Thursday, June 16, 2016
Judge finds Claire Risoldi violated no-contact order
Posted: Friday, June 10, 2016
A politically prominent Bucks County woman will spend 30 days in jail for violating a court order that prohibited her from contacting witnesses in a $20 million fraud case in which she’s a defendant.
Chester County Senior Judge Thomas Gavin issued the penalty Friday after finding Claire Risoldi, 69, of Buckingham, in contempt of court for using the subpoena process to skirt the judge’s order. Gavin is hearing the Risoldi fraud case and related matters after all Bucks County judges had recused themselves last year.
In his decision, Gavin said he found Risoldi had violated his no-contact order "beyond any question."
For now, Risoldi remains free on her own recognizance. Her attorney, Jack McMahon, will have until Wednesday to file an appeal of the contempt finding. If there is no appeal filed, Risoldi is to report to the Bucks County prison on Wednesday, Gavin directed.
During the proceeding, a prosecutor for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office told Gavin he wanted Risoldi incarcerated for up to five months in order to stop her from contacting witnesses in her upcoming fraud trial, scheduled for late November.
"There is no other way to respond to this situation," state prosecutor Matthew Connelly said. "This is witness intimidation over and over again. There is just no end to it."
The fraud case itself is just one of Risoldi's legal problems. On Thursday, she was held for trial on two counts of witness intimidation and criminal use of a communication facility for allegedly sending "illegitimate" subpoenas to two Buckingham police officers who are prosecution witnesses in the fraud case. The case involving the subpoenas led to the state filing the contempt of court and bail revocation requests Gavin heard on Friday.
Risoldi has already spent five days in the county prison following her June 1 arrest and arraignment on the witness intimidation charges. She was released Monday after posting 10 percent of her $1 million bail in that case. She is also free on bail from two criminal cases filed earlier.
Throughout the two-hour proceeding Friday, McMahon steadfastly maintained that his office had authorized the subpoenas in question. He blamed confusion for two sets of nearly identical subpoenas being sent out to witnesses while he was working out of state for several weeks.
"She has a right to defend herself. She has a right to be involved in her defense," McMahon argued. "This woman, in this instance, has done nothing wrong."
McMahon pointed out that requesting Buckingham police Lt. J. R. Landis' personnel records was not unusual because he's a key prosecution witness. McMahon said he had no problem with what has been described as "editorializing" language in one of the subpoenas that suggested Landis had been promoted in exchange for his testimony to the grand jury that ultimately recommended criminal charges against Risoldi and members of her immediate family.
McMahon confirmed during the hearing that part of the defense strategy in the insurance fraud trial will be to show that key prosecution witnesses, including Landis, lied to the grand jury about what they saw Oct. 22, 2013, the day a fire heavily damaged the Risoldi family estate, Clairemont. The fire was the third in five years at the estate.
Claire Risoldi, her daughter, Carla Risoldi, 49, of Solebury, son Carl A. Risoldi, 45, and his wife, Sheila Risoldi, 44, both of Buckingham, are accused of fraud and related offenses in connection with alleged false insurance claims filed following the 2013 fire. 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 charges of insurance fraud dating back as far as 1984.
McMahon, as he did at his client's preliminary hearing Thursday, repeatedly emphasized that it is not a crime -- rather it’s his client's constitutional right -- to subpoena records and participate in her criminal defense.
But prosecutors -- and ultimately Gavin -- believe that Claire Risoldi crossed the line when she participated in the preparation of a set of subpoenas for seven witnesses in the fraud case.
McMahon's secretary, Brenda Johnson, confirmed Friday in court that Claire Risoldi offered to have her daughter Carla's law firm create the subpoenas, which were then faxed over for McMahon's office for review on April 7.
"Claire offered her help with the subpoenas and you said, 'Yes,'" said Connelly, the state's prosecutor.
"Yes" Johnson replied, saying that she had welcomed the help.
But Johnson also testified that her boss, McMahon, had previous discussions with her about filing the subpoenas seeking records in the Risoldi case, including the Landis personnel file.
"It was told to me," she testified.
After she received the faxed subpoenas prepared by Carla's office, Johnson said she reviewed the documents to make sure they were prepared correctly, but she did not read them "word for word." After Johnson approved them, Claire Risoldi, again, offered to help by hiring a process server her daughter's law office uses to have them served, Johnson testified.
She did not forward copies of the faxed subpoenas to McMahon, Johnson said. She added McMahon never discussed or reviewed the subpoenas after they were faxed.
Johnson also testified that she was not aware that McMahon had contacted attorney Brian McMonagle's office to have what turned out to be a second, nearly identical set of subpoenas delivered to the same witnesses. She recounted a conversation with Claire Risoldi on April 4 during which the women agreed they didn't think McMonagle — who's representing Carla Risoldi in the fraud case — could authorize and send out subpoenas from his office since he didn't represent Claire.
McMonagle also testified Friday that he agreed to serve the subpoenas as a favor to McMahon, who in early April was in Maryland for a trial in federal court. McMonagle also confirmed that in previous meetings with the Risoldi attorneys they had discussed serving subpoenas in preparation for Claire Risoldi's fraud trial, which, at the time, was scheduled to start in June.
In emails, though, the prosecution contended that McMahon agreed that the witnesses who received the double-subpoenas could ignore them. The attorney general's office maintains they are not convinced that McMahon authorized or knew about the subpoenas.
McMonagle said he received an email from Carla Risoldi containing seven attachments, which were subpoenas that McMahon purportedly approved. McMonagle said he contacted a private investigator his office uses and she prepared, using Carla Risoldi's email, and then served the subpoenas.
McMonagle also testified that he made sure that he had McMahon's "blessing" before arranging to have the subpoenas served, but that he did not review them and forwarded them to his private investigator.
McMahon continued to insist throughout the hearing that his client had adhered to the February no-contact order involving witnesses, but that as her attorney he is bound to follow her direction when devising her defense, if what she requests is relevant.
But Gavin was unconvinced. He contended that Claire's involvement with the subpoenas was outside the boundaries of attorney-client privilege.
The judge said that he made it clear in previous court appearances that the no-contact order was all-encompassing to avoid "hair-splitting" over whether contact was direct or indirect.
"The court's directive was as clear as it can be," Gavin said. "Mrs. Risoldi was to retire to the sidelines."
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia