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Fraudster’s Own Attorney Calls Him a Liar

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Convicted art fraudster Luke Brugnara is "a bully and a pathological liar," a federal judge said Thursday, but since the value of the art involved isn't worth $11 million as previously thought "some leniency" may be in order when he is sentenced next week.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup rejected a request for acquittal or a new trial on the grounds that the art is worth less than one-tenth the $11 million for which it was sold to Brugnara, and because his courtroom outbursts kept him from receiving a fair trial.

"The fundamental premise that this case was built on turned out to be a lie. The case was presented that this was valuable art worth $11 million," Brugnara's attorney George Boisseau told Alsup. "Now we find out what it's really worth. Those beautiful little paintings were fake."

Boisseau said new evidence revealed the artwork, which art dealer Rose Long proposed to sell for $11 million, is worth closer to $836,000, and that the paintings attributed to Willem de Kooning are forgeries.

Alsup was not sympathetic to the claim that the defense learned this only after the trial. He said Brugnara, who represented himself, had a chance to hire an art expert at taxpayer expense, but turned down the offer.

"He [Brugnara] argued fake, he argued fraudulent, he made all of these points. He rolled the dice and lost. You can't go back and roll the dice again," Alsup said.

Brugnara could be sentenced to up to 70 years in prison.

He was indicted in June 2014 after ordering and receiving the alleged $11 million worth of art, including an Edgar Degas sculpture cast in bronze by the Valsuani foundry for an art museum Brugnara said he was planning to build in San Francisco.

When Long demanded payment, Brugnara claimed the art had been a "gift."

The Degas is still missing. The FBI recovered a drawing by Joan Miró, a series of etchings by Pablo Picasso, 16 paintings attributed to de Kooning and a painting by George Luks.

The government values the prize item in its case, the Valsuani Degas bronze, at $1.7 million, citing a recent Hong Kong auction at which a similar statue sold for that amount. The government values the whole collection of art at around $2 million.

At Thursday's hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Kingsley said Alsup should accept the $1.7 million valuation for the Degas bronze. With it still missing and art experts unable to examine it, Kingsley said, the Hong Kong auction price is the best evidence of the statue's value.

He implied that the bronze sold in Hong Kong could have been the one Long sold to Brugnara.

Alsup said he thought the Hong Kong auction evidence was flimsy, and questioned whether the government was trying to "pump up the value of this stuff" to more than $1.5 million.

He said he was "inclined toward leniency" in his consideration of the art's value for sentencing.

"Half of the art is probably counterfeit. That gives me some pause. You brought a case where half of the art is probably counterfeit. That doesn't mean Mr. Brugnara is innocent, but put yourself in the position of the judge," Alsup said. "I'm not going to buy the argument that I should ignore loss, but I do think some leniency on loss is in order."

Boisseau also argued that Brugnara's mental health kept him from effectively representing himself during the two-week trial in May. The jury convicted him of two counts of wire fraud, one count of mail fraud, one count of making false declarations to the court, escape and contempt.

Brugnara briefly took it on the lam in February when he was taken from jail to meet with one of his earlier attorneys, Erik Babcock, who then pulled out of the case.

Boisseau said Brugnara, a delusional, possibly bipolar narcissist, had no control over his courtroom antics, which included frequent abusive tirades against prosecutors and bombastic falsehoods uttered in front of the jury.

"These are cognitive disorders. We'd all like to say he's just a liar. And yes, they are lies. But there's a reason why he says these things, and that's more important than what he said. He's not entirely in control of this. All of this was a fatal mix at trial for Mr. Brugnara," Boisseau said.

"We're trying to do justice for Mr. Brugnara, even if he was kind of his own worst enemy. I've dealt with Mr. Brugnara, so I can feel the court's pain, but we have to put that aside."

Alsup said he needed until next Wednesday, Oct. 14, to decide Brugnara's sentence, and that he will consider "all the lies Mr. Brugnara told throughout the case."

Alsup added: "I think it would be useful for us all to remember how dishonest Mr. Brugnara has been. He's a bully and a pathological liar, so all of these lies are going to stay in there."

The court is scheduled to hear testimony on Oct. 14 from a prison guard at the San Francisco County Jail who says Brugnara tried to bribe him with $2 million, and a prison nurse who claims Brugnara threatened his life.

Brugnara faces up to 20 years for each count of wire fraud, 20 years for mail fraud, 5 for perjury and 5 for escape.

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