- Claire A. Risoldi, the 67-year-old matriarch of the politically active Risoldi family of Buckingham.
- Thomas J. French, Claire's 64-year-old second husband, a retired Bucks County deputy sheriff.
- Carla V. Risoldi, of Solebury, Claire's 48-year-old daughter, a private practice attorney and a former Bucks County prosecutor.
- Carl A. "Carlo" Risoldi, of Buckingham, Claire's 43-year-old son, a marketing and public relations specialist for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
- Sheila M. Risoldi, Claire's 43-year-old daughter-in-law (Carlo's wife).
- Mark Goldman, of Wayne, the family's 54-year-old private investigator.
- Richard Holston, of Medford Lakes, New Jersey, the family's 51-year-old fabric vendor.
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Risoldi family members respond to fraud charges
Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2015
Those charged in grand jury report
Claire Risoldi is either one unlucky Bucks County matriarch or one devious enough to lead what authorities call a scheme to commit a multimillion dollar insurance fraud.
Between 1984 and 2013, Claire and her family said they’ve experienced four burglaries and three house fires in which they lost millions.
Those payments, however, were based on falsified claims, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who on Thursday released a 47-page grand jury presentment that specifies accusations against Claire, four in her immediate family, their private investigator and a fabric vendor who sold window treatments.
While AIG is mentioned often in the grand jury's report, the insurer wasn't the only one to scrutinize claims made by the Risoldis. Other insurers and police did, too.
A day after she and the other defendants were arraigned on charges and released on bail, Claire Risoldi denied any wrongdoing.
“This is just horrible, just horrible. We’ve had nothing but heartache since my house burned down,” she said as she stood in the doorway of a home she said she rents while her nearby mansion is renovated.
"I feel like when I'm reading this," she added, "I feel like I'm reading about someone else."
The grand jury's report, which is based on testimony from more than 80 witnesses and reviews of more than 100 exhibits, accuses Claire Risoldi, her family members and two co-conspirators with defrauding AIG and intimidating investigators who asked too many questions.
A Kane spokesman said the office wouldn't release any other information beyond what's in the presentment.
In its report, the grand jury said the evidence "established that the Risoldi family has a history of filing questionable insurance claims for the past 20 to 30 years." The 2013 fire unearthed evidence that called into question other claims they made against other insurers, including $200,000 the family collected after a 2002 reported burglary at Clairemont, the report said.
The grand jury found the Risoldis had spent significant amounts of insurance money designated for living expenses on luxuries, including $1 million for exotic and antique cars, and more than $600,000 to buy two homes (and renovate one of them) with money that was supposed to cover rental housing while Clairemont was being restored. As part of its investigation, the state has seized $7 million in family assets, including $3 million in bank accounts and $1.2 million in jewelry.
In 1984, Claire Risoldi told police someone broke into the Risoldi’s Tower Circle home in Lower Makefield and took $200,000 worth of jewelry, among other items. The house was left in shambles with slashed upholstery, a broken mirror and paint poured on the carpeting, according to court records.
Nine years later, Carla Risoldi reported to police the Tower Circle home was burglarized again using the same method as was documented in 1984: breaking a window on a door and unlocking the deadbolt. Again, the suspect not only took a painting —an original Pablo Picasso signed by the artist — and jewelry, but also poured paint on carpeting, slashed upholstery and smashed mirrors.
But something about the second burglary didn’t sit right with the family’s then-insurer, Nationwide. It refused to pay the six-figure claim the family filed, citing allegations of fraud and concealment, court records say. The family sued in federal court, alleging the insurer had acted in “bad faith,” and the case was settled in 1996 for $80,000, records say.
The grand jury's report also revealed new, questionable elements with the Tower Circle burglaries:
• Pieces of jewelry that Claire Risoldi reported stolen to Lower Makefield police in 1993 were discovered in her possession in August 2014.
• Original appraisal forms that Claire Risoldi submitted to Lower Makefield police for the 1984 jewelry theft with the original values whited-out and new values typed in were found while executing a search warrant last year at Clairemont. The typed-in prices matched what was submitted to police in 1984.
The report also noted that appraisals for stolen jewelry filed in 1984, 1993, 2002 and 2013 lacked photos to prove the existence and value of the items.
Insurance representatives weren’t the only ones who were suspicious about the burglary claims back in 1993.
“I remember that case,” Lower Makefield police Lt. Tom Roche said Friday. "We thought it was an ‘insurance job’ from the get go ... Those of us that are still here, when we heard of the (2013 Clairemont) fire, we were immediately suspicious.”
Claire Risoldi and first husband Carl P. Risoldi bought Clairemont in 2000 for $900,000, according to county property records. In 2004, Claire Risoldi transferred her ownership of the property to daughter Carla V. Risold and son Carl A. Risoldi, who now own the home, records show.
Not long after the family moved into the mansion in 2002 — a year after Risoldi patriarch and Claire’s first husband, Carl P. Risoldi, died — the home was burglarized, court records show, after which time the family reported the theft of five furs, silverware and jewelry.
The insurance claims took a long time to settle because there were issues with proving the theft of the jewelry, according to the grand jury testimony from a public adjuster Claire Risoldi hired to submit her claim to her then-insurer, Fireman’s Fund.
After Claire Risoldi executed a sworn statement in proof of loss, she received $208,888, the maximum amount covered under her policy, the grand jury’s report said.
In 2009, a fire damaged a spare bedroom at Clairemont before it was placed under control, according to a news report. In August 2010, a second fire broke out in the home’s attic, which caused more extensive damage. The October 2013 fire also started in the attic.
Buckingham Fire Marshal Jim Kettler investigated the three fires and ruled each one as “undetermined,” but noted “significant similarities” among them, notably that "in all three fires there were large quantities of highly flammable and explosive cans of aerosol hairspray stockpiled near the points of origin,” according to the grand jury report.
None of the defendants in the attorney general's case is charged with arson.
Reached at his Buckingham home, just a short distance from his mother's, Carl Risoldi challenged allegations of fraud against his family, adding the “true side of the story” would come out during an as yet-to-be scheduled news conference.
“Insurance companies just don’t pay after three fires,” he said. “They did an extensive and intensive investigation. They were up in the attic for one to two weeks going through every detail.”
He also said the family has hired investigators who authored reports that counter the grand jury’s findings.
In one report that the Risoldis provided to Calkins Media, family-hired investigator James M. Jones concluded the 2013 fire was “clearly accidental in nature and associated with some type of mechanical malfunction of an aluminum wire that had been installed by an electrician.”
What set the October 2013 fire apart from the previous two at Clairemont is that Claire Risoldi falsely accused volunteer firefighters of stealing jewelry worth $7 million to $12 million, according to the grand jury’s presentment.
The report found the Risoldi family had increased its coverage on its jewelry from about $100,000 to nearly $11 million less than 25 days before the fire. And days before the fire, Carl Risoldi had retrieved all of the family's jewelry from safe deposit boxes at an area bank.
In her grand jury testimony, Claire Risoldi said the jewelry was retrieved in preparation for her wedding to Thomas J. French, a retired Bucks County deputy sheriff. The two were married Oct. 16, 2013, the same day Claire Risoldi had scheduled a $250-a-head fundraiser at Clairemont for Bucks County Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick. The political event was canceled, however.
Claire Risoldi told investigators that millions of dollars of jewelry was then placed in canvas bags on chairs by the front door “waiting to be returned to the bank” when the fire occurred on Oct. 22.
Family members testified they pleaded with the firefighters to get back into the house for their jewelry, but none of the first responders at the scene could corroborate that in their testimony to the grand jury. When the fire was extinguished, the family was allowed in, but the jewelry was gone, the family members testified.
Claire Risoldi provided what the grand jury described as the most compelling evidence that the jewelry theft could not have happened as the family described, according to investigators.
An AIG-assigned insurance adjuster who checked into the 2013 claim testified that in March 2014 he was allowed to inspect the two Risoldi Law Office bags containing more than 60 empty jewelry boxes — beige or white on the outside and lined with white satin — that the firefighters supposedly left behind, the grand jury report said.
“Notably although the bags were covered with black marks appearing to be some kind of dirt or soot, the jewelry boxes were all spotlessly clean, showing not a trace of visible evidence that they had been exposed to smoke and ash or the thousands of gallons of water and fire-fighting foam that had been used to extinguish the fire,” the report said.
The grand jury noted that at least one piece of stolen jewelry was recovered — at a jewelers where it had been sent for repairs.
A jewelry appraiser and forensic expert contracted by AIG testified in February 2014 he identified an 18-carat white gold and diamond dome ring that belonged to Claire Risoldi, which was later confirmed as one of the items she listed on her insurance claim as stolen during the 2013 fire, the report said.
The murals and drapes
"The family can be seen on the ceiling of Clairemont resplendent in flowing robes gazing down from the heavens."
Such was the grand jury's description of the $35,000, Romanesque-style mural painted by artist Russell Buckingham, of New York.
The grand jury also called the painting “flamboyant,” and accused Claire Risoldi of telling the artist to increase his initial quote to re-do the mural following the 2013 fire. Buckingham initially quoted her $40,000, "but Claire Risoldi told him to 'make it for a lot more money' and suggested the figure of $950,000," the amount she submitted in her claim to AIG, the grand jury said.
According to his testimony before the grand jury, Buckingham said Claire, Carl and Carla had asked him to prepare fraudulent, backdated receipts for the original murals he painted at Clairemont, amounting to $620,000.
With help from Richard Holston, the Medford Lakes, New Jersey, fabric vendor charged in the case, the Risoldis “aggressively” pressed their $2 million demand from AIG to cover the replacement of all window treatments at Clairemont, though Claire Risoldi told the company she had no documentation to provide regarding their cost because she lost the paperwork in the earlier fires and the fabric shop had lost its copies due to a change in ownership, the presentment said.
The grand jury also noted that Claire Risoldi had used a similar story to explain the lack of receipts to support her $1.2 million claim for replacing window treatments damaged in the 2010 fire at Clairemont.
According to the grand jury's report, more than 100 pages of invoices and other paperwork related to the window treatments “magically appeared” in September. They were delivered by private investigator Goldman, and many were “obviously fabricated,” Attorney General Kane's office said.
Among the largest of the fraud allegations is that the family had used money given them to rent two homes during Clairemont's most recent restoration to buy at least two homes using an apparent straw purchaser; the Risoldis also spent “significant” amount of insurance money to renovate one of the rented homes, the grand jury said in its report.
After the fire, Claire Risoldi moved to a home in the 4900 block of Danielle Drive that she rented for $4,000 a month from Tina Mazaheri, a Bucks County family law attorney who told the grand jury that she rented the home without a lease.
In March 2014, Mazaheri sold the house to the current owner of record, Karl Morris, but Claire Risoldi handled the sale arrangements and provided Morris with the money to buy the house, the grand jury said.
"Claire Risoldi paid Mazaheri for the house with two checks in the amounts of $105,000 and $300,000, and still owes Mazaheri $100,000," said the report, adding that Mazaheri testified to the grand jury that Claire Risoldi owns "at least two other homes on Danielle Drive."
The property arrangement is significant because AIG is paying Claire Risoldi $13,000 a month for renting the former Mazaheri home, according to the grand jury.
In her testimony, Mazaheri said Claire Risoldi had asked her to inflate the monthly rent she was paying when Mazaheri owned the home, to $12,000 a month, but Mazaheri refused, the report said.
“It’s Not Over”
That insurers paid what a grand jury says were suspicious and fraudulent claims doesn’t surprise private investigator Marc Bourne, of Know It All Intelligence in Bensalem.
“When you are dealing with some of the national insurance companies, they are handling thousands of claims on a daily basis. When it comes down to fraud, they’d rather pay out then go through a lawsuit,” he said.
While there are national databases in which insurance companies can research prior losses and claims, most insurance adjusters are simply too busy to take the time to dig into each and every claim, Bourne said, adding such databases to detect red flags in claims didn’t exist 20 or 30 years ago.
“As long as someone can give you the documentation that is needed it’s more a formality,” Bourne said. “It’s not until something in a large amount that will open their eyes to someone being greedy.”
But what is considered a "large amount" is in the eye of the policyholder, Bourne added.
While $20 million sounds like an astronomical amount, among very wealthy clients, it’s a drop in the bucket, he said.
“It’s not like they lived in a townhome and they’re claiming $2 million in jewelry,” Bourne said. “I don’t think it’s unrealistic. We see it as $20 million in losses, but these were considered high-profile clients of AIG.”
Bourne said the Risoldis raised suspicion after the firefighters were accused of stealing jewelry following the 2013 fire. That led to the insurance investigation and the attorney general’s involvement, he said.
“It’s very easy to commit insurance fraud in general, but do you want to take the risk of getting caught? Most people don’t want to do that,” he added. “I really think this (Risoldi) investigation has legs. It’s not over.”
Jo Ciavaglia: 215 949-4181; firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jociavaglia
The 47-page grand jury's presentment (report) is based on testimony from more than 80 witnesses and reviews of more than 100 exhibits, including insurance claims.
Those charged by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office with insurance fraud, theft by deception and criminal conspiracy, among other offenses are:
Source: Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office