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Friday, January 25, 2008

Swindler must repay immigrants

By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor
NEW HAVEN
— Ralph Cucciniello has seven months to come up with $300,000 to pay back his victims, or face what is essentially a life sentence for an embezzlement scheme involving scores of immigrants.
Cucciniello, 56, shown at right, pleaded under the Alford doctrine in Superior Court Thursday to several counts of larceny in the first- and second-degree, one count of racketeering and three counts of impersonating an attorney.
Under the doctrine, a defendant doesn’t admit guilt, but concedes the state has enough evidence to convict him.
The New Jersey native, who has a history of convictions for flim-flam schemes where victims lost thousands of dollars, took an estimated $560,000 from about 60 immigrants in Greater New Haven, as well as the Boston and New York area. He has been held in lieu of $3.5 million bail since June 2007.
If Cucciniello can repay $300,000 to his victims by his Aug. 29 sentencing, Superior Court Judge Richard A. Damiani said he would consider sending him to prison for 20 years, suspended after 12 served and with five years of probation. If not, terms being offered were 30 years in prison, suspended after 20 years, also with five years probation.
"If you fall short, I won’t make any adjustments," Damiani told Cucciniello of the $300,000 figure.
"It’s an all or nothing situation," the judge said. "The bottom line is, we are going to have restitution."
"That’s great news," said one of Cucciniello’s victims, when contacted about the sentencing report. "It’s great to see a parasite like that off the street."
Originally, Cucciniello faced 100 counts, which were reduced to seven by an agreement between public defender Joseph Lopez and Assistant State’s Attorney John Waddock. Those seven carry a maximum penalty of 70 years and a fine of $55,750.
Claiming to be a lawyer at a legal clinic at the Yale Law School, Cucciniello charged most of the immigrants $5,000 each to file papers that he said would lead to a Green Card and permanent residence status in the U.S.
But it was all a sham, said Waddock. There was no loophole in the law, Cucciniello was not an attorney and there was no such clinic.
Cucciniello had access to the law school and a Yale e-mail account as an unpaid research assistant to law professor Steven Duke, whom he was helping with an appeal of a murder conviction for a mafia figure in New Jersey.
Waddock said Cucciniello’s victims "could least afford to have that money taken from them," and he accused the scammer of playing on immigrants’ emotions. While the majority were Irish, Waddock said others came from Ecuador, Eastern Europe, Italy and Britain.
After gaining their confidence, the prosecutor said Cucciniello convinced one person to turn over an inheritance of about $100,000 so he could invest it in a mutual fund; a second victim gave him $40,000. Both accounts were drained by Cucciniello.
The tough sentencing report contrasted sharply with the previous short prison terms given Cucciniello, who was in a federal witness protection program in the 1990s for saving the life of an FBI agent.
Waddock said the state wanted something imposed that reflected the seriousness of Cucciniello’s crimes. He assumed there is "at least a decent shot" Cucciniello can come up with some restitution, since Lopez agreed to the sentencing range.
About 50 of those tricked by the scheme came forward and were willing to be witnesses, if needed, said Waddock. He told the court the state will work out a formula for distributing any restitution Cucciniello produces.
Timothy Reardon, the special investigator in the state’s attorney’s office who put the case together, was pleased with the outcome. "I’m glad it turned out the way the way that it did. It’s a fair resolution," he said.
Damiani asked that the process be in place by Aug. 29 so checks can be cut quickly. "People have waited a long time," Damiani said of the scheme that is estimated to have gone on from January 2005 until May 2007.
Olwyn Triggs, a New York investigator who got involved in the case when Cucciniello was arrested there in May 2007 for the same scheme, was elated when told of Cucciniello’s day in court.
"It was one of the cruelest schemes I have ever seen, because of what he told the people and how he got into their personal lives and got into their hearts," Triggs said.
Mary E. O’Leary can be reached at 789-5731or moleary@nhregister.com

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