A federal appeals court upheld the $11 million art fraud conviction and seven year prison term of real estate investor Luke Brugnara, who escaped from a San Francisco federal courthouse for six days during his prosecution.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday affirmed the jury convictions on charges of wire fraud, mail fraud and escape. In addition, Brugnara, was cited repeatedly for contempt in the course of his trial and 15 months added to his sentence for contempt. The contempt citations were also upheld.
Brugnara, 53, ordered five crates of artworks in 2014, worth $11 million, from an art dealer, according to prosecutors. Brugnara told the dealer he planned to build a museum to house the works, but then refused to pay for them. He claimed he had been given the art as a gift, which included the famous Edgar Degas bronze sculpture, “Little Dancer.”
The $3 million Degas sculpture remains missing, the curt said. All the remaining art was recovered.
Brugnara’s escape and later capture added turmoil to the case when he asserted his lawyer “green-lighted” the escape, the court said. His lawyer withdrew from the case and Brugnara defended himself.
“From the moment his trial began, Brugnara’s behavior could be described as appalling,” wrote Judge Clifford Wallace. Wallace said U.S. District Judge William Alsup attempted to manage the trial the best he could and cited Brugnara for contempt.
Brugnara appealed seeking a new trial based on allegedly newly discovered evidence. One of his claims is that several of the works of art were worthless before and during the trial. Wallace rejected the assertion that he is entitled to a new trial.
Down the line, the panel rejected Brugnara’s claims that he was entitled to competence hearing, that he has denied appropriate legal records and that jury abuse occurred.
“Every time the district court gave Brugnara any leeway, he took it and ran with it – literally, on one occasion,” Wallace 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.”
“Brugnara’s bombastic journey through the courts ends here, because none of his arguments persuades us to reverse the jury’s verdict,” he said.
Wallace was joined by Judges Milan Smith and Ralph Erickson, a visiting judge from North Dakota.
Case: U.S. v. Brugnara, No. 15-10509.