Accused Art Thief Headed to Jail for Witness Abuse

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Any scrap of patience U.S. District Judge William Alsup may have left for Luke Brugnara was exhausted Wednesday, and he found the accused art thief in summary contempt for abusing the art dealer he allegedly conned during cross-examination at his trial for mail and wire fraud.
     “I’ve never heard such an abusive performance,” Alsup chided Brugnara after excusing the jury for the day. He was tempted to end Brugnara’s cross immediately, but said he may allow Brugnara to continue briefly Thursday morning provided he stops asking argumentative questions and offering hearsay as evidence.
     Alsup also noted Brugnara’s attempts to manipulate the jury by refusing to question witnesses correctly and leaving his trial notes and photographs not in evidence within view of the jury box.
     Alsup also expressed concern for the art dealer’s mental health after Brugnara, who is representing himself, torpedoed her with argumentative and bullying questions on the stand.
     “I think she’s probably got post-traumatic stress disorder now,” Alsup said. “I’m afraid it’s done mental damage, the way she’s been treated.”
     Art dealer Rose Long says she sold Brugnara $11 million worth of fine art in March 2014 that he never paid for – including a drawing by Joan Miro, etchings by Pablo Picasso, 16 paintings by Willem de Kooning and a $4 million Edgar Degas sculpture – for a museum he was purportedly building.
     Long told Assistant United States Attorney Robin Harris that the art arrived at Brugnara’s Sea Cliff home in five crates on April 7, 2014. Long flew in from New York to unpack the crates and inspect the art.
     When she pulled up to the address Brugnara had given her, she was shocked to see it was just a house, not a museum. Nevertheless, the deliverymen unloaded the crates into the garage and she met with Brugnara, who said he was too busy to look at the art he’d ordered as he had a real estate appointment that day.
     In a text message Long sent to Brugnara asking to meet to complete the transaction, she said, “I never dreamed you would assume I wouldn’t be a nervous wreck leaving them [the art] in a garage, that no matter your significance and wealth I was horrified and am still concerned.”
     Though Brugnara repeatedly interrupted her testimony with objections, Long said, “Any time I tried to meet with him he had one reason or another, and was yelling and screaming at me that I was interrupting him. He was becoming very belligerent and rude.”
     When she got an attorney involved, Brugnara sent her a text message saying “Rose, you freely gave me these items April 7th because you said you were downsizing and wanted me to have them.”
     Long told the jury that she “absolutely did not” give Brugnara an $11 million gift.
     The FBI raided Brungara’s garage and recovered all the artwork except the $4 million Degas statue. “He kept the Degas and won’t tell us where it is,” Long said.
     “I don’t want their stupid Degas,” Brugnara later told the judge, suggesting that it was stolen by the delivery driver. “It might be sitting in his living room.”
     Problems started before Brugnara’s cross-examination even began. With the jury on break, Brugnara accused Harris of witness tampering for speaking to Long during the case – which the government is allowed to do.
     Harris told Alsup she was worried Brugnara would testify during cross, referring to a recorded phone call Brugnara made to his mother where he said, “Once it’s out the jury has heard it.”
     Harris said, “I want to make sure he knows what hearsay is.”
     “I think the government is right but I don’t know what more I can say,” Alsup answered. He turned to Brugnara, saying, “If you get out of control I have to overrule your objections. I don’t think you’re helping yourself. In my opinion, you’re digging the hole deeper.”
     During a break, Alsup said Brugnara could no longer question Long about a lawsuit between herself and Walter Maibaum, the New York dealer from whom she purchased the bulk of the art she sold Brugnara.
     On his cross-examination of Long, Brugnara tried to use the lawsuit as proof that Maibaum and Long defrauded him by selling him fake art with little commercial value and to “impeach” Long’s testimony. But Alsup has repeatedly warned the jury that fraud is not a defense to fraud.
     “It’s out,” Alsup told Brugnara at the break. “You can’t ask her about it. There’s nothing in there that’s going to get you off the hook. The evidence is overwhelming that you committed fraud.” He added, “If I get reversed on account of this, then God bless the Court of Appeal.”
     Brugnara responded by saying Alsup is prejudiced against him, too protective of Long and too favoring of Harris, whom he accused of “acting as gatekeeper of the court.” He screamed that he wanted a mistrial.
     Brugnara’s bullying only worsened as he questioned Long’s mental health, asking her if she was “on medication” or “cognitively impaired” He even bellowed to the jury that Long is a liar.
     At a hearing after the day’s trial proceedings, Harris asked Alsup to cut Brugnara’s cross-examination short.
     “That was completely abusive,” Harris said. If any attorney did what Mr. Brugnara did they’d be in jail.”
     Alsup agreed, and ordered Brugnara to serve 21 days in jail.
     Next time, Alsup said, it will be 60 days.

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