Shenanigans Halt Art Fraudster’s Sentencing | Courthouse News Service
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Shenanigans Halt Art Fraudster’s Sentencing

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The sentencing of convicted fraudster Luke Brugnara was held up for the second time Tuesday, as a host of legal setbacks prompted a federal judge to say the case has "reached a new low."

New issues included Brugnara's renewed effort to drop his lawyers, claims of mental unfitness, and a prison nurse's accusation of death threats against his family.

"The inability to discuss anything rationally with Mr. Brugnara makes my job virtually impossible," Brugnara's court-appointed lawyer George Boisseau told U.S. District Judge William Alsup at Tuesday's scheduled sentencing.

"We've reached a new low in this case," an exasperated Alsup said. "The defendant and defense counsel are now accusing eachother of incompetence." Alsup quickly denied Boisseau's motion to order a psychiatric examination, saying Brugnara's disruptive behavior at a hearing last week - on which he believed Boisseau's motion was based - was "just one more in a string of outbursts."

Alsup turned to Brugnara and said, "What they're saying is you're the client from hell."

Brugnara was indicted in June 2014 after ordering and receiving what was alleged to be $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.

A jury convicted Brugnara in May 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 escaped from the San Francisco federal building before the trial when he was taken from jail to meet with his former attorney Erik Babcock.

The government has proposed a sentence of 149 months, plus 471 days for contempt Brugnara earned through frequent tantrums and abusive tirades during his trial where - acting as his own lawyer - he habitually defied the rules of court.

On Tuesday, Boisseau objected to the government's presentencing report, parts of which list Brugnara's previous threats against a deputy city attorney and a San Francisco fire inspector in another case against him, an old girlfriend with whom he has a child, and even his own brother.

Boisseau argued that part of the report should not be considered for sentencing, as it is based on "urban legends according to magazines and news articles."

He added, "None of these were ever prosecuted and it has a serious prejudicial effect."

Alsup denied the motion, saying Brugnara waived some of these magazines around in court. "He bragged about the articles himself, saying he was a famous guy. So I went and got these articles. I was taken aback by what was in them."

Smiling faintly, Alsup asked whether he should "get all the mistresses and have them testify that all that happened," even asking the government when it would be possible to get them into court.

He then said, "True, no one was ever convicted. But that's not a requirement. This is valuable information that helps show what a bully Mr. Brugnara is and how he conducts his commerce, and the extent to which he is willing to terrorize people to get his way."

Turning to the matter of restitution, Alsup said he had little sympathy for Brugnara's victims, New York art dealers Rose Long and Walter Maibaum, whom he believes greedily sold Brugnara a bundle of artwork worth far less than the $11 million selling price - particularly 16 paintings attributed to Willem de Koonings, the authenticity of which remains in dispute.

"It's possible they are authentic but there are things here that smell," Alsup told one of Maibaum's lawyers, asking why he hadn't turned over the check for $1.1 million the owners say they paid for the paintings.

"You think your guy is innocent?" Alsup scoffed. "Your client was trying to sell those to Mr. Brugnara for $7 million."

Alsup said the bill of sale submitted to the court proved nothing.

At Tuesday's hearing, Alsup also heard testimony from Christian Kitchin, a nurse at San Francisco County Jail who said on June 26 Brugnara threatened to have him and his family killed when he didn't give Brugnara pain medication for his shoulder.

"Luke was asking why I didn't give him pain medicine. He'd been badgering me for days," Kitchin said. When he told Brugnara that he could only give him the medication if it was prescribed by a doctor, Brugnara began to threaten him.

"Basically the gist is with one phone call he could have me killed, that my life meant nothing and I was just a peon. He said he could have me or my family killed and he snapped his fingers," Kitchin said.

Alsup said he wanted to hear from Brugnara's witnesses, so the sentencing was rescheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 20.

"Part of what the sentencing judge has to do is consider future offending conduct," Alsup said. "If it's true, it's relevant."

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