riches story marred by 1978 guilty plea, rumors of mob ties