James Nassida and his now-deceased sister, Janna, were charged with orchestrating a complex fraud scheme.
Federal prosecutors contend that when Nassida was president of Century III Home Equity in the South Hills suburbs, and while his sister was a loan officer, they inflated borrowers’ incomes and assets and used fake property appraisals to fool lenders into giving clients millions of dollars in fraudulent mortgage loans.
Nassida’s firm then received fees for the loans — as many as 700 a year – which Nassida allegedly spent on a house worth $1.3 million, a ski resort vacation home and luxury cars.
But when the case went to trial in October 2016, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cindy Chung notified U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose that Nassida’s attorney, Stanton Levenson, had slept through portions of the trial.
Levenson acknowledged to the press that he fell asleep because he was taking cold medicines that made him drowsy. At a post-trial hearing in April, he asked for a mistrial because of his poorly timed nap.
Judge Ambrose initially refused to grant the request, preferring instead to see what verdict the jury returned.
But when the jury convicted Nassida, Judge Ambrose questioned the jurors under oath. They all acknowledged either seeing Levenson sleeping or discussing it with each other.
On Monday, Ambrose granted Nassida a new trial.
“I find that these facts are sufficiently ‘extraordinary and egregious’ to justify a presumption of prejudice,” she said in her 10-page order.
Ambrose added that Levenson “was not functioning as counsel during a substantial portion of Mr. Nassida’s trial, thus violating Defendant Nassida’s Sixth Amendment rights.”
Nassida’s new attorney, James Brink of Pittsburg, was pleased with Ambrose’s ruling. “The judge’s decision was fair and very well-reasoned,” he said in an interview. “It was a very good opinion. She really did the right thing.”
Despite his website stating that clients can call “24 hours a day,” Levenson’s number went straight to voicemail when Courthouse News attempted to reach him for comment.
Janna Nassida committed suicide in November 2016 while awaiting sentencing.
James Nassida’s new trial is set for Sept. 5.