June 20, 2021

Accused art thief captured after giving his attorney the slip

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Brugnara_Luke-Article-201502111836By Ross Todd, From The Recorder

The Feds have had quite a few labels for disgraced San Francisco real estate mogul Luke Brugnara.

On Wednesday, they added one more: Captured.

Brugnara, whose brazen escape from the San Francisco federal courthouse last week had the white-collar bar abuzz, was arrested Wednesday morning in Los Gatos.

“Luck runs out for Luke Brugnara, fugitive escapee,” the U.S. Marshal’s Service announced in a press release.

The 51-year-old slipped out of the Phillip Burton Federal Building last Thursday when he was supposed to be meeting with his lawyer, Oakland solo practitioner Erik Babcock, to prepare for trial. The disappearance, reported by Babcock, set off a furious six-day hunt ending at a Los Gatos apartment complex.

Brugnara, 51, was convicted in 2010 of failing to pay taxes on $45 million in sales of commercial properties in downtown San Francisco and Las Vegas and of using a private dam on his 112-acre Gilroy property to poach steelhead trout.

Federal prosecutors’ latest case against Brugnara accuses him of a brazen con. Brugnara, they claim, accepted a shipment of $11 million worth of art, including a $3 million Edgar Degas sculpture and a group of Pablo Picasso etchings, that he didn’t intend to pay for. The case was set for trial later this month before U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California, who previously sentenced Brugnara to 30 months for tax evasion.

Brugnara’s escape had to irk Alsup, who had signed off on an unusual furlough order late last year over the objection of federal prosecutors. The arrangement allowed Brugnara to leave the Glenn Dyer jail in Alameda County to prepare for trial in the attorney’s lounge at the federal courthouse. Under the order, Brugnara was allowed to change out of his prison uniform into street clothes provided by his family, then leave the marshals’ custody to meet with Babcock.

Brugnara’s lead prosecutor, William “Doug” Sprague, now a partner at Covington & Burling, protested the furlough, writing at the time, “Even with the most stringent possible conditions, defendant will find a way to violate this court’s order, as he had done again and again in the past.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Marshal’s in the Northern District said that he hadn’t seen an arrangement like Brugnara’s before in his five years with the service. Neither had Alan Ellis, a Marin County lawyer specializing in criminal sentencing issues. Ellis called the furlough arrangement, which left Brugnara in the custody of his lawyer, “very unusual.”

“If I were the lawyer,” Ellis said, “I wouldn’t have accepted [that arrangement].” Especially with a repeat offender, he said.

According to prosecutors, Brugnara’s word hasn’t proven especially trustworthy in the past.

In his latest fight with the Feds, Brugnara faces charges that he convinced an East Coast art dealer and her associate to ship him five crates of art, including the works by Degas and Picasso and a collection of valuable paintings by Willem de Kooning, a Dutch American expressionist. According to the government, Brugnara never intended to pay for it. The art had been shipped to him as “a gift,” Brugnara claimed when confronted by the seller. The government says it has seized four of the crates, but a fifth containing the Degas has gone missing.

Since his arrest last May, Brugnara has had more than 15 different detention hearings with Alsup and magistrate judges in the Northern District.

It is rare for white-collar defendants to face pretrial detention, but Brugnara was still on supervised release from his tax conviction when the government filed its charges in 2014. The burden was on him to show that he wasn’t a threat to the community.

On that front, Brugnara hasn’t done himself any favors. During court appearances he’s repeatedly launched into diatribes about how the government is out to get him, talking over his lawyer and blurting out comments that often border on perjury, according to court filings.

The current indictment against Brugnara includes two charges for making false declarations before the court. Meanwhile, lawyers in the Federal Public Defenders office, who previously represented Brugnara in the art case, have been conflicted out of the representation by things Brugnara has said during the outbursts.

Court filings from federal prosecutors include a list of people who’ve gotten restraining orders against Brugnara, including his own brother.

In an order late last year, Alsup included a caution for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which might be asked to review the case. “If there is an appeal, the appellate judges may be taken aback by the accused’s many outbursts complaining about his attorney and/or others and may wonder whether the accused was denied effective assistance of counsel or was otherwise mistreated,” he wrote. “Please, in that event, be mindful that the accused has a history and pattern of making exaggerated, untrue, and groundless complaints … and please be aware of the many times judges on this district court have heard evidence to determine the extent to which his grievances have any merit.”

Three days later, on Dec. 22, Alsup approved Brugnara’s furlough procedures. Under the order, Babcock was responsible for keeping track of Brugnara during the meetings. Babcock was required to physically escort Brugnara from the lock-up to the attorney’s lounge during furlough sessions and to keep Brugnara in sight at all times.

“Counsel shall undertake these responsibilities at their own risk,” Alsup wrote, “being on notice of the accused’s outbursts and tantrums.”

Babcock didn’t respond to multiple phone messages.

IMAGE: Luke Brugnara SAN FRANCISCO — Tax evader. Poacher. Art thief.

For more on this story go to: http://www.therecorder.com/id=1202717720754/Accused-Art-Thief-Captured-After-Giving-His-Attorney-the-Slip-#ixzz3RXTCf9C5


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