A dubious website claims without evidence that Philadelphia mob boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino stuffed ballot boxes for Joe Biden and the Democrats — and would testify about the scheme in exchange for a presidential pardon. Merlino’s attorney denies the claim, which originated on a website operated by a self-described “pro-Trump” political consultant.
Since President Donald Trump’s baseless allegation at the Sept. 29 presidential debate that “bad things happen in Philadelphia” during elections, the city of Philadelphia has been the target of false claims of voting irregularities, as we’ve reported.
The shade cast on the city took another twist on Nov. 14, in a story published by The Buffalo Chronicle, a website operated by a right-wing political consultant that is regularly found to publish disinformation. The Chronicle article — which cites no named sources — claims South Philadelphia mob boss Joseph “Skinny Joey” Merlino and associates stuffed ballot boxes with 300,000 fraudulent votes for President-elect Joe Biden.
The story claims the scheme was supported by Democrats in the Philadelphia elections office and netted $3 million for Merlino and his associates. It also claims Merlino might be willing to drop a dime on the operation in public hearings in exchange for a pardon for all his past crimes from Trump — setting the stage for Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature to deny certification of the state’s 20 electoral votes.
But Merlino — who served a 14-year prison sentence for extortion and illegal gambling — has called the claims “crazy,” according to his lawyer. A spokesman for Philadelphia election officials said the story is “ludicrous.” And a Philadelphia mob expert said it “doesn’t make any sense.”
Still, the bogus tale went viral on Nov. 16 after Jordan Sekulow, the son of Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, tweeted it with the admonition: “Follow all leads.” The story was picked up by far-right websites, such as Gateway Pundit, and spread on Facebook and other social media platforms. One Facebook user, @TheHipHopPatriot, posted a video calling the story “breaking news.”
According to unofficial results, more than 604,000 votes in Philadelphia went to Biden and over 132,000 to Trump. Lawyers for Trump’s campaign, led by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, have been trying without success to challenge the vote in Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania counties.
The Chronicle’s story says the scheme involved the production of 300,000 raw ballots, which were filled in with Sharpie markers in a 60-hour operation at two homes before being dropped off “in non-descript boxes” at the vote counting center at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“It’s just ludicrous to suggest anyone but authorized election officials could bring ballot boxes into the Convention Center,” Kevin Feeley, spokesman for the City Commissioners Office, which oversees elections, told us in a phone interview.
He said stories like this are “a disservice to all the decent, hard-working people who strive to make our elections transparent.”
The story claims that besides a presidential pardon, Merlino’s motivation for exposing the operation included multimillion-dollar book deals and a clean record so he could fish and hunt on federal land and even get a job with the National Park Service.
“I’ve never heard of him hunting or fishing or wanting to go to a wildlife preserve,” George Anastasia, an author and former reporter on organized crime at the Philadelphia Inquirer, told us in a phone interview. He noted that Merlino is currently living in Florida on supervised release for a gambling conviction.
Anastasia said he first thought the Chronicle story was satire. “It stretches credulity. It does not make any sense,” said Anastasia, who could not recall mob involvement in election-day shenanigans in the past.
Merlino’s attorney, John Meringolo, did not respond to our request for comment, but he told the New York Daily News that after reading the Chronicle story, Merlino said, “these people are crazy.”
“My client categorically denies all the allegations and Joey would rather die than ever be a snitch,” Meringolo told the New York Daily News.
The Buffalo Chronicle and its publisher, Matthew Ricchiazzi, a self-described “pro-Trump” political consultant in western New York, have a reputation for spreading disinformation.
Last year, a joint investigation by BuzzFeed and the Toronto Star found that Ricchiazzi “published unsigned articles based on unnamed sources that allege backroom dealings at the highest levels of the Canadian government” during Canada’s election. “Several of the stories have been deemed false or unsupported by news organizations,” the report said.
BuzzFeed News and the Star said their investigation “confirmed that Ricchiazzi once offered to publish positive or negative coverage of political candidates for a fee.” The fees: $200 for a positive story, $400 for a negative story about an opponent.
Twitter has suspended both the Chronicle’s and Ricchiazzi’s accounts, the news organizations reported.
The CBC’s news program, “The National,” also took a look at the Chronicle during a segment on the impact of fake news on the Canadian election, sending co-host Adrienne Arsenault to Buffalo, only to discover the site’s listed address was an abandoned building.
The Chronicle’s fabricated story about Merlino again highlights the need for readers to check the source of a story and its content, and to see if the information is supported by solid reporting using legitimate, identifiable sources.
This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here for more.
Associated Press. “Reputed mobster ‘Skinny Joey’ Merlino leaves Philly for Florida.” Pennlive. 5 Jan 2019.
Brown, Stephen Rex and Larry McShane. “President Trump’s lawyer puts Philadelphia mobster ‘Skinny Joey’ Merlino at center of election conspiracy.” New York Dailey News. 17 Nov 2020.
“Election interference is happening in Canada: What you can do to stop it.” CBC News. Nov 2019.
“FactChecking the First Trump-Biden Debate.” FactCheck.org. 30 Sep 2020.
Feeley, Kevin. Spokesman, Philadelphia City Commissioners. Telephone interview with FactCheck.org. 18 Nov 2020.
George Anastasia. Author on organized crime. Telephone interview with FactCheck.org. 18 Nov 2020.
“Giuliani: Two established ‘vehicles’ ready to go to the Supreme Court.” Fox News. 17 Nov 2020.
Lytvynenko, Jane et al. “The Canadian Election’s Surprise Influencer Is A Buffalo Man Targeting Canadians With Viral Disinformation.” BuzzFeed and Toronto Star. 18 Oct 2019.
Philadelphia Election Results. Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners. Accessed 19 Nov 2020.
Spencer, Saranac Hale. “Overblown Claims of ‘Bad Things’ at Philly Polls.” FactCheck.org. 3 Nov 2020.