Priest's perjury arrest linked to Pa. casino probe

January 2, 2008 5:01:05 PM PST
A Roman Catholic priest was arrested on perjury charges Wednesday, accused of lying about his relationship with a mobster in testimony to a grand jury investigating a casino owner's possible ties to organized crime.

The Rev. Joseph F. Sica, 52, was arrested outside his home in Scranton on Wednesday morning and taken to Harrisburg, where he was released on $20,000 unsecured bail after a brief court hearing.

Sica is a friend of Louis DeNaples, who owns the Mount Airy Casino Resort in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The priest's arrest is the first to result from the grand jury probe, which is focused on whether DeNaples misled the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board when he said he had no connections to organized crime.

DeNaples, a wealthy Scranton-area businessman whose other businesses range from banking to garbage disposal, opened Pennsylvania's first freestanding casino in October under a 2004 state law that legalized slots and authorized as many as 14 casinos. Six have opened so far - DeNaples' facility in the Pocono Mountains and five at horse racing tracks.

Sica, the chaplain at a Scranton hospital, is accused of lying to the grand jury on Aug. 29 about his relationship with the late Russell Bufalino, an organized crime boss who served lengthy prison terms in the 1970s and '80s and died in the 1990s. The grand jury recommended charging Sica with perjury, and the Dauphin County district attorney filed the charge Wednesday.

The grand jury presentment said Sica falsely told the grand jury that he had met Bufalino only by chance and had no relationship with him.

Prosecutors said the grand jury's presentment was based partly on separate photographs that showed the priest arm-in-arm with Bufalino and with William D'Elia, who reputedly heads the Bufalino crime family now, at what appeared to be a barbecue.

Also, in a lengthy 1982 letter to Ginny Thornburgh, the wife of then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh, Sica referred to Bufalino as "my friend" and asked her to help free Bufalino, whom he called an innocent man, prosecutors said.

The presentment said Sica's alleged lie is relevant to the grand jury probe because it is investigating whether DeNaples committed perjury in statements about his relationship with Bufalino and because of the "close, public relationship" between DeNaples and the priest.

Bill Genello, a spokesman for the Diocese of Scranton, called the arrest a "deeply distressing development" and said the diocese had granted Sica's request for a leave of absence.

Sica, who lives at a church rectory, will not publicly celebrate Mass while he attends to his legal problems, Genello said in a statement

DeNaples' spokesman, Kevin Feeley, said DeNaples' family took in Sica as a child and essentially raised him. The two men have been close friends for more than 40 years, he said.

That "does not change the fact that Louis DeNaples has no ties to organized crime," Feeley said.

Sica, who was wearing a clerical collar at Wednesday's hearing before Dauphin County Judge Todd A. Hoover, was handcuffed as he was led out of the courtroom but he was released a short time later. Hoover, who is overseeing the ongoing grand jury probe, scheduled a Jan. 25 preliminary hearing.

Fran Chardo, Dauphin County's first deputy district attorney, told the judge that Sica owns a handgun, "which struck me as odd," and had $1,000 in cash on him when he was arrested.

Also, after being taken into custody, Chardo said Sica used his cell phone to call DeNaples. The state trooper who arrested him overheard DeNaples tell Sica, "Don't say anything. We'll take care of this," Chardo said.

The priest, who was represented by two Harrisburg lawyers at Wednesday's hearing, declined to speak to reporters as he left the courthouse.

The seven-member gaming board has the authority to revoke a slots license by a majority vote. In that event, the licensee would forfeit the $50 million fee.

Eventually, revenue from slot machines is expected to generate $1 billion a year for reductions in property and other local taxes across the state.

In 1978, DeNaples was fined $10,000 and placed on probation after pleading no contest to a felony charge of conspiracy to defraud the federal government in a case involving government payments to clean up the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes.

Associated Press Writer Michael Rubinkam in Allentown contributed to this report.