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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Tycoon Brugnara Gets 7 Years for Art Swindle

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced former commercial real estate tycoon Luke Brugnara to seven years in prison for defrauding a New York art dealer, triggering the convicted swindler's final courtroom tirade against the government.

"This is a travesty of justice because I'm innocent. I'm not a thief," he shouted, adding that the jury had been "fed lies by the U.S. attorneys."

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 Brugnara said he was planning to build in San Francisco.

When art dealer Rose Long demanded payment after shipping the art in five crates to Brugnara's home, Brugnara claimed the art was a gift.

The Degas remains missing, though FBI agents 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.

"I have never heard him accept responsibility for his actions. He defended everything he did," U.S. District Judge William Alsup said, pointing to Brugnara's rambling two-hour-long allocution where he maintained that the Degas had "never left the truck" - implying that it was stolen by the deliveryman.

Alsup noted that Brugnara had previously posited two other theories: that the Degas had never been shipped, which prosecutors disproved at trial, and that it had been delivered to his garage where workmen mistook the crate containing the Degas for a toilet and stole it.

"The evidence is pretty clear it was delivered, and that Mr. Brugnara has it hidden away somewhere," Alsup said.

In May, a jury convicted Brugnara of two counts of wire fraud, one count of mail fraud, one count of making false declarations to the court, escape and contempt. Brugnara had briefly escaped from the San Francisco federal building before he was convicted, while on a furlough that allowed him to be escorted from jail to meet with his former attorney Erik Babcock.

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

"The best way to describe him is an economic catastrophe to the country," Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Kingsley argued.

"But aren't there white-collar criminals who commit securities fraud and don't even get prosecuted?" Alsup asked.

In response, Kingsley pointed to Brugnara's two previous convictions in 2010 for filing false tax returns and poaching endangered steelhead trout. "The defendant knew what he was doing," Kingsley said, adding that Brugnara "stole the most valuable piece of art."

Brugnara's post-trial lawyer George Boisseau said Brugnara could not control his actions because of his untreated bipolar disorder, delusions and narcissism. "You have to look at in the context of his mental illness. He cannot accept responsibility when that challenges his perception of himself," he said.

Alsup called Boisseau's explanation "cold comfort," and said he doubted Brugnara would submit to any kind of court-imposed treatment plan.

Boisseau recommended that Brugnara be sentenced to 30 months, given his mental health issues and the conduct of Long and fellow art dealer Walter Maibaum.

"A lot of things came up after trial that we discovered for the first time," Boisseau said, specifically that the 16 paintings attributed to de Kooning are actually counterfeit. The owners dispute that contention, and filed through their attorney copies of wire transfers showing they paid over $1 million for the works.

Alsup said he believes the paintings are fake, but that any fraud Brugnara claims Long and Maibaum may have perpetrated on him did not excuse his own conduct. He ordered $600,000 in restitution for the Degas and roughly $88,000 in total attorneys' fees for Maibaum and Long.

"Every single item of art will eventually be returned," Alsup said, but ordered no additional restitution payments. "It's their own fault for dealing with Mr. Brugnara in the first place," he said.

Alsup also had some words for Brugnara's mother, wife and daughter, who were seated in the gallery.

"I want to thank the family for being here. This must be the hardest thing you've had to go through in your life," he said. "No family should ever have to go through this."

After hearing that he would be sentenced to 69 months in prison plus 15 months for contempt, Brugnara's face turned red, and he took a long drink of water from a paper cup. During his lengthy allocution, Brugnara had maintained that he was the one being swindled with fake, worthless art, and that the government had been eager to prosecute him because of the tax case."I'm not a con man, Maibaum's a con man," Brugnara said. "He's got five of these Little Dancers in his closet because no one wants them."

"I'm a victim. My family is the main victim," he added, pointing at Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Harris. "Look at her smiling. They wonder why I'm an asshole. They're taking my tax dollars and using it against me."

Both sides declined to comment after the sentencing.

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