She remains free for now but Buckingham socialite and Bucks County Republican fundraiser Claire Risoldi may soon see the inside of a jail cell.
In a case that originated with a 47-page Grand Jury Presentment and took more than five years to adjudicate, Risoldi, 71, was found guilty Feb. 5 in a Bucks County courthouse of six of nine charges related to insurance fraud.
A jury found Risoldi guilty of insurance fraud (two counts), dealing in unlawful proceeds, theft by deception, criminal attempted theft by deception and conspiracy related to insurance claims she reported after a 2013 fire at Clairemont, the name of her $1.3 million, 10-acre estate which sits in tax arears, uninhabited, charred and tarped over in the 5700 block of Stony Hill Road.
“Any Pennsylvanian with insurance is hurt by this type of theft – it inflates rates and causes all of us to pay more,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in an official statement.
“This defendant was focused on herself and her excessive lifestyle, so much so that she broke the law and defrauded an insurance company out of millions of dollars.”
Risoldi was found not guilty of three counts of receiving stolen property regarding claims from earlier fires or burglary reports at her residence.
While she has maintained her innocence, Risoldi, who was represented by Philadelphia attorney Jack McMahon, is facing up to 60 years in prison. Sentencing must take place between 60 and 90 days after the verdict.
Her son, Carl Risoldi, 47, of Doylestown, who is also charged in connection with the same case and testified in his mother’s defense, is set to go to trial in March.
The Risoldi family’s legal troubles began in January 2015 after insurer AIG investigated claims surrounding fires that occurred at Clairemont in 2009, 2010 and 2013.
AIG says it paid out more than $20 million for the earlier fires and that Claire Risoldi filed $20 million more in losses in connection with the last fire that occurred in October 2013, a blaze in which the matriarch accused Buckingham Township firefighters of stealing more than $10 million in jewelry.
When charges were first levied against Claire, four family members and two others, the court authorized the seizure of insurance proceeds and assets purchased with insurance proceeds totaling in excess of $5 million. The assets included approximately $1.5 million in bank accounts, six Ferraris, three Rolls Royces, one Ford Shelby GT, and five other vehicles worth approximately $2.8 million. Several parcels of real property, valued at over $2 million, were also restrained pending completion of the criminal case.
Because of Claire’s connections to Bucks County politics (campaign records say she’s donated more than $20,000 to local candidates), then county District Attorney David Heckler recused himself from the case and President Judge Jeffrey Finley asked for a judge from outside Bucks County to preside over the case.
Chester County Senior Judge Thomas G. Gavin was appointed.
Risoldi was originally charged with witness intimidation in connection with encounters she had had with AIG investigator James O’Keefe and attorney Tina Mazaheri.
In April 2016, the state’s attorney general contends that Risoldi participated in having a series of subpoenas served on multiple parties connected to her case including Buckingham Township Police, the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office, AIG along with its defense counsel, Buckingham Township Fire Marshal’s office, Midway and Lingohocken Volunteer Fire Company, and state prosecutor David Augenbraun, who leads the insurance fraud section.
Having been ordered by Gavin to refrain from contacting potential witnesses to her case, Risoldi was subsequently found guilty of contempt and in June 2016 was sentenced by the judge to a 30-day jail sentence. That ruling was appealed in Pennsylvania Superior Court, which found the lower court did not abuse its discretion.
However, after the state Supreme Court declined to hear the contempt case, attorney McMahon appealed his client’s case further in U.S. District Court, claiming the lower court violated Risoldi’s constitutional rights, including the right to participate in her own defense.
Four other family members including Risoldi’s late husband Thomas French – a retired Bucks County sheriff lieutenant who committed suicide two weeks after charges were levied, son Carl, daughter Carla Risoldi and daughter-in-law Sheila Risoldi had been charged in connection with this case.
Gavin allowed Carla, a former prosecutor with the Bucks County D.A.’s office, and Sheila, to enter into a program that will expunge all of the charges if the two complete the terms set forth by the judge.
The judge dismissed charges against the family’s private investigator, Mark Goldman, of Wayne, and also fabric vendor Richard Holston, of Medford, N.J.
Holston had been accused of working with Claire Risoldi to get AIG to pay a $2 million claim for damaged drapes. In his order dismissing the charges, Gavin ruled the state hadn’t provided evidence that Holston participated in any attempts to defraud AIG.
The drapes, said to be inflected with Swarovski crystals, and their replacement cost were among the central themes in the state’s case against Risoldi.
At trial, artist Russell Buckingham testified that he was asked for and provided false invoices to Claire Risoldi in the amount of $800,000 for two murals he painted on the ceiling depicting the family members “in flowing robes gazing down from the heavens” that he actually completed in 2011 at a cost of $50,000.
After the 2013 fire, Claire Risoldi asked AIG to rebuild an 18,000-square-foot home. The mansion she shared with her family was closer to 6,000 square feet in dimension, according to the insurance company.
Prosecutors say the Risoldis used the proceeds from multiple insurance claims to fund a lavish lifestyle. Less than 30 days before the fire, Claire increased the coverage on her jewelry from $6.5 million to $10.9 million. It was the fourth such increase in less than a year.
Claire claims the jewelry was left in two canvas bags by the main entrance and that it must have been stolen by firefighters. When the bags were turned over to insurance investigators in March 2014, AIG reported no signs of soot or fire damage on the boxes – chests that were reported to be found empty – that Claire said had contained her precious gems.
Risoldi and her defense team point to the fact that arson was never determined to be the cause of any of the fires and that AIG investigators paid out on many of the claims and would not have done so if any suspicion of fraud had surfaced.
In the five years leading up to trial, there were numerous legal procedures filed by multiple parties connected to the case including a motion by the state to force Judge Gavin to recuse himself.
The judge denied the motion, triggering a lengthy appeal by the state.
In its 99-page appellant brief filed with the court, the state contended that a phone call Claire Risoldi made to the judge constituted ex parte communication, meaning Gavin could be called as a witness to the conversation Claire had with him over the phone.
According to court documents, Claire called the judge to tell him she could not afford a lawyer. That statement stood in stark contrast to a proclamation she made to AIG saying she was a multi-millionaire and thus had no motive to commit insurance fraud.
The state also contended that Gavin “exhibited bias and an appearance of impropriety” by refusing to disqualify McMahon from the case. The state wanted McMahon removed, contending the defense lawyer made a threatening statement – “snitches get stitches” – to AIG investigator O’Keefe.
Attempts to contact McMahon and the state Attorney General’s office were unsuccessful.