Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Judge Buckwalter Hears Oral Arguments In Fumo V. USA

By Ralph Cipriano

On the 14th floor of the federal courthouse on Tuesday, Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter was refereeing another fight between the U.S. government and former Pennsylvania state Senator Vincent J. Fumo.

Buckwalter was the judge who presided over the United States of America v. Vincent J. Fumo. The five-month trial  ended on March 16, 2009 with the former state senator being convicted on 137 counts of fraud, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and filing a false tax return.

Yesterday, Buckwalter was hearing oral arguments in the case of Vincent J. Fumo v. United States of America. In the sequel, Fumo is challenging the IRS over the propriety of the agency hitting him with an extremely rare "jeopardy assessment." Fumo also alleges that the U.S. Attorney's office colluded with the IRS to seek revenge on him.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Jury Deadlocks On "Father Andy;" Defense Lawyer Jumps Ship

AP/Matt Rourke
By Ralph Cipriano

Around 1:30 p.m. today, the jury in the Father Andrew McCormick sex abuse case sent a note to the judge saying they were hopelessly deadlocked.

Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright told the jury to give it one more try, but it was to no avail. Shortly after 4 p.m., the judge declared a mistrial and dismissed the jury after four and a half days of fruitless deliberations.

The day began with the court stenographer reading back more than an hour of testimony from the alleged victim. Meanwhile, the alleged victim sat in the second row of the courtroom, listening to his own description of the alleged attack by "Father Andy." Soon, the alleged victim and his mother were sobbing and bowing their heads, while almost using up a box of tissues.


Guilty Pleas And $3.7 Million In Forfietures For Mastronardo Gambling Ring

By George Anastasia

First came the guilty pleas.

Now comes the cash.

A federal judge yesterday entered a preliminary forfeiture order that will have gentlemen gambler Joe Vito Mastronardo forking over $3 million seized by authorities during an investigation that targeted his international bookmaking operation, including more than $1.2 million stashed in PVC pipes that had been buried in the backyard of his posh Italianate mini-mansion in the Meadowbrook section of Abington Township.

The government will get an additional $700,00 from co-defendants in the case, including Mastronardo's brother John. The authorities also get to keep Joe Vito's 2001 Cadillac DeVille and a 2009 Nissan Altima used by another key figure in the bookmaking operation, according to the preliminary court order signed by U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois.

The forfeitures come in the wake of a global guilty plea entered by Mastronardo and 12 co-defendants in January. As part of that plea deal, prosecutors have agreed to drop a money-laundering charge against Joanna Mastronardo, Joe Vito's wife. She was the only defendant not charged with racketeering.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Jury Wants A Read Back On Alleged Victim's Testimony

By Ralph Cipriano

The jury in the Father Andrew McCormick sex abuse case asked for a read back on the alleged victim's direct testimony, as well as his cross-examination.

On their third day of deliberations, the jury also asked the judge to repeat her instructions on how to deal with the alleged victim's testimony against "Father Andy."

The testimony amounted to some 100 pages from the alleged victim's hour on the witness stand. Assistant District Attorney Kristen Kemp volunteered to read the testimony to the jury, but defense attorney William J. Brennan didn't think that was such a great idea.

"I think we would have an objection on that," Brennan told Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Nuns Pray While Judge Reads Sex Charges

By Ralph Cipriano

At 10:15 a.m. this morning in Courtroom 1102, Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright read the details of the sex crimes that Father Andrew McCormick is charged with.

The jury, beginning their second day of deliberations, had asked the judge for a read back on the charges.

Judge Bright began with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, which in this case allegedly involved oral sex with a minor. "The slightest degree of penetration is sufficient," the judge told the jury. "He does not have to emit any semen." It took the judge ten minutes to detail the elements of that crime and four other charges against the priest: sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child, indecent assault of a child, and corrupting the morals of a minor.

In the second row of the courtroom, four nuns in full habits weren't listening to the gory details. Instead, with rosary beads in hand, they were silently praying for "Father Andy."

"It's atrocious to have it associated with him," Sister Jacinta Miryam Hanley said of the sex crimes that Father Andy is accused of. The alleged victim in this case is a former 10-year-old altar boy who said that 17 years ago, Father Andy assaulted him in the rectory of St. John Cantius Church in Bridesburg.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Bentley, A Yacht And Piles of Cash; A Key Witness Describes The Lavish Lifestyle Of Salvatore Pelullo

By George Anastasia

He's been on the witness stand for a week and during that time he's offered the jury a behind-the-scenes look at what authorities allege was the $12 million ripoff of FirstPlus Financial.

He's admitted to falsifying records, padding expense accounts and "moving money around" to make it appear as if it came from or was going to legitimate business deals.

He sailed on the $850,000 yacht that was bought with cash from the scam, he said. He arranged some of the paperwork for the purchase of a $217,000 Bentley Continental GT that also figures in the fraud. He fabricated records to make a $40,000 trip to Europe appear like a business expense. And he set up "sideways accounts" that allowed his boss to funnel money to two mistresses.

Those were just some of the things that he saw and did while working for Salvatore Pelullo before, during and after the takeover of FirstPlus, a troubled Texas-based mortgage company, said Cory Leshner, who described himself as Pelullo's "personal assistant." 

"I thought of Mr. Pelullo as a father figure," Leshner told the jury. "And he thought of me as a son." And that, he said at another point, "made me feel proud...I was willing to do whatever he asked."

Defendant Jailed For Contempt In Fraud Case

John [left] and William Maxwell
By George Anastasia

The judge didn't think it was funny.

But apparently some of the defendants did.

As a result, one of them has ended up in jail. John Maxwell, the former CEO of FirstPlus Financial and a defendant in an ongoing racketeering fraud trial, was cited for contempt of court, had his bail revoked and was carted off to the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia Thursday. He's been a "guest" at the federal facility ever since, joining co-defendants Nicodemo S. Scarfo and Salvatore Pelullo who have been denied bail and have been jailed since their arrests in November 2011.

Maxwell was apparently laughing during the cross-examination of Cory Leshner, a former top business associate of Pelullo's who has emerged as a key prosecution witness in the now two-month old trial. Leshner will be back on the stand when the trial resumes Monday.

Maxwell will be back at the defense table along with Scarfo, Pelullo and four other co-defendants, including Maxwell's brother William, a lawyer who was special counsel to FirstPlus while the alleged $12 million fraud took place. The other four defendants are free on bail. 

Whether Judge Robert Kugler lifts the contempt order and reinstates bail for John Maxwell is an open question. Maxwell's court-appointed lawyer, Mark Catanzaro said he plans to ask Kugler to reconsider. Catanzaro said his client was "in shock" when Kugler lowered the boom.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"Do Not Let Him Hide Behind His Collar"

Associated Press/Matt Rourke
By Ralph Cipriano

William J. Brennan, defense lawyer for Father Andrew McCormick, referred to his client's Roman Catholic priest collar as "the elephant in the room."

In his closing argument, Brennan reminded the jury of 9 women and 3 men that they were picked to hear this case because they said they could be impartial about the subject of a Roman Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing a child.

Brennan reminded jurors that "Father Andy" didn't have to take the witness stand in his defense. Brennan conceded his client is "a bit of an awkward guy." Father Andy turned "beet red" on the witness stand, his lawyer admitted; the priest looked like "a deer in the headlights." But Brennan was hoping that jurors remembered what Father Andy had said, that he wasn't a child molester.

In her closing argument, Assistant District Attorney Kristen Kemp turned Father Andy's Roman collar into a weapon to be used against him. She reminded the jury about how arrogant the priest had been with a mother who was upset that Father Andy was planning to take her son to Poland for a week, without consulting her first.

The priest's attitude was, "I'm Father Andy; you don't tell me what to do," Assistant District Attorney Kemp reminded the jury. "The defendant," she said, "wears his collar as a matter of convenience." He puts it on when he thinks it will impress people, and he takes it off when he's bringing altar boys to a PG-13 movie with sex scenes and profanity.

"Do not let him hide behind his collar," Kemp told the jury.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Tighty Whitie Defense

By Ralph Cipriano

It's the tighty-whitie defense.

When the prosecution presented its case against "Father Andy" McCormick, the alleged victim testified that the priest wore "blue plaid boxers" under his black cassock. The alleged victim, now 26, said he got a good look at those boxers 17 years ago in 1997. That's when Father Andy allegedly attacked the victim, then a 10-year-old altar boy, in the priest's bedroom in the rectory at St. John Cantius Church in Bridesburg.  

Today, the defense called two witnesses who testified that Father Andy always wore white briefs.

First, Father Andy's 87-year-old mother told the jury that she's been buying the priest's underwear for decades, and she always bought white briefs.

Then the longtime maintenance man at the church, Mark Pasternak, testified that for years he had seen the woman who did the priests' laundry lay out all their clean underwear in piles on a table in the basement of the rectory. Each pair of underwear had a priest's name tag on it. "It was just lined up there," Pasternak said of the piles of priests' underwear. There were no boxer shorts on that table. Pasternak told the jury that Father Andy, as well as the other two priests living and working at St. John Cantius, all wore "tighty-whities."

But on a day when Father Andy testified in his own defense, he was upstaged by what longtime maintenance man Pasternak had to say out in the hallway to reporters. The jury didn't hear a word of it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Lies Beneath

By Ralph Cipriano

In her opening statement to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Kristen Kemp accused "Father Andy" McCormick of taking some altar boys to see an R-rated movie.

Kemp told the jury that when the priest took the altar boys to see What Lies Beneath, he was too embarrassed to wear his Roman collar out in public, so he went to the movie theatre dressed in plainclothes.

Today in court, one of the former altar boys who went to see the film reprised that tale on the witness stand, saying it was one of the few times he'd ever seen Father Andy not dressed like a priest. Adam Visconto, now 27, said he was in seventh grade and presumably around 13 when he went to see the R-rated movie with Father Andy. The implication was the priest, wearing a polo shirt and pants, had snuck the altar boys in to a see a movie that according to its rating required kids under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

But William J. Brennan, McCormick's defense lawyer, brought to the courtroom a DVD copy of the 2000 supernatural suspense thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pheiffer. Brennan asked the former altar boy to read the fine print on back of the box. Instead of an R-rating, the movie was rated PG-13, meaning parents were "strongly cautioned" to consider whether kids under 13 should see the movie.

"That's OK, it was a long time ago," Brennan told Visconto, who was staring at the box. Meanwhile, a stunned assistant district attorney asked for a recess so she could look up the movie's rating on her iPhone. After the jury left the courtroom, and Kemp checked her phone, she had to admit she and the witness had gotten it wrong; Father Andy had taken the kids to see a movie rated PG-13, not R.