Renee Tartaglione, scion of one of Philadelphia’s most enduring political dynasties, was sentenced Thursday to six years and 10 months in federal prison for bleeding more than $2 million from a publicly funded mental health and substance abuse clinic she ran with her husband, a Democratic ward leader and a felon.
U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky scolded Tartaglione, 63, who sat at the defense table with her arms crossed and her jaw grinding on gum as he prepared to announce the punishment.
“It happens too often that people who learn how the system operates, and realize the dollars involved in government, abuse the process and feel like they have some right,” he said.
Still, the judge credited Tartaglione for the charity she had shown others for decades in her North Philadelphia neighborhood – one of the city’s poorest and hardest-hit by the opioid epidemic – even as she pocketed hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars meant to improve it. The sentence Slomsky imposed, which also included more than $5.4 million in financial penalties, was less than that suggested by federal sentencing guidelines for her crimes.
For her part, Tartaglione – a longtime city employee who served as deputy to her mother, Margaret, the tough-as-nails former city elections chief – struck an uncharacteristically conciliatory tone.
“I think I’ve always tried to be a good person. … I think I’ve always tried to put others before myself,” she told the judge. “I am broken inside because of all of this, and I remain deeply sorry.”
It took only a few hours last year for a federal jury to convict her of 53 counts including conspiracy, theft, fraud, and tax evasion for turning the nonprofit she founded with her husband, Carlos Matos, in Fairhill – the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic – into a personal slush fund.
Between 2007 and 2012, prosecutors said, she spent the thousands she stole on flowers, a speedboat, and pricey renovations to her North Philadelphia home and a second house at the New Jersey Shore, including $14,000 on curtains and blinds.
All the while, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben said Thursday, the clinic was receiving public money to treat patients in a part of the city drowning in the scourges of poverty and drug abuse.
“The defendant, who came from a relatively privileged background, sought to gain control of a mental health clinic in one of the poorest neighborhoods in our city and then systematically looted it,” Witzleben said. “By stealing from the clinic, she put her own selfish desires ahead of the needs of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.”
Still, some of the clinic’s former patients attested at a hearing last month that they received quality care there that forever improved their lives.
“There are countless examples of Ms. Tartaglione helping children get school supplies and food, helping families pay rent when they need it, helping families get turkeys at Thanksgiving and coats for the winter,” her lawyer Terri Pawelski said. “She has led a good life. She has led a life of helping people. She pulled money out of her pocket and helped people when they needed it.”
Tartaglione’s case pitted her family of political heavyweights against another North Philadelphia political clan – the Acostas – that claims two former state representatives among its ranks.
One of them – former State Rep. Leslie Acosta – unceremoniously resigned amid pressure from her colleagues in 2016 after she agreed to testify against Tartaglione and secretly pleaded guilty to felony crimes tied to her work at the Juniata facility.
She was sentenced last week to seven months in prison. Her mother, Sandy – a former North Philadelphia ward leader and onetime wife of former State Rep. Ralph Acosta – also turned government witness and is expected to be sentenced later this month.
Although little mention was made in court Thursday of those political underpinnings, it was impossible to separate them from the investigation that led to Tartaglione’s incarceration – and the pleas she made to Slomsky for leniency.
Pawelski and her co-counsel, William DeStefano, described Tartaglione as the primary caregiver to several ailing family members who would be lost without her care. They painted the Tartaglione clan, which once held an iron grip on its corner of the city’s Democratic machine, as a family now tottering toward death’s door.
Renee’s mother, Margaret, served as the brassy arbiter atop the city’s election machinery for 36 years as chairperson of the Board of City Commissioners. Now 85, she’s suffering from cancer and living in her daughter’s home, defense lawyers said in court papers.
The same documents portrayed State Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione – running for reelection in her Northeast Philadelphia district – as an “invalid,” using a wheelchair after a 2003 boating accident and almost completely reliant on her sister’s care.
They painted Matos – a Democratic ward leader identified in court papers as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in his wife’s case – as “wayward and not too healthy,” still grappling with the aftereffects of a 2017 stroke.
It was during another period in which Matos was incapacitated that Renee Tartaglione’s crimes at the Juniata clinic began.
While Matos was serving a three-year federal prison sentence for a 2007 conviction for bribes he paid to three Atlantic City councilmen in an unrelated case, Tartaglione assumed control of Juniata and quickly stacked the board with cronies to help her turn it into a source of income while her husband was away. Sandy Acosta, a longtime family friend, managed day-to-day operations.
Acosta, daughter Leslie, and a third employee all accepted checks worth thousands of dollars from the clinic for work they did not perform. They kicked the money back to Tartaglione even as she also was charging exorbitant rents – as high as five times the fair market value – after moving the nonprofit into buildings she owned.
The judge sought to recover some of those missing funds with his sentence Thursday, ordering Tartaglione to forfeit her interest in two Shore houses in Ventnor and Margate, and buildings that used to house the Juniata clinic in Fairhill, as well as to pay $2.76 million into a fund that will be distributed to nonprofits with aims similar to those of the one she once ran.
At a hearing in the case last month, Matos blamed the Acostas and others for the fate his wife now faces.
“This woman has never been in trouble her whole life,” he said of his wife. “When I went to jail, I trusted the people who were working for us, and I trusted them to take care of my wife. Incarcerating my wife now is cruel and unusual punishment.”