RI art dealer accused of $6M con testifies

AP News
Posted: Mar 10, 2011 10:02 PM
RI art dealer accused of $6M con testifies

As prosecutors rested their case, a former art dealer accused of duping investors out of $6 million took the witness stand in his trial Thursday, redirecting blame to the accountant he says handled his business dealings.

Federal prosecutors have described Rocco DeSimone as a "habitual con man" who lied about access to deep-pocketed business connections to solicit investments from friends and acquaintances, including a school janitor, in inventions he falsely claimed brand-name companies had offered to buy for millions of dollars.

Prosecutors called their final witness Thursday, IRS Special Agent Troy Niro, who laid out the financial details of the government's allegations of fraud. Niro, who investigated DeSimone's financial transactions, said that DeSimone fraudulently obtained $1.2 million in cash and $4.9 million in property and other assets from investors, of which he spent under $30,000 on matters related to the inventions.

Among the assets DeSimone obtained in the scheme, prosecutors say, are sport utility vehicles, several centuries-old Japanese swords and a 1915 painting by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The latter, currently stored as evidence with the FBI, was shown to the jury during Niro's testimony.

DeSimone, who was convicted of tax fraud in 2005 and briefly escaped from a federal prison three years later, has pleaded not guilty to mail fraud and other charges.

"I wasn't lying to anybody to get any investments," DeSimone told jurors Thursday.

He said that, instead, his accountant, Ronald Rodrigues, who held a substantial financial interest in DeSimone's business dealings, had misled him at many key junctures in the scam outlined by prosecutors. DeSimone attributed many of the con-artist qualities prosecutors have pinned on him to Rodrigues.

"He was constantly on the move. He was always meeting with someone," DeSimone said.

In one case, prosecutors say, DeSimone convinced Robert McKittrick, a medical doctor he met through a friend, that he could sell two of the doctor's inventions for millions of dollars in exchange for a one-third ownership stake in the patents. He then sold shares in that ownership stake, according to prosecutors, promising investors enormous returns.

McKittrick has testified that DeSimone falsely told him that a series of major international corporations had offered to buy one of the inventions, including Raytheon Corp.

DeSimone, however, says Rodrigues established contact with the company and conjured the illusion of an impending sale.

"He led me to believe that sale absolutely was going through to Raytheon," DeSimone testified Thursday.

Defense attorneys called on other witnesses, including DeSimone's son, Rocco DeSimone Jr. to bolster this portrayal of Rodrigues' role.

The younger DeSimone testified, for example, that Rodrigues had given his father the green light to purchase an expensive sports car _ a 2006 Ford GT _ that has become a central symbol of DeSimone's extravagant use of investors' money in the prosecution's case.

DeSimone also denied making any promises or guarantees to McKittrick.

"I told him I knew some people that might be interested in (his inventions) and that I'd put my best effort forward," he said.

Prosecutors are expected to cross-examine DeSimone on Friday.