Ninth Circuit Upholds Art Thief’s Seven-Year Sentence

Edgar Degas Little Dancer sculpture

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) –  Former real estate mogul turned art con Luke Brugnara will serve out his seven-year federal prison sentence for scamming a New York dealer out of $11 million in fine art after the Ninth Circuit denied his request for a new trial Thursday.

Brugnara was indicted in June 2014 after ordering and receiving an Edgar Degas “Little Dancer” sculpture cast in bronze by the Valsuani foundry for an art museum he claimed to be building in San Francisco.

When art dealer Rose Long demanded payment after shipping the sculpture to Brugnara’s home, along with additional art in five crates, Brugnara said the art was a gift.

The Degas remains missing, although FBI agents have recovered a drawing by Joan Miró, a series of etchings by Pablo Picasso, 16 paintings attributed to Willem de Kooning and a painting by George Luks.

“Every time the district court gave Brugnara any leeway, he took it and ran with it—literally, on one occasion,” U.S. Circuit Judge J. Clifford Wallace wrote for the panel. Wallace was referring to a February 2015 incident in which Brugnara absconded from the San Francisco Federal Building after a meeting with his former court-appointed attorney, Erik Babcock. Brugnara was at large for six days before being captured.

Brugnara later gave Babcock the boot, against U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s repeated advice, and chose to represent himself.

Acting as his own lawyer at trial, Brugnara badgered witnesses, interrupted proceedings for verbal sparring matches with Alsup and federal prosecutors, and was held in contempt multiple times for attempting to sneak in evidence that had been declared inadmissible.

The crux of Brugnara’s defense was that Long was trying all along to scam him with fake art.

The Ninth Circuit judges didn’t buy it, finding that Brugnara’s unscrupulous behavior proved he had schemed to obtain the art without paying for it. The panel pointed to at least two false representations Brugnara made about his intent to buy the art and put it in a museum, along with his refusal to pay for shipping or even open the crates after they arrived at his San Francisco mansion.

Brugnara continued to assert that the art was a gift.

“This is more than enough evidence from which the jury could have found rationally that Brugnara had the specific intent to defraud,” Wallace wrote in the court’s 31-page opinion.

The judges were likewise unconvinced that his trial had been unfair.

At oral arguments in January, Brugnara’s court-appointed attorney Dena Young had contended that Alsup should not have allowed Brugnara’s trial to continue, since it was clear that he could not control his outrageous courtroom behavior and was thus incapable of representing himself.

But in the court’s ruling, Wallace pointed out that criminal defendants have the constitutional right to self-representation.

“A defendant cannot be denied his right to self-representation just because he may defend himself poorly or inadequately,” Wallace wrote. “Brugnara’s position—that the district court should have stepped in to protect him from his own poor judgment—is antithetical to this reasoning. Boorish and rebellious behavior is precisely what the Supreme Court had in mind when it prohibited pro se defendants from seeking reversals of their convictions on the basis of their own errors.”

Wallace added, “He turned what should have been a regular fraud prosecution into a sideshow by upbraiding witnesses, disparaging the judge and government attorneys, and constantly violating basic rules of evidence and procedure, all the while feigning ignorance of proper conduct. Now he points to several alleged errors—largely of his own making—and urges us to vacate his convictions. But Brugnara’s bombastic journey through the courts ends here, because none of his arguments persuades us to reverse the jury’s verdict. He received a fair trial, and there is enough evidence to support his convictions.”

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