Morrone & co-defendants reject plea deal, 1 attorney says

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  A lawyer for Joseph Morrone, the former Southbridge Towers board president accused of fraudulently taking nearly $109,000 in federal disability benefits, declined to discuss a plea deal with city prosecutors at a Feb. 7 court date, according to a source at the hearing.

Morrone is one of 102 people charged with stealing Social Security funds, along with four alleged ringleaders who set up the scheme, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s January indictment.

At the Feb. 7 State Supreme Court pre-trial hearing — which included many of the other defendants — Morrone’s lawyer, Vincent Licata, was one of 10 attorneys called into a closed-door discussion by the D.A.’s office. A similar backroom meeting did not take place for the lawyers representing other people charged in the case.

Although Licata did not respond to requests for comment for this article, and Morrone himself was not present in the courtroom, one of the other attorneys present for that discussion told Downtown Express that, during the brief meeting, prosecutors brought up the idea of a plea.

“The D.A. thought we were all going to be interested in taking a plea deal,” said the attorney, who asked not to be named. “But none of us in that room [including Licata] made that kind of commitment.”

Morrone, like all 102 defendants accused of taking part in the scheme, is currently charged with second degree grand larceny and fourth degree criminal facilitation, both felonies which, combined, would carry up to 16 years in prison if he were convicted.

In an interview last month, Licata declared that his client has in fact suffered from legitimate medical problems, and seemed intent on pushing forward against the D.A.’s claims.

“Mr. Morrone has had documented illnesses over a 10-year period that made him qualify for Social Security disability benefits,” he said at that time.

In the same interview, Licata said that he expected the D.A.’s office to begin revealing specific evidence Morrone at the Feb. 7 hearing, since few of those details — aside from general statements in the indictment — had yet been put forth.

But it seemed that those details did not figure into the backroom discussion that day.

“They just set another [court] date. They didn’t give any of those kinds of facts,” said the attorney who requested anonymity.

Morrone’s next appearance for a pre-trial hearing — likely alongside some of his fellow defendants once again — is scheduled for Feb. 19, according to the D.A.’s office.

Morrone was president of Southbridge’s board of directors in the late-1990s and early-2000s, and currently serves as president of the Southbridge Adult and Senior Citizens Activities Center.

He allegedly stole the Social Security disability benefits by claiming to suffer from psychological problems that caused him to fear large crowds, according to the D.A.’s indictment. Morrone was charged in the case after investigators found video footage of him giving an enthusiastic interview to a PIX 11 news reporter while serving cannoli at Little Italy’s San Gennaro street festival — a bustling, crowded scene that investigators believe showed he did not in fact suffer from that phobia.