TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – The family of a mobster-turned-snitch who was killed more than a decade ago can look through sealed wiretap records to contest funds seized by prosecutors, a New Jersey appeals court ruled Tuesday.
A soldier in the Lucchese crime family, 67-year-old Frank Lagano was shot and killed in 2007 in the parking lot of the Seville Diner, which he co-owned.
Though Lagano had been arrested three years earlier as part of Operation Jersey Boyz — a 2004 sting that led to the arrests of more than 40 people associated with the New Jersey mob — it was later revealed that Lagano was a confidential informant for the police.
The Jersey Boyz operation was considered a big success at the time, but a judge in the case ultimately vacated all pleas by defendants after finding that prosecutors relied on improperly granted wiretaps. The court has since dismissed charges against more than two dozen of the defendants.
With the investigation into Lagano’s shooting still open meanwhile, the Lagano estate has been fighting Bergen County prosecutors since 2012 to recover the $264,000 they seized from him as part of his arrest.
Though a state judge suppressed the warrant materials in 2006, Lagano’s estate has argued that the wiretaps are the key to proving that the seized cash is the fruit of legitimate albeit shady business enterprises.
One of those enterprises includes a deal between former Bergen County Chief of Detectives Michael Mordaga and Lagano in which the pair fronted attorney fees for personal-injury litigation in return for a cut of the settlements.
Mordaga, who retired from the prosecutor’s office the same year Lagano was killed, has denied any such business relationships.
Lagano’s estate has said Mordaga repeatedly told Lagano after his arrest that he would serve no prison time and half the seized money would be returned if he hired a specific attorney to handle his case. The men’s relationship “soured,” according to another of the family’s lawsuits, after Lagano rejected the offer.
Prosecutors have claimed that any documents suppressed in a criminal case are off limits in a civil case, but a judge in Passaic County ruled for the estate in 2016.
The sealed opinion granting the motion says Lagano’s estate would find it “virtually impossible” to challenge the seizure without the wiretap records.
A three-judge panel of the Appellate Division affirmed Tuesday, noting that state law allows for disclosure of a wiretap’s contents for “good cause.”
“The state is a party to both actions, and has knowledge of the fruits of the wiretaps,” Judge George Leone wrote for the court. “Disclosure to the estate would level the playing field, removing any advantage the state gained by its illegal wiretaps, while the good cause requirement could protect against unwarranted infringement on privacy.”
Eric Kleiner, an attorney for Lagone’s estate, called Tuesday’s ruling “a significant victory in our continuing battle for the pursuit of justice in this tragic case.”
By Kleiner’s count, there are 122 exhibits he has not seen that show unlawful acts by the Bergen County prosecutors. “The big issue is what’s in this documentation,” Kleiner said in an interview. “Nobody has ever seen the level of the illegality of the wiretaps. We’re just now grasping that evidence.”
Though Tuesday’s ruling opens up the records to Lagone’s estate, it blocks the family from using the disclosed information outside of the civil arena, an apparent safeguard to protect other confidential informants.
“We do not suggest that disclosure is prohibited whenever it would reveal any detail not publicly known about a person’s cooperation,” the 35-page opinion states. “However, the court must make that assessment and must determine if any increased risk precludes disclosure.”
In addition to its state-court forfeiture battle, Lagano’s estate brought a federal complaint in 2012 that accused the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and Mordaga of police corruption, failing to properly list seized items during the 2004 raid, and failing to protect Lagano as a confidential informant.
The case originally was dismissed but in 2014 the Third Circuit reinstated it. State officials say the corruption case is merely another attempt to claw back the seized $264,000.
A representative for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment on the ruling.