A recent court ruling could give a reputed mobster's family access to sealed evidence from a 14-year-old criminal case, materials they say can prove his murder was caused by law enforcement officials outing him as an informant.
Frank Lagano was one of dozens arrested in 2004 in a high-profile gambling and loan-sharking investigation dubbed "Operation Jersey Boyz." Three years later he was shot to death outside the restaurant he co-owned in East Brunswick. The murder remains unsolved.
In a federal lawsuit filed in 2012, Lagano's family made the explosive allegation that a Bergen County prosecutor's office member divulged to organized crime members that Lagano was working as an informant, allegedly leading to his death.
In court filings, the prosecutor's office and former chief of detectives, Michael Mordaga, dispute the claims and deny any connection to Lagano's death. They've sought to dismiss the suit, but a federal appeals court has ruled it can move forward.
Through attorney Benjamin Clarke, Mordaga, a veteran investigator who left the prosecutor's office in 2007, said, "there is not now and has never been the slightest evidence" connecting him or any member of the prosecutor's office to Lagano's death. He called the family's allegations "agenda-driven fabrications, without any foundation in fact."
Recently, the family earned a victory when a state appellate court granted them access to sealed wiretaps and other evidence from the Jersey Boyz bust, which the family hopes will prove its contentions.
The family also wants the return of more than a quarter-million dollars belonging to Lagano that was seized in the bust, claiming it was earned legally.
The legal actions have shone a spotlight on the Jersey Boyz case, a nearly yearlong investigation into a gambling, loan-sharking and money laundering operation. The ring allegedly was run by members of four organized crime families out of the Caffe Roma restaurant in East Rutherford, near MetLife Stadium and the Meadowlands Racetrack.
More than three dozen people were charged in December 2004, but the case ran into problems when a judge dismissed many of the charges because the prosecutor's office didn't disclose that its wiretaps had picked up talk between a state investigator and an informant involved in a separate investigation.
The investigator, James Sweeney, later filed a claim against the state attorney general's office after he was fired in 2008. The Lagano family's wrongful death lawsuit relies on the allegations in Sweeney's complaint.
Sweeney alleged Lagano agreed to become a state informant after his 2004 arrest and alleged Lagano had a personal and business relationship with Mordaga. After Lagano's arrest, Sweeney said, Lagano rejected Mordaga's recommendation that Lagano contact a lawyer Mordaga knew who could make his problems "go away."
While Sweeney contended information he gave to state investigators "provided a possible motive for FL's murder possibly arising out of FL's relationship with and connections to MM," his complaint didn't explicitly allege Mordaga exposed Lagano as an informant.
Eric Kleiner, an attorney representing the Lagano family, said the wiretaps and other sealed evidence will bear out the family's claims.
"We're on the verge of discovering the unlawful acts of the government," he said.
Nonsense, said Clarke, the attorney representing Mordaga. Clarke said he and his client have never opposed the release of the sealed materials.
"We, of course, don't know exactly what's in the sealed documents, but we do know what is not in them: Anything connecting Michael Mordaga to Frank Lagano's murder," he said.
John Molinelli, the Bergen County prosecutor who oversaw the Jersey Boyz case and is now in private practice, declined to comment on the Lagano claims last week. In the past, he has denied the allegations made by Lagano's family