Undercover Staten Island Cop Loses $50K in NYC Taxpayer Money Infiltrating Illegal Poker Games

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Ralph Mastrantonio NYPD Staten Island
Whose bankroll is it, anyway? An undercover NYPD cop used $50K in taxpayer funds to pose as a poker player in an illegal Staten Island poker game sting. (Image: Paul Martinka)

How do you fund a Staten Island illegal poker game infiltration? Apparently, with hard-earned tax payer revenues.

And we’re not talking about a small 1-2 NL game either, because the total bankroll squandered by one undercover cop posing as a player at these games reportedly was close to $50,000.

Where It All Began

Our story surrounds a former sergeant with the New York Police Department, now convicted of running an illegal poker club in Staten Island, while the undercover officer assigned to infiltrate the club lost thousands of public dollars posing as a poker player, the jury heard.

Ralph Mastrantonio, who was a dealer at the club known as “5th Street” on the outlying New York City borough, could now face up to five years in prison. The court heard that 5th Street, which operated inside a so-called social club, raked in thousands of dollars a night, while serving free Italian food and alcoholic drinks to poker players.

“This is no casual card game among friends in someone’s kitchen,” Assistant Brooklyn US Attorney Matthew Miller told the court. “You can’t just open a casino in a commercial building in Staten Island, and dealing cards in an unlicensed gambling business is illegal.”

Mastrantonio, 55, along with former NYPD detective Richard Palase, was arrested in a sting operation in 2011. The raid was launched after police received information that Palase was associating with organized crime figures.

Palase plead guilty to charges of running an illegal poker operation in February, and is currently awaiting sentence.

Undercover Officer Lost His Underwritten Shirt

A statement from one of the undercover officers, who testified under the pseudonym “Ray Valpais,” contested Mastrantonio’s assertion that he was simply filling in for a friend as a one-off favor on the night of his arrest. “Valpais” also confessed that he knew nothing about poker, and had lost between $40,000 and $50,000 of the city’s (i.e., taxpayer) money while posing as a high roller.

“I was a guppy among sharks,” he said, ruefully. “I’m there to gather intelligence. I’m not there to win poker pots.”

Very well-played then, sir.

Defense attorney Daniel Bibb ridiculed the investigation, particularly the suggestion that the group had links to organized crime. “The closest they got to organized crime was Sammy Gravano’s niece-in-law,” he said, referring to Salvatore Gravano, of the Gambino family former underboss.

Meaty Evidence

The “keep-your-day-job” undercover officer, who infiltrated six gambling dens as part of the operation, said that he came across individuals with suspicious-sounding names, such as “Handsome Mike,” “Porky Joe,” and his brother “Joe the Beef.”

“I don’t know the relevance of these meat names,” snapped the judge.

Who says crime doesn’t make great comedy?

Unfortunately for the operators of 5th Street, not to mention Porky Joe and his brother, there is now little legal recourse for those accused of operating illegal poker dens in New York, following the Lawrence DiChristina case of August 2013.

Staten Island and Its Backroom Poker Games

DiChristina was arrested for running illegal poker games in the back of a warehouse, also on Staten Island.

In 2012, a judge in New York ruled that poker was a more a game of skill than a game of chance, and dismissed the case against DiCristina, stating, “the most skillful professionals earn the same celestial salaries as professional ballplayers.”

This ruling, however, was later overturned in a federal court one year later, rendering the “poker as skill” defense now obsolete.

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