Philly politico Renee Tartaglione guilty on all charges

Renee Tartaglione leaves the federal courthouse in Philadelphia with her attorney William A. DeStefano after she was convicted on all 53 counts of conspiracy, theft, fraud and tax evasion.

Philadelphia politico Renee Tartaglione was convicted Friday on all 53 counts of conspiracy, theft, fraud, and tax evasion in a scheme in which prosecutors alleged she fleeced $1 million from a Fairhill mental health clinic of which she was both president and landlord.

A federal jury of six men and six women deliberated for just about four hours before returning its quick verdicts.

When the forewoman read the first verdict, Tartaglione — dressed in a gray suit and black shirt, her hair pulled back tightly in a bun — furrowed her forehead, looked down at the defense table, and wrote something down. She did so for many of the counts.

After the verdicts were read, one of her two attorneys, William A. DeStefano, quietly spoke to her, and for a moment, Tartaglione’s stoic facial expression broke. She appeared concerned and almost teary-eyed.

U.S. District Judge Joel H. Slomsky said he would set a sentencing date next week. Tartaglione is free on bail.

Afterward, Tartaglione was asked if she would like to comment, but she said she wanted to first call her husband, Carlos Matos, who was not in the courtroom for the verdicts. After the call, when asked again to comment while riding in an elevator, she turned her face away without uttering a word.

DeStefano said he planned to appeal. “We have not given up pursuing her defense,” he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben, who prosecuted the case with Peter Halpern of the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, said of the convictions: “It sends a very important message to the people on the board of a nonprofit corporation that they should not be benefiting at the expense of the nonprofit.”

Witzleben said she does not yet know what prosecutors will ask for in terms of a sentence, and said the sentencing guidelines need to be calculated.

Tartaglione, 61, scion of a prominent Democratic political family, was indicted last year.

She was charged with siphoning $1 million from the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic between 2007 and 2012 through a pattern of self-dealing.

Tartaglione was president of the clinic’s board of directors and was the sole owner of Norris Hancock, the company that owned the clinic’s building at 2637 N. Fifth St.

During the trial, which began May 24, prosecutors said that as landlord, Tartaglione charged the clinic exorbitant rent, and that as president of the board, she ensured that the rent was approved.

Tartaglione was also accused of running a kickback scheme in which two clinic employees, Sandy Acosta, a co-founder and administrator, and her daughter, Leslie, a contract analyst between 2007 and 2012, received supplemental paychecks, cashed them, and turned over the money to Tartaglione so she could avoid paying taxes.

Both Acostas pleaded guilty to charges involving the scheme and testified against Tartaglione for the prosecution.

For Leslie Acosta, who had won election to the state House from the 197th District in which the clinic was located, the guilty plea wound up costing her that seat.

The plea agreement was sealed pending trial but was disclosed in an article last September by the Inquirer and Daily News. In January, as Acosta was being sworn in for a second term, legislative leaders forced her to resign.

Tartaglione and Matos founded the clinic, which was first housed at 2254 N. Third St. in North Philadelphia, in 2002.

She is the daughter of former city elections chief Margaret Tartaglione and sister of State Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione (D., Phila.).

Until 2010, Renee Tartaglione worked for her mother in the city elections office. She was forced to resign after the Board of Ethics accused her of breaking rules barring politicking by city employees.

They alleged that she ran the city’s Democratic 19th Ward in Kensington while Matos, who was the longtime ward leader, served a federal prison sentence for bribing three Atlantic City councilmen.

In her closing argument on Thursday, Witzleben tried to combine the advantages of directing a nonprofit with the personal gain of running a for-profit company.

“When you’re a nonprofit, you need to avoid self-dealing,” Witzleben said. “You need to avoid even the appearance that they are shearing the sheep they’re supposed to protect.”

One trial witness, a real estate expert, testified that Tartaglione charged the clinic $75,000 a month rent for 16,000 square feet spread over five of the six floors in the Fifth Street building in poor, drug-plagued Fairhill. That was more than landlords charged for “A-class trophy buildings” in Center City, he said.

DeStefano, who defended Tartaglione with attorney Terri Pawelski, told the jury that it was up to the tenant to decide if rent was too high and that decision was highly subjective.

“It’s no crime to raise the rent,” DeStefano told the jury in his closing. “There’s nothing wrong with telling the tenant that conditions changed and you’re going to have to pay more rent.”

DeStefano spent much of his closing attacking the credibility of the two key government witnesses. He told the jury that the Acostas, who are awaiting sentencing, had forged the checks and stolen the money for themselves.

DeStefano said there was no independent evidence corroborating the kickbacks to Tartaglione and called the Acostas’ testimony “ridiculous” and “unworthy of your belief.”

The jury began deliberations Friday morning and asked to see a few exhibits again, including charts. It said it had reached verdicts just after the lunch break.

“We’re really gratified that the jury did such a thorough job, and was able to see through and bring justice on behalf of the people,” Witzleben said, referring to those in the North Philadelphia community “who should have been benefiting from the mental health clinic.”

Acting U.S. Attorney Louis Lappen said in a statement: “Tartaglione’s crimes against the Juniata Mental Health Clinic are unfortunate examples of how those in control of nonprofits can abuse them for their personal enrichment. Her fraudulent scheme did serious damage to the community she was supposed to serve, denying mental health services to economically disadvantaged people.”