Helper in Brugnara Escape Takes the 5th

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Proceedings in the mail and wire fraud trial of formerly successful real estate investor Luke Brugnara took an unexpected turn Thursday when Abidja Record, a nurse who sheltered Brugnara when he was on the lam, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights at the start of her cross-examination.
     “Isn’t it true that you met Mr. Brugnara on an online dating site?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Harris had just asked.
     “I will not answer because of the civil rights abuses that have taken place under your care,” Record said.
     Record was dismissed from the stand and returned later with a court-appointed attorney. U.S. District Judge William Alsup was incensed that Abidja testified at length the day before as to Brugnara’s medical condition when she picked him up, then decided she would not answer any questions when the government’s turn came.
     “I don’t see how she can take that position when she has already testified yesterday,” Alsup said. “She’s already given a lot of testimony. You can’t just say I’m going to testify for one side.”
     Brugnara is 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 Record.
     Alsup said Harris should be allowed to cross-examine Record about her relationship with Brugnara, as he insisted that they were good friends.
     “She said they were friends. Brugnara said good friends and she said just friends. The jury is entitled to know what that means,” Alsup said, adding that he may strike her entire testimony if she refuses to take the stand on Friday.
     Brugnara is representing himself against the U.S. government for allegedly conning New York art dealer Rose Long out of $11 million in fine art, including a Edgar Degas sculpture called “The Little Dancer, Age Fourteen” that remains missing.
     On Thursday, he landed in more hot water with Alsup when he said he intended to prove that the sculpture, cast in the Valsuani Foundry in Chevreuse, France, is virtually worthless. Alsup however, has repeatedly admonished Brugnara that he cannot use Long’s alleged fraud against him as a defense.
     Though Long told Brugnara that the sculpture was a Valsuani bronze, not the original Degas sculpture, Brugnara tried on Thursday to tell the jury there was no difference between a Valsuani bronze cast from the original “Little Dancer” mold, and a $150 souvenir from a museum store.
     Alsup was livid. Though he rarely raises his voice – even with such an unmanageable defendant – he practically shouted, “You knew it was a Valsuani. And you’re a sophisticated guy. If they wanted to charge you ten times what it’s worth, you think that’s fraud? Never! That’s the American way of life.”
     On Thursday, Brugnara used past business associates to establish his creditworthiness to the jury, as one of his defenses has been that despite his lack of money, income or employment in 2014, he could have borrowed the $11 million to pay Long.
     But his examination of commercial realtor Tony Crossley did little to help him. Crossley, executive vice president of prominent real estate company Colliers International, testified about decades-old business deals he made with Brugnara on pricey commercial buildings.
     Brugnara, in his usual style of making statements and asking witnesses to affirm them, at one point asked Crossley a convoluted question about how much rent he made on those buildings years ago, prompting Harris to object.
     “Leading and unintelligible,” she said.
     “Unintelligible for you because you don’t understand anything about business,” Brugnara snapped, leaning toward Harris and pointing at her.
     Alsup questioned its relevance.
     “It goes to who I am and my ability to conduct business. You were a judge in the 90s, that affects you today,” Brugnara answered.
     Alsup said later, out of earshot of the jury, that he may add more time to Brugnara’s contempt sentence for his remark about Harris.
     “What’s wrong with that? It’s a factual statement,” Brugnara said.
     It’s denigrating to the U.S. Attorney. You’re in big trouble on this,” Alsup said.
     Brugnara explained that he didn’t know what unintelligible meant as a legal term, and was insulted by the objection.
     “See, I learned something new today,” he said.
     Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben Kingsley added, “You’ve also attacked me in this case. You said I didn’t pass high school math in front of the jury.”
     Brugnara shot back: “No, I said you didn’t pass high school calculus and it was a joke. At 50 years old, I can’t change who I am. And it’s made a lot of people a lot of money.”
     “That was then, this is now,” Alsup said. “It’s 2015.”
     On deck to testify Friday is Brugnara’s civil attorney Robert Kane. Kane, who waited in the hallway for the better part of Thursday morning, did not testify on Thursday because Brugnara said he didn’t have the paperwork he needed to question him.
     But Alsup suspected some shady dealings were afoot, specifically that Brugnara and Kane would meet to work out some financial contract regarding a purchase of property in Las Vegas to somehow prove to the jury that Brugnara had a museum in Las Vegas where he intended to display the artwork.
     This has been a disputed point in the case, as prosecutors have already shown that Brugnara could not finance a museum with his current credit standing.
     Alsup said he would allow Kane to testify on Friday, but said, “I’m highly suspicious.”

%d bloggers like this: