HARRISBURG - The priest and the prosecutor have known Louis DeNaples for decades, and they've been publicly vouching for the upstate millionaire ever since he asked the state for a casino license in 2005.
Yesterday, the Rev. Joe Sica and former assistant U.S. attorney Sal Cognetti Jr. turned up at the Dauphin County Courthouse, where a grand jury is investigating whether DeNaples has ties to organized crime or lied in the process of winning that casino license.
Sica, who often appears with DeNaples at state Gaming Control Board hearings, was seen being escorted into the courthouse by an unidentified man who has shown up at the grand-jury proceedings three times in the last month.
Sica last joined DeNaples at an Aug. 8 meeting, where the Gaming Control Board gave DeNaples permission to start moving slot machines into his nearly completed Mount Airy Resort & Casino in anticipation of an Oct. 15 opening.
DeNaples spokesman Kevin Feeley described Sica after that meeting as a childhood friend of DeNaples who had become "somewhat of a talisman" for the project.
It was not clear yesterday if Sica testified to the grand jury. He slipped out of the courthouse unseen by the reporters who paced the hallway outside the grand-jury hearing room.
Cognetti, now in private practice, appeared to be representing at least one grand-jury witness yesterday. He also represented an unidentified witness when the grand jury heard testimony last month.
Cognetti joked and jostled with reporters on his way out of the courthouse yesterday but repeatedly declined to say if he had represented Sica during testimony.
"Everyone's got their jobs to do," Cognetti said. "I'm not talking, OK?"
Cognetti was more communicative when DeNaples filed his application for a casino license in 2005. He wrote a letter of reference for DeNaples to the Gaming Control Board.
That carried significant weight because Cognetti was the assistant U.S. attorney who in 1977 prosecuted DeNaples and three other men in a scheme to overbill the government for clean-up efforts after Tropical Storm Agnes. DeNaples later pleaded no contest.
Feeley's public-relations firm touted Cognetti's letter to the media in 2005. But Feeley did not provide a copy of Cognetti's letter when asked by the Daily News this week.
Feeley, who has repeatedly insisted that DeNaples has no ties to organized crime, declined to comment on Sica's appearance at the grand jury.
DeNaples has been dogged for years by rumors of a business relationship with reputed upstate mob boss William "Billy" D'Elia, who is facing federal charges and was brought to the grand jury last month to testify.
Feeley also declined this week to provide a copy of a letter of reference written for DeNaples by Thomas Marino, the U.S. attorney for the middle district.
"In our view, it was a document that was prepared by Mr. Marino for the Gaming Control Board," Feeley said.
The Morning Call of Allentown first reported the existence of that letter this month.