|Gary Gambardella (L) Claire Risoldi|
Thursday, June 16, 2016
Claire Risoldi: More witness intimidation charges held for trial
Posted: Thursday, June 9, 2016 9:15 pm
Not long after the first subpoena from Claire Risoldi's attorney arrived at the Buckingham police station in April, Lt. J.R. Landis was immediately suspicious. The document had correction fluid marks, grammatical errors and off-set type, he said.
"It just didn't look like it was done professionally," Landis testified Thursday during the latest criminal case involving Risoldi, 69, the Buckingham woman accused of participating in a $20 million insurance fraud case involving claims related to a fire Oct. 22, 2013.
The subpoena requested his police personnel file records and included language that referenced a promotion Landis received, suggesting it was a reward for testimony he provided in the fraud case, which Landis said he also found strange.
After a second, near-identical subpoena arrived two days later, also purportedly from Claire Risoldi's attorney's office, Landis testified he believed he knew what was happening.
"It was like, I could hear Claire's voice in that written text. It sounded like something she'd say," he said.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office agreed. It charged Claire Risoldi with two counts of witness intimidation and criminal use of a communication facility alleging she used "illegitimate" subpoenas to harass and intimidate Landis and retired Buckingham police Chief Steve Daniels, in violation of a court order that she not have contact with prosecution witnesses.
The AG's office contends that Risoldi improperly used the subpoena process to skirt the same no-contact order and reach out to five other witnesses, including prosecutor David Augenbraun and Midway and Lingohocken fire companies.
Her attorney, Jack McMahon, disagreed, often passionately launching into loud tirades that had District Judge Gary Gambardella calling for calm. He described the prosecution's latest criminal filing against his client "personal and vindictive."
"This is so bogus on their part," McMahon said. "They cannot understand what they thought was true was not true. You know they were authorized. That is shocking behavior. It is beyond the pale."
Following five hours of testimony Thursday -- after a 75-minute hearing where Gambardella refused to recuse himself from the case over McMahon's objection -- Gambardella took about 10 minutes to review his notes before holding Risoldi for trial on all charges. She remains free after posting 10 percent of her $1 million bail.
The subpoenas -- their purpose, source and legitimacy -- were questioned throughout the hearing.
McMahon repeatedly insisted his client committed no crime. She was exercising her Sixth Amendment right to subpoena records in her defense. He maintained that he provided prosecutors last month with documents showing that his office authorized and prepared the two sets of near-identical subpeonas.
He said the double set was the result of "confusion" that occurred when he was at an out-of-town federal trial. In his absence, McMahon said, he arranged to have Brian McMonagle, the attorney for Risoldi's daughter and co-defendant, Carla Risoldi, prepare and send out subpoenas, but Risoldi also arranged to have a second set delivered.
McMahon also said that the subpoena containing the "editorializing" comment about Landis' promotion came from McMonagle's process server, not the one Risoldi hired.
At one point, McMahon pointed to a copy of a handwritten note dated April 7 -- the Buckingham police subpoenas were dated April 6 and 7 -- purportedly written by Claire Risoldi to "Brenda" -- who McMahon identified as his secretary. In the note, Risoldi indicated she was faxing over the subpoenas McMahon authorized for his review.
But prosecutor Matthew Connelly contended that it was not clear that McMahon authorized the subpeonas. He said the AG's office didn't pursue forgery and obstruction of justice charges against Risoldi because it couldn't prove them.
Augenbraun and lead investigator Louis Gomez each testified that they were unsuccessful in attempts to interview "Brenda" about the letter.
Augenbraun also pointed to a series of emails between himself and McMahon after his office was alerted about the "irregularities" involving subpoenas delivered to Buckingham police. McMahon's response, the prosecutor said, was that he didn't know anything about subpoenas being issued.
After he learned about more witnesses receiving similar sets of subpoenas from McMahon's office, Augenbraun again contacted McMahon, who didn't dispute the prosecutor's request to ignore them.
Landis testified that he felt uncomfortable enough about the subpoenas he received that he filed a suspicious occurrence report. "I found it disturbing. I was concerned, this is a public record. It impugns my character," he said before adding there was nothing in his personnel file that "I wouldn't want my mother to see."
Daniels, who retired in December, testified that he never saw the subpoena delivered to the police department that referenced him until earlier this week, but he read about it in the newspaper following Risoldi's latest arrest on June 1. The retired chief testified he recommended Landis for a promotion, but the final decision rests with a three-member panel.
Prosecutors played a 1-minute snippet of a 10-minute recorded telephone conversation between Claire Risoldi and her son Carl Risoldi during the five days she was in jail before posting bail on Monday. In the recording, which was played in court, Risoldi asked her son about the news stories detailing her latest arrest.
Carl Risoldi was heard quoting Landis stating he felt the language used in the subpoena was designed to show that he was always within Claire's reach and that she was unstoppable.
"Yeah, too bad," Claire Risoldi replied on the recording.
McMahon argued that prosecutors presented no evidence that Claire Risoldi attempted to intimidate Landis or Daniels to get them to withhold information or testimony in the fraud case. He added it is not a crime to use "excess verbiage" referring to the phrasing to request Landis personnel file in one subpoena.
He said his client requested Landis' personnel records after receiving a photo of Landis with his arm around Sheila Risoldi, a co-defendant and Carl Risoldi's wife, outside the family's estate the day of the 2013 fire. Someone wrote on the picture that Landis was bucking for the police chief position.
"There has not been one single piece of evidence," McMahon added. "This is not a crime. This is clearly not a crime."
Risoldi, her son Carl A. Risoldi, 44, and Sheila Risoldi, 45, all of Buckingham, and Carla V. Risoldi, 49, of Solebury, were charged in January 2015 with various offenses for allegedly falsifying and inflating the value of items lost or damaged in an Oct. 22, 2013, fire at the family's estate called Clairemont. Through their respective attorneys, the family members consistently have denied any wrongdoing in the state’s fraud case.
Claire Risoldi, who will be tried separately from her other family members, also faces accusations of insurance fraud dating back as far as 1984 and three charges of witness intimidation stemming from the fraud case. Her trial has been moved until at least November.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: email@example.com; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia