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Ex-Millionaire's Sentence for Fraud Upheld

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Where to begin the story of Luke Brugnara, the former real estate mogul turned art con...

His criminal spiral downward began sometime in 2014. His sentence will not be over until about 2022. Perhaps the best place to start is in the middle of his case, when the judge granted him a furlough to meet with his attorneys at the courthouse.

Brugnara ran -- literally. He fled on foot and evaded capture for several days. During the course of the trial, the judge held him in contempt dozens of times. It was a trial of the justice system as much as a trial of the defendant.

Judge, Jurors, and Nazis

Brugnara, 52 at the time of his sentencing in 2015, was once a real estate tycoon worth hundreds of millions of dollars due to some smart investments after the savings and loan crisis. But "Lucky Luke," as he was known around San Francisco, ran out of luck when he tried to scam an art dealer.

In 2014, he offered to purchase several million dollars worth of artwork from a New York dealer. The only problem was, the court said, Brugnara didn't have the money.

At trial on charges of wire fraud, mail fraud, and false declaration before a court, Brugnara strained the system to its limits. After his escape during pre-trial proceedings, he said his lawyer authorized it. No lawyer wanted to represent him after that, so he represented himself.

"From the moment his trial began, Brugnara's behavior could be described as appalling," the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said.

For example, he told the government's attorney that she dressed "like a Nazi" and suggested that the judge hand the prosecutor his robe because she was running the courtroom. During cross-examination, he asked one witness if her cognitive abilities were impaired. He even demeaned a probation officer as unqualified for her job.

Add 471 Days for Contempt

On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, Brugnara blamed everybody in the courtroom -- the judge, the attorneys, the jurors -- for his conviction. Having represented himself for much of the proceedings, however, he had only himself to blame in the end.

"Every time the district court gave Brugnara any leeway, he took it and ran with it -- literally, on one occasion," the appeals court said. "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."

If the drama weren't high enough already, two jurors revealed that they had lied during voir dire about their own criminal convictions. One juror, during an inquiry by the judge, protested and brandished his shoe as if it were a weapon.

On appeal, Brugnara cited every irregularity in the proceedings. "But Brugnara's bombastic journey through the courts ends here, because none of his arguments persuades us to reverse the jury's verdict," the court said.

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