Renee Tartaglione pleads not guilty to federal fraud charges

Philadelphia's former chief elections deputy, Renee Tartaglione, leaves federal court with her husband, Carlos Matos.

Facing federal charges for allegedly bilking a nonprofit clinic out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Renee Tartaglione - a member of one of the city's best-known political families - showed no sign Thursday that she was worried.

In federal court for a brief arraignment hearing, Tartaglione, 60, pleaded not guilty to 53 counts including conspiracy and fraud.

"I'm feeling good. I'm feeling confident," she said as she left the Market Street courthouse afterward with her husband, Democratic ward leader Carlos Matos.

Both have weathered past run-ins with controversy. Her forced smile seemed to say that this, too, her family would survive.

Her lawyer, William DiStefano, was even more optimistic about his client's chances in court.

"We've reviewed the indictment microscopically," he said. "From what we've been able to initially determine, the allegations are tissue-thin."

Federal authorities believe they have pinned Tartaglione - daughter of former elections chief Margaret Tartaglione and sister of State Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione (D., Phila.) - at the heart of an elaborate fraud.

For years, she served as board president of the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic, which held city contracts to provide mental-health and substance-abuse services to Medicaid recipients.

In an indictment unsealed last month, prosecutors alleged she treated the nonprofit as a personal slush fund, siphoning off its government funding to line her pockets at the expense of low-income patients.

Between 2007 and 2012, Tartaglione bought up buildings the nonprofit used in the poverty-stricken Fairhill neighborhood of North Philadelphia and allegedly raised the monthly rents nearly 1,500 percent.

According to the indictment, the Juniata clinic was paying $4,800 a month before Tartaglione took over. By 2012, prosecutors say, its monthly rent had shot to $75,000.

All the while, authorities allege, she stacked the clinic's board with cronies and yes-men, and was issuing Juniata checks to employees for services they never provided with the understanding they would cash them and return the money to her.

Tartaglione's tenure at the clinic's helm came at a tumultuous time for her family. She became board president in 2007, the same year her husband was sentenced to a three-year stint in federal prison for bribing three Atlantic City councilmen.

Three years later, Tartaglione was forced to resign as her mother's chief elections deputy, for breaking rules barring politicking by city employees. The allegation that drove her out was that she was managing Matos' Democratic 19th Ward in Kensington while he was behind bars.

After his release, Matos also had a role at the Juniata clinic, though he has not been charged in his wife's federal case. He worked as a counselor even as he received mental-health treatment there while on federal probation.

DiStefano, however, said Thursday that he didn't see much illegal in anything the government had alleged.

"She was their landlord and she raised the rent," he said. "There's nothing illegal about that."

jroebuck@phillynews.com215-854-2608

@jeremyrroebuck