Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hearing Friday on judge in the Risoldi case; state claims jurist is biased

Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2016 
A Chester County judge appointed to oversee the trial of a politically prominent Buckingham family accused in a $20 million insurance fraud case could decide Friday if he will disqualify himself as the attorney general's office is requesting.

That's when Senior Judge Thomas Gavin is scheduled to hear the motion from the AG's office asking him to remove himself, legally called recusal, from the trials of Claire Risoldi, her children, Carl A. Risoldi and Carla V. Risoldi, and her daughter-in-law, Shelia Risoldi.
Bucks County President Judge Jeffrey Finley assigned Gavin to oversee the Risoldi trial last year after the entire Bucks County bench recused itself because of the Risoldi family’s connection with area politics. The family has held fundraisers for county politicians.
Attorney General spokesman Jeffrey Johnson said his office’s position is that alleged communications between Claire Risoldi and Gavin “as well as other conduct of the judge” creates the appearance of bias.
Claire Risoldi (center) 
The motion by the AG's office alleges Gavin has improperly favored the Risoldi family in recent decisions, including those that dismissed criminal charges against two Risoldi associates in the fraud case. It also claims Gavin has failed to hold Claire Risoldi accountable for what were called her “continued efforts” to intimidate and influence witnesses, saying the judge's action “clearly raises an appearance of impropriety.”
In addition, the motion states the judge could be called as a witness in the upcoming trials after he was contacted by defendant Claire Risoldi last year. Prosecutors allege that, in mid-September, Claire Risoldi contacted Gavin by phone and told him she didn't have an attorney or money to hire one, according to court documents.
Court documents state that Gavin told prosecutors in an Oct. 6 email that, when he realized the identity of the caller, he told her to stop talking and never call him again for any reason.
A supplemental motion filed Friday stated that Claire Risoldi's attorney, Jack McMahon, told the prosecution she called Gavin at home to find out his fax number and then “started going off.” McMahon said the judge called him and told him to “get Claire to shut up,” the document said.
The motion also stated that Gavin contacted McMahon and suggested he “get control of his client” following an outburst in court, but the judge didn't immediately disclose this conversation to prosecutors or other defense attorneys.
McMahon couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.
The state prosecutor subsequently contacted the attorneys representing the other Risoldi family members to see if they were aware of the phone call, the motion stated.
The supplemental motion stated that attorney Brian McMonagle, who represents Carla V. Risoldi, said Claire Risoldi contacted the judge “on multiple occasions." The attorneys representing Carl and Shelia Risoldi said they were unaware of any contact.
In court documents filed Wednesday, McMonagle said, "To be clear, I have never been aware of any other phone calls made by Claire Risoldi, nor have I ever told the government I had such information.”
Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin
McMonagle said the bias accusations are based on the judge's decision to hold separate trials for Claire Risoldi and the other defendants. He also stated in his filing that Gavin has ruled in favor of the prosecution on several motions against Claire Risoldi and all charges against the remaining Risoldi defendants.
McMonagle also chastised the Attorney General’s Office for “falsely accusing” Gavin of impropriety “in an effort to recuse him from presiding over this case.”
In Pennsylvania, like most states, judges who are challenged in a motion to recuse themselves are the ones who decide if such requests should be granted, according to the American Bar Association.
Recusal motions are fairly rare, according to Harrisburg attorney Craig Staudenmaier. He was referred to this news organization by the Pennsylvania Bar Association as someone outside the Bucks County area who could discuss the recusal process.
Most judges will alert the prosecution and defense if there is a potential reason for him or her not to oversee a case before it becomes an issue, he said. If that doesn't happen and the prosecutor or defense attorney believes there is judicial bias, that issue must be raised before the trial to give the judge an opportunity to address it, Staudenmaier added.
Judges have “wide” discretion in dealings with recusal motions and there is no immediate avenue to appeal the decision, he said. A denial to recuse can be appealed as part of post-trial motions, though Staudenmaier said it would be “extremely rare” for the appellate court to reverse a judge's recusal decision.
“At some point, you have to trust that the judge will act appropriately and proceed in a fair and balanced manner,” he added. “My experience has been judges want to do the right thing and if they are challenged in a recusal, but feel they can sit fairly and impartially, they just take it in stride and move on in the case."
If Gavin steps down, Finley will have to reassign the case to another judge from outside Bucks County. There is no timeline for replacing a recused judge, Staudenmaier said.
Risoldi, 68, of Buckingham, faces 21 charges, including theft by deception, corrupt organizations, false insurance claims, receiving stolen property and forgery. Her son and daughter, Carl Risoldi, 44, and Carla Risoldi, 49, each are charged with conspiracy, corrupt organizations and filing a false/fraudulent insurance claim.
Carl Risoldi also is charged with theft by deception, criminal attempt at theft, receiving stolen property, criminal conspiracy, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities, forgery, tampering with records and filing false reports.
Sheila Risoldi, 45, is charged with theft by deception, criminal attempted theft, conspiracy, corrupt organizations and two counts of filing false insurance claims.
The Risoldis are accused of falsifying and inflating the value of items lost or damaged in an Oct. 22, 2013, fire at Clairemont, the family's Buckingham estate. Claire Risoldi also faces accusations of insurance fraud dating back as far as 1984. Gavin has ordered that Claire Risoldi be tried separately and first on all the charges against her, and the remaining defendants will be tried afterward.
The defendants have denied wrongdoing since their arrests.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: jciavaglia@calkins.com; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia

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