ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.—Joseph N. Merlino's construction company has done work at sensitive sites, including two nuclear power plants and a New Jersey State Police building -- but so far has been barred from working in the casino industry.
There are two reasons for that: His father, Lawrence "Yogi" Merlino, and cousin, Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, who he admits were both high-ranking organized crime figures.
But this Joseph Merlino says he's done nothing wrong and decided to "separate ourselves from that side of the family" in order to get work.
"It's frustrating," Merlino said during a break in testimony Monday before the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, from which his company is seeking a casino service industry license. "There's no court to go to, to divorce yourself from a family."
The license would allow his company, Bayshore Rebar of Pleasantville, to do construction work on Atlantic City casino projects. The company installs rebar, the steel reinforcing rods that strengthen concrete.
Bayshore has already tried twice to get permission to work in the Atlantic City casino industry, having been rejected in 1988 and 1996 over suspected mob ties.
"Their name is Merlino: It's a bad name," said Merlino's lawyer, John Donnelly. "There comes a time when the fact that you're born under a black cloud has to end. The son has had this cloud hanging over his head since he was 8 years old. He wants to get rid of it."
Lawrence Merlino was convicted of racketeering in 1988 and began cooperating with the government in its investigation into organized crime. He died while in the witness protection program in November 2001.
Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino is due to be released from prison on Sept. 7, 2011, following a conviction and 14-year sentence for extortion and illegal gambling.
The casino commission must decide whether Joseph Merlino and his mother, Phyllis, are sufficiently removed from organized crime members or associates. The state Division of Gaming Enforcement, an arm of the Attorney General's Office, wants them barred from the business, alleging continuing contacts with organized crime figures.
Specifically, the state alleges that Joseph Merlino is in regular contact with Anthony Giraldi, who the gaming enforcement division alleges is an associate of the Philadelphia mob.
Merlino and his lawyer, John Donnelly, dispute that, saying Giraldi is a plumber and friend of Merlino. They add that Giraldi has never been convicted or charged with a crime.
For an hour and a half Monday, Assistant Attorney General Anthony Zarrillo Jr. confronted Merlino with phone records of conversations between him and Giraldi from 2001 to 2007, saying there were more than 4,000 in all.
Merlino, 43, said that the two were friends, and that he would call Giraldi repeatedly as a joke, knowing that Giraldi's father didn't like it when he answered the phone, particularly while working.
"That's what you guys do to one another, two 40-year-old men, just for fun?" Zarrillo asked. "That's what you do? It didn't get old?"
"We would break each other's ... chops," Merlino answered, after hesitating to consider his choice of words.
Donnelly called several character witnesses Monday who testified that Merlino is honest and trustworthy -- definitely not a mobster.
"He's a wonderful young man," said Bob Sweeney, president of Ironworkers' Local 399 in Philadelphia. "I have four successful sons; one of them died. I wish (Merlino) could take his place."
"He's the kind of guy I wish my daughter would bring home to marry," added Albert Frattali, a co-administrator of the ironworkers' pension fund.
Donnelly noted the government has never alleged Joseph Merlino or his mother were organized crime figures.
Merlino said his company was trusted to perform work on projects including the Salem and Limerick nuclear power plants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the parking garage for the New Jersey Statehouse annex, and a New Jersey State Police building in Hamilton Township, outside Trenton.
Yet to casinos, he remains radioactive. He said Bayshore was about to be hired as a subcontractor on the Sands Bethlehem casino last year in Pennsylvania but was rejected when casino officials saw the firm's name on the list.
In testimony last week, Merlino acknowledged his father, who died in 2001, and cousin, who is due to be released from prison in two years, were organized crime figures with the Philadelphia mob.
But Merlino insists he and his mother are not. Phyllis Merlino declined comment.
"We're a good, hard-working family," he said.
The hearing is to resume on Friday.