Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Thursday, May 12, 2016
State prosecutor says judge's actions have 'chilling' effect on Risoldi witnesses
Posted: Friday, April 29, 2016
Claire Risoldi (Left)
A judge is expected to decide within a week whether he will continue to oversee the trial of a politically connected Bucks County family accused in a $20 million insurance fraud case.
But no matter what Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin of Chester County decides, one thing is certain: the June trials for Buckingham matriarch Claire Risoldi, her children Carl A. Risoldi, 44, and Carla V. Risoldi, 49, and daughter-in-law Sheila Risoldi, 45, will be delayed until November, the judge said.
On Friday in Doylestown, Gavin heard testimony from the state Attorney General's Office lead investigator and prosecutor in the Risoldi case about why the state believes the judge should step down. Bucks County President Judge Jeffrey Finley appointed Gavin to oversee the Risoldi trial last year after the entire county bench recused itself, citing the Risoldi family's connection with area politics.
The attorney general contends that alleged communications between Gavin and Claire Risoldi and "other conduct of the judge" create the appearance that he is biased.
Lead state prosecutor David Augenbraun testified that the judge's failure to hold Claire Risoldi accountable for alleged "continued efforts" to intimidate and influence witnesses has a "chilling" effect.
"People were speaking to us freely and that has stopped," Augenbraun testified.
Special Agent Louis Gomez said a potential prosecution witness — the sister of a late jewelry appraiser who had done work for the Risoldi family — contacted him in January expressing concern after Claire Risoldi called her asking what the woman told the attorney general's office. The call, which Risoldi allegedly made after Gavin warned her not to contact potential witnesses, led prosecutors to ask the court to revoke Claire's bail. Gavin denied the request.
Attorney Michael Engle, who represents Carl A. Risoldi, though, pointed out that the prosecution has not filed criminal charges against Claire for contacting the late jewelry appraiser's sister.
Prosecutors also contend they want Judge Gavin removed because he could be called as a material witness at the upcoming trials to testify about contact he had with Claire Risoldi last September when she called him claiming she had no attorney and no money to hire one, according to Augenbraun. Gavin documented the interaction in an Oct. 6 email to attorneys in the case, stating that when he realized the caller was Claire Risoldi he told her to stop talking, contact the public defender's office and never call him again.
Claire Risoldi's statement that she has no money contradicts what she told AIG insurance investigators in connection with claims filed in the 2013 fire at the Buckingham family's estate, Clairemont, the state contends. Those insurance claims led to the criminal investigation that resulted in charges against the Risoldis. The AG's office maintains Risoldi has stated in insurance documents that she has up to $80 million in a trust fund.
Augenbraun said when he learned about the call from Claire's attorney, John McMahon, he wanted the judge to disclose it on the record because it was relevant to the fraud case. The prosecutor added that he felt Gavin was reluctant to put the conversation on the record based on an Oct. 13 email from the judge.
The AG's office also suggested that Gavin has failed to immediately disclose other interactions with the defense, including an incident when he told McMahon to "get control" of Claire Risoldi and another one following a hearing where Claire Risoldi loudly criticized prosecutors in front of the judge prompting Gavin to tell Claire to "close your mouth and leave" the courtroom.
Augenbraun also testified that attorney Brian McMonagle, who represents Carla V. Risoldi, told him in a phone conversation that he was aware of "several calls" between Claire Risoldi and Gavin. McMonagle took the witness stand Friday and denied Augenbraun's version of the conversation, calling it "inaccurate."
Engle added that the prosecution has failed to show any evidence suggesting that Gavin has shown bias toward the defense. He suggested the AG's office wants the judge to be removed because it didn't like some of Gavin's decisions, including the dismissal of charges against two Risoldi associates, allowing McMahon to continue acting as Claire's attorney, and ordering separate trials for Claire and the other defendants.
"Did anyone with the last name Risoldi have any charges dismissed?" Engle asked, referring to a defense pretrial motion to dismiss some charges that were upheld against the Risoldis in the preliminary hearing.
No, Augenbraun replied.
On Friday, the judge also delayed action on a defense request to release $50,000 in frozen assets so the Risoldis can pay $46,350.58 in back taxes on four properties the state says the family directly or indirectly owns.
The AG's office obtained a temporary restraining order last year under the civil asset forfeiture law for the properties and seized roughly $2 million in other family assets. The restraining order prohibits the owners from selling, mortgaging or otherwise altering Clairemont or three properties on Danielle Drive in Buckingham. The AG's office obtained the order so the properties can be sold for restitution if members of the Risoldi family are convicted in their upcoming trials involving alleged insurance fraud stemming from claims related to a fire at Clairemont. The state estimated the potential restitution to insurer AIG could be more than $15 million, according to court documents.
The attorney general contends the Risoldis have "exclusive use" of the properties and therefore they are responsible for maintaining them, including paying the taxes.
The family argues the properties are scheduled to be sold in September if the taxes aren't paid. But that isn't true, according to the Bucks County Tax Claim Bureau. Property owners who failed to pay real estate taxes in 2015 have until June 30, 2017, to pay them in full before tax sale proceedings are initiated, according to the office.
Prosecutor Adrian Shuchuka said he believes the family has the ability to pay the taxes. When he attempted to present what he described as financial documents that show the Risoldis can pay the taxes, the defense attorneys objected, claiming they hadn't reviewed them. Both sides then suggested Gavin consider imposing a six-month stay on the sheriff sale, which the judge said he would consider.
The state has accused the Risoldis of various offenses related to the falsifying and inflating the value of items lost or damaged in an Oct. 22, 2013, fire at Clairemont. Through their respective attorneys, the family consistently has denied any wrongdoing in the state’s fraud case.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: email@example.com; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia