[Hpn] Honkala to testify for Joey Merlino

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Thu, 28 Jun 2001 14:24:17 -0700


http://dailynews.philly.com:80/content/daily_news/2001/06/28/local/MOBB28C.h
tm

Philadelphia Daily News
Thursday, June 28, 2001
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Honkala to testify for Joey

By KITTY CAPARELLA caparek@phillynews.com

It's payback time for Cheri Honkala, the homeless advocate who delivered up
to 70 homeless kids and adults to Joey Merlino's annual holiday parties for
five years.

Merlino's attorney, Edwin Jacobs, subpoenaed Honkala to testify at the
federal racketeering trial about the $10,500 or more she received as
executive director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union from reputed mob
boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino.

Jacobs also wanted to quiz her about the turkey dinners and gifts of
bicycles, boom-boxes, soccer balls, dolls and robots that Merlino provided
to the homeless from 1995 to 1999.

Jacobs told U.S. District Judge Herbert J. Hutton this week he wants to show
that the so-called "Christmas packages" from bookmakers were not acts of
extortion, as charged by the government, but donations to Merlino's annual
parties at Thanksgiving.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Barry Gross argued that Honkala could not testify as
to the source of Merlino's funds, and that her testimony was inadmissible.

Hutton is expected to rule, possibly today, whether she can be a "fact"
witness as Jacobs wants, or only attest to Merlino's character.

At Merlino's first party for the homeless in 1995 at the Avenue Cafe,
Merlino gave $3,500 in cash to Honkala, after collecting $6,000 from
Passyunk Avenue merchants for the party.

The next year at Eladio's restaurant, Merlino promised to double his 1995
gift, while tucking a $5 bill in each recipient's hand.

By 1999, Merlino was jailed on federal drug charges, but his wife, Deborah,
and his sister, Natalie, made sure Honkala received a $7,000 check for the
homeless.

Honkala expressed her own worries about testifying at Merlino's trial to
Jacobs' private investigator, Diane Cowan, earlier this year.

According to Cowan's report, she said that her past life as an exotic dancer
and prostitute "may reduce the impact of her testimony" and that the
"prosecution will attempt to discredit her."

Honkala recalled that "Merlino came to the rescue offering money to house
and feed the families" who were to be evicted from an abandoned house, after
they had been sleeping on the Capitol steps in Harrisburg to protest
homelessness.

Another time, Honkala was arrested during a homeless demonstration at the
Liberty Bell and was taken to the Federal Detention Center, where she was
housed in a cell across from Merlino, the report stated.

Merlino wanted to donate properties to her group to house the homeless, she
said, even though he was incarcerated and not in view of the press,
according to the report.

Honkala told Cowan she maintains no records of contributions to the
Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and turned away an FBI agent who wanted to
see them last year.

She claimed that Merlino bought turkeys one year to distribute to residents
of housing projects. Ralph Natale, former mob-boss-turned-government-
witness, had testified earlier in the trial that he asked food purveyors to
donate turkeys for a Merlino party.

*  2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
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