Broward Circuit Judge Cynthia Imperato made her name as a Mafia fighter. As a former prosecutor and cop, she has both presided over, tried, and investigated high-profile Mob cases.
John "Johnny Meatballs" Piteo is an oft-convicted bookmaker with suspected organized crime ties who has done two stretches in prison. He now works as a chef at Frankie & Johnny's on Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.
You might expect Imperato and Piteo to reside at opposite ends of the social spectrum, but what now has tongues wagging at the courthouse is that Imperato is a regular at Frankie & Johnny's who sources say has forged a close relationship with Piteo.
Several sources have raised the issue with me; none of them had firsthand knowledge. I've learned, however, that more than one local law enforcement agency is aware of an association between the two as well.
Rumors about the relationship recently surfaced on the courthouse gossip site JAABlog, though the issue was couched in vague terms and no names were used.
With talk of Imperato, 53, and an apparent wiseguy running rampant, I left four detailed messages last week at Imperato's judicial office asking for comment, but the judge has not responded.
The 51-year-old Piteo, though, answered a call at Frankie & Johnny's and said there's nothing special about his relationship with Imperato at all.
"Judge Imperato is a customer here, and that's how I know her," said Piteo. "We have other judges come
in here. There's, oh, what's her name? I can't remember right now. Judge [Matt] Destry comes in here. [Judge Imperato] is a nice lady, always has her table."
He said there was nothing improper about their friendship, and vouching for Piteo's side of the story is none other than infamous cat burglar Walter Shaw, who himself has longstanding ties to the Mob. Shaw, who has participated in two film projects about his life, has also become an unlikely friend of the judge, considering that Imperato, while serving as a statewide prosecutor, tried and convicted him on burglary charges.
Shaw, former member of the notorious "Dinnerset Gang" of cat burglars who spent 11 years in the state pen for his crimes, is also a regular at Frankie & Johnny's and says he socializes with Imperato there as well.
In fact, the judge attended a private screening of Shaw's latest film, Genius on Hold, at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale on January 8 (along with another former Shaw prosecutor, Jim Lewis, the defense attorney who ran last year for Florida attorney general). I asked Shaw about the talk of an improper relationship between Imperato and Piteo.
"I meet [Judge Imperato] at the restaurant now and then," said Shaw. "And I know Johnny Meatballs very well. It's a smear campaign. There's no truth to it."
It might be as innocent as Imperato enjoying the cuisine and the colorful company at Frankie & Johnny's, where Sinatra sings through the speakers and where, as a local restaurant reviewer put it, "you wouldn't be surprised to walk in and see Tony Soprano eating a bowl of rigatoni."
It's not against the law for a judge to associate with known felons, but judicial canons demand that those on the bench adhere to a "high standard of conduct" and avoid so much as the appearance of impropriety. Hanging out with ex-cons like Piteo and Shaw might tread that line.
Piteo wrote on a website last year that he got his nickname for bringing hundreds of meatball sandwiches to the racetrack, which he called his "other passion." Before Frankie & Johnny's opened in 2009, he anchored a Fort Lauderdale restaurant called Johnny Cocktails, where the meatballs were hailed as "delectable" by the Miami Herald. A couple of years ago, the Sun-Sentinel published Piteo's recipe for eggplant and marinara sauce.
But even while getting good ink in the papers, Piteo's numerous troubles with the law haunted him. He initially caught law enforcement's eye back in 1997, when he began running an illegal sports gambling operation in his native Springfield, Massachusetts.
District attorneys in Springfield obtained a wiretap order and got Piteo on tape making incriminating statements. While still under investigation, Piteo's bookmaking operation, as one attorney wrote in federal court records, "migrated to Florida" -- Fort Lauderdale, to be specific. That's when Springfield authorities shared their case with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, which promptly began wiretapping Piteo's conversations here as well.
In early 1998, police arrested Piteo on racketeering and bookmaking charges. After the arrest, federal agents paid Piteo a visit, looking for him to become an informant against the Mob.
"During the course of [Piteo's] arrest and prosecution the defendant was approached by Federal Agents from Springfield, Massachusetts seeking his cooperation," wrote Piteo's attorney, Vincent Bongiorni, in a federal motion. "The defendant did not cooperate..."
Instead, Piteo pleaded guilty to the racketeering charge in 1999 and was sentenced to five years' probation and a $25,000 fine.
While serving probation, the Broward Sheriff's Office nabbed Piteo in an offshore gambling sting during which he placed bets for an undercover officer. Piteo again pleaded guilty to the new gambling charges and this time was sentenced to 14 months in state prison, which he began serving in 2002.
After serving several months in prison, Piteo was released on community control. That was when the feds pounced again. Aiming to pressure Piteo to inform on his associates, FBI agents made another criminal case against Piteo in December 2002 based on his activity in Springfield and Fort Lauderdale.
"He was advised by Federal Agents 'this could all go away' should he change his mind about cooperation," Bongiorni wrote. "The defendant requested the presence of his attorney..."
When Piteo remained silent, federal prosecutors hit him with charges of gambling conspiracy and money laundering. Although the indictment makes no explicit mention of the Mafia, prosecutors alleged that Piteo, in February 2001, "requested that Michael Durso collect a debt relating to the gambling conspiracy."
Durso is a former Mafia associate out of New York who was working undercover for the feds at the time. The ex-con turned against his criminal brethren after he was shot in a Mafia dispute and claimed the Mob turned his back on him when he was seeking revenge, according to published reports.
The New York Daily News reported that Durso played a hand in the arrest of at least 45 wiseguys.
"Sources familiar with the investigation identify Durso as the informant extraordinaire, a man who recorded 500 tapes of mob talk without catching another bullet," the Daily News reported on May 4, 2001. "In thousands of hours of conversation, Durso captures numerous wiseguys in remarkably candid moments, such as reputed Genovese soldier Paul (Slick) Geraci confiding, 'If you're not the kind of guy who is capable of hurting someone... you might as well stay home.'"
In 2004, Piteo, without saying a word about his associates, pleaded guilty on the federal charges and was sentenced in February 2005 to nine months of house arrest and five years of federal probation.
Piteo, while running Johnny Cocktails, was arrested again in 2007, this time by federal marshals for violating his probation because he "processed or used" an unspecified controlled substance. He bonded out for $50,000 and later pleaded guilty to the charge. U.S. District Judge James Cohn sentenced him to four months in prison for that one.
When asked about his troubles with the law, Piteo simply said, "That was a long time ago, all bullshit."
His former attorney, Bongiorni, happens to have represented several organized crime figures, but he told me there was no indication that Piteo was ever connected to the Mob. When I brought up Durso, Bongiorni said he was familiar with the informant but didn't remember him being mentioned in the indictment. "Johnny didn't plead guilty to anything involving [Durso]," said Bongiorni. "And he never cooperated with anyone about anything as far as I know."
While Piteo was wrangling with federal agents and going in and out of prison, Imperato was prosecuting Mafia cases and being promoted to her judgeship. She began her career as a Tallahassee cop in 1981 and gained her law degree while on the force. She left the department in 1990 and became an assistant statewide prosecutor that same year.
In 1998, Imperato prosecuted numerous mobsters -- including veterans like Vinnie "The Fish" Romano and Johnny "Sideburns" Cerrella -- on racketeering charges in an investigation led by BSO.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Imperato to the bench in 2003.
"Now 45, Imperato has spent the past 13 years facing down organized criminals in the statewide prosecutor's office," the Miami Herald wrote at the time of her appointment.
Once on the criminal bench, Imperato quickly obtained a reputation as a pro-law enforcement judge. In 2008, she presided over a Mafia case involving numerous defendants, many of them alleged to have been involved in bookmaking.
It's the stark difference in their paths on paper that makes her mere association with Piteo somewhat jaw-dropping. But his former attorney he says it's all about the meatballs.
"I do know Johnny makes a delicious meatball," said attorney Bongiorni. "And that's probably why the judge comes to his restaurant."
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