Friday, July 24, 2015
Judge expresses 'serious problems' with some charges in Risoldi fraud case
Posted: Saturday, July 18, 2015
A Chester County judge overseeing the trial of a prominent Bucks County family and an associate charged in a $20 million insurance fraud indicated on Friday that he didn't believe the state's case against three of the six defendants was solid.
In addition, Judge Thomas Gavin said that he had "serious problems" with the Pennsylvania Attorney General Office's argument for charging four members of the politically connected Risoldi family with corrupt organizations and conspiracy.
"I have a big problem there," with the corruption charges, Gavin said Friday at a hearing on defense motions to dismiss criminal charges in the fraud case against the Risoldi defendants and the family's private investigator. The charges stem from three fires at the Risoldi family's Buckingham mansion, Clairemont, in 2009, 2010 and 2013.
Following four hours of testimony Friday, Gavin said he would release his written opinion on the defense motions sometime in September.
Claire Risoldi, 68, of Buckingham, faces 21 criminal counts related to her alleged participation in a scheme to defraud insurance company AIG, and her attorney, John McMahon, is seeking to have 17 of those charges dismissed, including theft by deception, corrupt organizations, false insurance claims and forgery on the grounds the state has failed show enough evidence to prove its case.
Attorneys for the four other defendants filed similar pretrial motions. Claire Risoldi's son and daughter, Carl Risoldi, 44, of Buckingham, and Carla Risoldi, 48, of Solebury, are each charged with knowledge that property is proceeds of an illegal act, and filing a false/fraudulent insurance claim. Carl Risoldi is also charged with theft by deception, criminal attempt at theft by deception, receiving stolen property, criminal conspiracy, obstructing administration of law, forgery, tampering with records, and filing false reports.
On Friday the attorney general's office withdrew a forgery charge against Carla Risoldi.
Carl's wife, Sheila Risoldi, 44, and private investigator Mark Goldman, 54, of Wayne, are each charged with knowledge that property is proceeds of an illegal act, filing a false/fraudulent insurance claim, theft by deception and forgery.
A preliminary hearing against a sixth co-defendant, fabric vendor Richard Holston, 51, of Medford Lakes, New Jersey, is tentatively scheduled for August before District Judge Robert Roth. The trial for the Risoldis and Goldman, the family's longtime private investigator, is scheduled for Nov. 9 in Bucks County Court.
But the judge, who is hearing the fraud case because all of Bucks County's judges were recused, indicated that he felt the state's case against Sheila Risoldi, Carla Risoldi and Goldman was not strong. Prosecutor Matt Connolly acknowledged in court that the state built its case against the three on alleged lies they told during insurance company examinations under oath about the October 2013 fire at Clairemont. That fire, coupled with the Risoldi family's alleged false allegations that firefighters had stolen $10 million in jewelry, launched the investigation that led to a state grand jury in January recommending criminal charges.
Gavin also said he was having trouble with the prosecution's argument that Carl Risoldi allegedly misappropriated insurance proceeds designated for alternative living expenses when he bought a home and luxury cars with the money that was supposed to pay for rent while Clairemont was under reconstruction.
While noting Carl Risoldi may have had a civil obligation under his homeowner's policy to tell the insurer what he was using the money for, the judge said he could not see where he committed a crime unless the policy specified the money can only be used to rent a home. Gavin added that Carl Risoldi may have exploited a loophole in the insurance policy to his benefit, which would not be a crime.
While the judge raised concerns about some of the charges, he suggested the prosecution did have enough evidence to proceed to trial in its case involving witness intimidation charges against Claire Risoldi as they relate to her interaction with Tina Mazaheri, a Doylestown attorney. Mazaheri rented her home on Danielle Drive in Buckingham to the Risoldi family after hearing about the fire at Clairemont. Claire Risoldi later bought the home, allegedly with insurance proceeds, according to the grand jury. Prosecutors allege Claire Risoldi tried to intimidate Mazaheri to change her testimony before the grand jury about the amount she charged Risoldi for rent. Mazaheri said she charged Risoldi $4,000 a month, but Risoldi told AIG it was $12,000.
Gavin said he did not think witness intimidation charges involving AIG insurance adjuster James O'Keefe arose to the criminal level, noting that insurance adjusters were accustomed to "angry customers." The witness intimidation charge against Claire Risoldi stems from a heated confrontation she had with O'Keefe during the investigation, according to the grand jury.
The alleged confrontation also involved McMahon and led to the AG's office filing a motion to have McMahon disqualified as Claire Risoldi's attorney on the grounds it is conducting an investigation into possible criminal charges against McMahon as a "potential accomplice" to the alleged fraud and that he may be called as a witness for the prosecution raising conflict of interest concerns.
The issue arose again Friday when lead prosecutor David Augenbraun told Gavin that criminal charges were "not off the table" for McMahon. Augenbraun said he planned to convene an investigative grand jury the first week of August. But following an hourlong closed door discussion, though, Gavin declined to remove McMahon from the case.
The four Risoldis are also charged with corrupt organizations, another charge built largely on alleged lies the family told during insurance investigations into the fires at Clairemont, which resulted in AIG paying out roughly $20 million for damages and alternative living expenses.
Prosecutor Connolly argued the corrupt organizations charge against Claire Risoldi stemmed from "material" lies she told under oath during insurance investigations regarding claims in 2009 and 2010. The alleged lies, Connolly argued, show a pattern of racketeering necessary for a corrupt organization charge.
Attorneys for the Risoldis claimed that prosecutors failed to show any evidence that insurance payouts for the first two fires were improper. McMahon pointed out that AIG investigated the 2009 and 2010 fires and paid the claims despite missing receipts for items.
"Not one dollar of that 2009 fire was obtained by fraud," McMahon said.