Accused Thief’s Court Fit Gets Him Tossed

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Real estate investor Luke Brugnara has lost his cool in a courtroom before, but his latest fit of bellowing and fist-shaking, following testimony by a former business associate, was deemed so disruptive that he was physically removed from the court on Friday.
     Brugnara, representing himself, is on trial for mail and wire fraud involving $11 million worth of fine art, including a missing Edgar Degas statute.
     Commercial broker Nicholas Barbato from New York took the stand Friday, the only witness in the five days of testimony for whom Brugnara has seemed to have any respect so far. This did not, however, stop Brugnara from persistently asking improper questions that involved a barrage of statements about his past real estate deals offered as questions he expected Barbato to affirm.
     Brugnara hoped Barbato’s testimony would show that although he had no income or assets when he told art dealer Rose Long he wanted $11 million of fine art for a museum he was allegedly building, he still had the ability to borrow money to pay for the art. But in a no-nonsense tone, Barbato refused to vouch for Brugnara’s repeated claims that he had the ability to borrow billions of dollars.
     The lynchpin of the government’s case has been that there was no museum, and that Brugnara defrauded Long by having five crates of art delivered to his home and refusing to pay for it – later saying it was a gift. The bulk of the art has been recovered, save for a $3 million Edgar Degas “Little Dancer” statute that is still missing.
     On cross-examination Friday, Barbato said there was never a deal in the works to build a museum in Las Vegas, as Brugnara claims.
     “Back in June I received a phone call from your lawyer. We had a nice 40-minute conversation. He asked me if I was involved in financing a museum for you in Vegas,” Barbato said firmly. “I said I had a better chance of walking across the street and performing brain surgery than financing a museum for you.”
     Barbato did not identify the lawyer, but Brugnara’s civil attorney at the time was Robert Kane of San Francisco.
     Barbato added, “He said, ‘I was going to send you a subpoena, but now I’m not going to.’ “
     Brugnara maintained that Barbato was harassed by government agents into giving that statement.
     In response Barbato said, “I’m here to tell the truth on behalf of my country. No one antagonized me and no one is going to call me a liar. My mother didn’t raise me that way. Now let’s get with the questions because I’ve got a plane to catch.”
     Barbato, who said he was aware of Brugnara’s previous felony convictions for tax evasion and poaching endangered steelhead trout, noted that while the felonies were a factor in his ability to finance major loans, they were “not a showstopper.”
     But with the government’s fresh allegations, he was not so certain.
     “When I walk out of here, God willing, in a week, will I still be able to borrow money with your company?” Brugnara asked.
     Barbato answered, “I don’t think so Luke. I think this is the showstopper, baby.”
     Brugnara was apoplectic after Barbato left the stand, and with the jury on break he immediately launched into a tirade against the government.
     “It’s not right,” he yelled at the top of his lungs, furiously pointing at Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Harris. “Now I can’t do business with [Barbato] anymore!”
     Harris asked U.S. District Judge William Alsup to find Brugnara in contempt yet again.
     “He has turned this court upside down,” Harris said. “Witnesses sitting in the hallway heard him, and at this point I’m sure the jury heard him. What he’s doing is a complete disgrace.”
     U.S. District Judge William Alsup agreed.
     “You’re terrorizing the courtroom, the jury, and the people in the hall,” the judge said. “You have no respect for anyone except yourself. You’ve violated every rule in the book.”
     Alsup added another 90 days to Brugnara’s jail time for content, bringing the total to 153 extra days in jail.
     Alsup said Brugnara could make his case to the jury about the museum during closing arguments but added, “Most people would say it was not honest to tell Ms. Long you had a museum.”
     The judge also said that he never would have asked Barbato about Brugnara’s ability to borrow money.
     “You asked him that question hoping for a different answer, and he slammed you,” he said.

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