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Pa. Senator’s aide quits board of Texas company under FBI organized crime probe

The chief of staff for Pennsylvania State Sen. Michael Stack has resigned from the board of directors of a Texas company at the center of an FBI organized-crime fraud investigation.

Joseph D. Steward confirmed yesterday that he had stepped down from the board of FirstPlus Financial Group.

Steward, 43, declined to comment about his decision or to answer any other questions about his involvement with the company which is based in Irving, Texas.

In a series of raids conducted on May 8, the FBI seized records from the company, several of its subsidaries and from several individuals, including mobster Nicodemo S. Scarfo and Salvatore Pelullo, a businessman with prior convictions for bank fraud and wire fraud.

Scarfo, 42, son of jailed mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, and Pelullo, 41, whose brothers have been identified as mob associates, are two of the primary targets of the investigation.

Pelullo's lawyer, Arthur J. Donato Jr., said yesterday he could not comment about the case.

"I just got retained yesterday ," said Donato who added that he was in the process of gathering information about the investigation.

Scarfo, through his lawyer, has declined to comment.

In a brief phone call yesterday morning, Steward said, "I can't comment" when asked why he had stepped down. He also declined to discuss how he got involved with the company, referring all questions to FirstPlus Financial.

Officials at the company headquarters did not respond to calls.

FirstPlus, a one-time high flyer in the subprime mortgage-lending business, fell dormant after the economic collapse of the late 1990s. Over the past 18 months, however, it has undergone a resurgence.

Steward was appointed to the board in November, several months after a new group of executives, headed by board chairman John Maxwell, took control of FirstPlus and began investing in businesses here, in Florida and in Texas.

Those investments, how they were financed and who benefited from the buying and selling are believed to be at the heart of the ongoing investigation.

Gavin Lentz, a local attorney representing the company, angrily chided the U.S. Attorney's Office last week for implying that organized crime was connected to the firm and said that FirstPlus had done "nothing wrong."

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Camden, which is coordinating the investigation, have declined to comment.

No charges have been filed.

Pelullo served six months for a bank fraud conviction in 1999 and was sentenced to five years probation for a wire fraud conviction in 2002. He began work as a consultant for FirstPlus Financial at about the same time the Maxwell group took control of the company. He has been described as a behind-the-scenes decision maker.

It is unclear what role, if any, Scarfo played in the company's business dealings. Scarfo, his jailed father and mob associate Daniel Daidone were included in a list of 23 individuals cited on the search warrants executed earlier this month.

Among the locations raided by the FBI were Scarfo's home in the Wellington Estates section of Egg Harbor Township just outside of Atlantic City and Pelullo's residence in Elkins Park. Records and documents were seized at both locations.

Authorities also found two guns at Scarfo's home, according to those familiar with the investigation. A convicted felon, Scarfo could be charged with a weapons offense that carries a minimum five-year prison sentence.

The FBI investigation, according to a search warrant, is focusing on allegations of bank, wire and mail fraud, money-laundering, extortion and the interstate transportation of stolen property.