Accused Art Swindler’s Fate in Jury’s Hands

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The government’s fraud case against fallen real estate mogul Luke Brugnara came to a close on Tuesday with Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Harris calling Brugnara the “consummate con artist” in her closing arguments.
     “Don’t let his last fraud be on you,” Harris told the jury.
     She said the case is a matter of a simple con job by Brugnara, who persuaded art dealer Rose Long to ship him five crates of fine art worth about $11 million without ever intending to pay for it. Instead, Harris said, he “held the crates of art hostage in his garage.”
     Brugnara later claimed the works were a gift.
     “Have you ever heard of anything more ridiculous in your life?” Harris asked jurors.
     At some point in the negotiations to return the art – via his civil attorney Bob Kane – five crates suddenly became four. The FBI seized four of the crates in a raid on his Sea Cliff home on May 28, 2014, but the fifth crate containing the most valuable piece in the shipment, a Valsuani bronze cast of an Edgar Degas sculpture called “The Little Dancer, Age Fourteen,” remains missing.
     Harris argued that Brugnara used his lawyer to stall for time “so he could steal the Degas sculpture outright.”
     She also said Brugnara disposed of a book Long had given him on the Little Dancer sculpture, proving it had been displayed at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. He later said through his attorney Kane that Long had never given him the book.
     “He gave it to his Russian mistress,” Harris said, “He lied because he disposed of the Degas and needed to get rid of the evidence.”
     While Brugnara had said in multiple emails to Long that he intended to place the art, which also included 16 paintings by Willem de Kooning and six etchings by Pablo Picasso, in a museum he was building in Las Vegas.
     “There was no museum. There was never a museum,” Harris said, citing testimony from Brugnara’s former financier, Nick Barbato. “Barbato said he had a better chance of walking across the street and successfully performing brain surgery than financing a museum loan for the defendant,” Harris said.
     Brugnara is also charged with escape for fleeing federal custody in violation of a furlough order that allowed him to meet with his former court-appointed attorney, Erik Babcock, at the San Francisco Federal Building.
     Brugnara walked out of the building after meeting with Babcock on February 5 and spent six days on the lam before being apprehended by the FBI, who found Brugnara on the freeway in a car being driven by a former girlfriend.
     The escape, Harris said, “has been proven six ways to Sunday,” showing the jury a video of Brugnara running down Willow St. in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood on February 5.
     Brugnara’s only defense to the escape charge was that he was sick, possibly with cancer, and that he was experiencing shoulder and wrist pain. But the video, Harris said, proved his medical condition was yet another falsehood.
     “Look at him, moving his shoulders beautifully like an Olympic sprinter,” Harris told the jury. “The reason the defendant fled this building was he didn’t want to face trial.”
     Brugnara, who is representing himself, ultimately did not take the stand. Instead, he saved his testimony for closing, telling the jury the whole case was cooked up by the government as revenge for not paying $1.9 million in back taxes which he claims he doesn’t even owe.
     “They’re on a mission. Forgive them please, they don’t know what they’re doing,” Brugnara said. “This is about the tax case and they can’t get the money from the tax case.”
     He added, “This is how stupid the government is. They lock me up when they want money. But the mission was to choke this guy out.”
     Brugnara also referred to one of the jurors, a tax lawyer, saying the man could “testify” to the jurors about the tax case. This drew a stern rebuke from U.S. District Judge William Alsup.
     “[The juror] is not testifying in the jury room. He will decide this case like an ordinary juror,” Alsup said.
     The missing crate with the Degas, Brugnara posited, was likely stolen from his garage during a one-hour period when the door was left open. A workman on one of the many renovations going on in the neighborhood likely mistook it for a vanity or a toilet, he suggested.
     “They were probably actually disappointed and probably threw it in the trash where it belongs,” he said.
     Brugnara also contended in his closing that the Degas was worthless, and that Long and its owner Walter Maibaum were trying to con him.
     “Maibaum is the brains behind this little scheme. He did a great job insulating himself,” Brugnara said, adding that the New York art dealer has a whole cache of Degas “Little Dancer” bronzes in his closet.
     “This guy is an idiot,” Brugnara said.
     The government countered that it is irrelevant whether Maibaum and Long were trying to defraud him.
     “For all of his whining before you about the Valsuani Degas, we showed you the email that shows he knew it was a Valsuani,” Harris said.
     She concluded with a warning to the jury.
     “Just because he bullied his way through this court, please don’t let that happen in the jury room.”

%d bloggers like this: