Nine defendants were arraigned in Manhattan on July 9, 2013 for their involvement with the Bonanno family crime ring in New York. After two years of investigation, which included undercover loan shark monitoring and the secret interception of numerous phone calls and text messages, authorities had enough evidence to take down nine members of the ring. Charges include drug dealing, loan sharking, and involvement with illegal Internet gambling to the tune of $9 million. One defendant, 49-year-old Richard Sinde, attributed his criminal history to a lifetime of problem gambling. Sinde's lawyer referred to his client as a “degenerate gambler,” no doubt in attempt to get Sinde a lighter prison sentence. This is not the first time organized crime has been involved with an illegal gambling ring in the United States.
The Bonanno Family Crime Ring
The Bonanno family is part of the Mafia, a well-known U.S. manifestation of organized crime whose primary goal is to make illicit money. The group was begun by Joseph Bonanno, an Italian American born in 1905. Bonanno became a mafia leader, or “boss,” at only 26 years of age. After a successful stint, the Bonanno family fell from grace for awhile in the eyes of other mafia bosses. Today, the family is apparently up and running again, specializing in racketeering, extortion, and illegal gambling. The recent arrests of the nine defendants represents only a small dent in the body of the entire Bonanno family, which consists of approximately 100 members and 500 associates.
Nicholas Santora, Captain
Nicholas Santora, one of the indicted men, is the purported captain of the crime organization. He is currently serving federal time for another crime and was not present for the arraignment on July 9th. Santora, born in 1942, is often referred to as “Nicky Mouth." Actor Bruno Kirby portrayed Santora in the 1997 film, “Donnie Brasco.” Unlike the ending of movie, however, Santora remains alive, albeit behind bars.
Other Accusations: Nicholas Bernhard and Scott O'Neill
Two other defendants, Nicholas Bernhard and Scott O'Neill, have been accused of using their high rankings in the Local 917 Teamsters Union to gain clients for loan sharking and illegal gambling activities. Each is being held in prison for a bail fee amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Investigation has been underway for two years as to how Bernhard, the current president of the union, achieved his prestigious and influential position. Two other individuals in the family have been accused of unfairly helping him gain that title. Police suspect Bernhard and O'Neill forced their way to the top of the union totem pole for the financial benefit of the Bonanno family organization.
Scott O'Neill, also in custody, is the current shop steward for the union, which services liquor store and parking lot employees.
The Historical Link Between Organized Crime and Gambling
Most people who gamble today are not linked with organized crime; they are simply taking part in a legal activity for pleasure and possible financial gain. Gambling was not always legal, however, and this is where organized crime began its affiliation with gambling. Up until the 1960s, many casinos in Las Vegas were financed and/or secretly owned by teamsters. It wasn't until the U.S. federal government threatened to step in and clean up Nevada casino management that violent teamsters were removed from the gambling industry in that state.
Why Today's Corporate Casinos Are Safe From Organized Crime
Although skeptics still express concern that organized crime groups like the Bonanno family may be exercising control over today's casinos, they may be assured by the fact that many safeguards are in place to prevent that from happening. Most casinos are overseen by shareholders, wealthy individuals and corporate investors who would just as soon pull their money out as have their name be associated with organized crime. In addition, state governments exercise a tight reign over casinos today, subjecting them to thorough inspections, audits, and licensing requirements. It would be financial suicide for big corporate names like MGM and Caesars Entertainment to risk affiliation with organized crime. Still, critics worry that corruption will find a way to weasel itself into these businesses.
Indian Reservation Casinos and Organized Crime
Evidence of Mafia involvement with tribal casinos is spotty and less reassuring. History suggests that in the early 1990s, the Mafia tried to take over some California-based tribal casinos. The crime group met with little success, but the incident gave proof that bosses still salivate at the prospect of managing tribal casinos.
Another incident, in which reservation casino managers who publicly complained about their low wages were found murdered, also stoked suspicion of Mafia involvement, although nothing substantial was proven in court. Because tribal casinos are less controlled by the U.S. government, some speculate that they are more vulnerable to corrupt influences who might try to take advantage of them under the threat of violence.
Street Crime and Gambling
Even when crime is not organized in nature, it may occur more frequently in areas where casinos operate. Evidence from the U.S. News and World Report suggests that Atlantic City experienced a surge in crime when gambling became legal there. Critics of that study refuted the claim by arguing that an increased tourist population can also lead to an increased crime rate. Heated debate continues between those who favor and those who oppose the establishment of casinos in U.S. cities. As the gambling industry expands in the states, this debate is sure to continue.
The history of organized crime is entrenched in illegal gambling. As the recent arraignment of members of the Bonanno family shows, organized crime continues to be affiliated with some forms of gambling. Corporate casinos like those found in Las Vegas claim that they are too under the microscope to be affiliated with organized crime. Smaller tribal casinos may be more vulnerable to it. The link between crime rates and legalized gambling continues to be a hotly contested issue.