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Friday, August 29, 2008

"He is an evil man"

By Mary E. O’Leary
Register Topics Editor
NEW HAVEN
— No money. No deal.
After failing to offer any restitution, Ralph Cucciniello, 56, Friday was sentenced to 30 years, suspended after 20 served, for ripping off $500,000 from more than 60 immigrants who believed he was getting them "green cards" to normalize their status in the U.S.
Superior Court Judge Richard Damiani, after reading numerous letters from Cucciniello’s victims, said "I have concluded that Mr. Cucciniello’s entire life was a fraud ... he is an evil man."
Cucciniello, who falsely claimed to be a lawyer running an immigration clinic at Yale Law School, had access to the facility because of his relationship with Yale Professor Steven Duke, an expert in criminal law.
The swindler was a volunteer research assistant to Duke in connection with a organized crime case Duke was working on in his capacity as a private attorney.
Duke sat through the sentencing and declined to answer questions about Cucciniello afterwards, except to remark: "it’s a terrible situation."
The judge rejected a request Friday by attorney Ryan Barry, new counsel for Cucciniello, who asked for a stay of 90 days so he could work to help recover some of the monetary losses.
"You didn’t come here with one red cent," Damiani said to Cucciniello. "I’m not going to be one to play your game," particularly after Cucciniello had seven months to come up with $300,000 in order to qualify for a 20-year sentence, suspended after 12 years for the numerous larceny and racketeering charges.
There was a brief burst of applause from about dozen people who came to court, including several victims, after Damiani imposed the tough sentence.
Damiani said he continues to be interested in restitution, but felt imposing a sentence at this point would bring some closure to dozens of victims from nine countries, although the majority were Irish.
The wife of one of the victims agreed.
"The money is secondary at this point. The satisfaction of him finally going to jail for a long time is worth any amount of money. He is a ruthless character," she said. Cucciniello has been incarcerated for the past year after failing to post $3.5 million bail.
"It’s such a joy to see this stain washed away," said her husband.
In an unusual move, Damiani also agreed with a request by Assistant State’s Attorney John Waddock, that Cucciniello not be turned over to any "outside agency" without approval of the Connecticut court, a veiled reference to the con man’s previous protection under a federal program.
Cucciniello has had numerous convictions for other scams across the country in the past two decades, as well as one in Canada where losses reached $500,000, but he spent little time incarcerated.
In the 1990s, Cucciniello was in a federal witness protection program after saving the life of an FBI agent, according to his former attorney, Jay Surgent.
Waddock asked that Cucciniello "serve a sentence that reflects the kind of sentence he deserves."
Damiani read portions of letters from victims detailing the scam, which they felt was legitimate because of Cucciniello’s easy use of the law school.
Cucciniello took a minimum of $5,000 each from the immigrants, but many gave him much more for "back taxes," or financial investments, with one man loosing his $100,000 inheritance and another couple $20,000.
Both Waddock and Damiani also made a point of detailing the emotional damage inflicted by Cucciniello.
Peter Manev, a Bulgarian, lost $35,000, and his dream of building a life in the U.S. For most, the scam only became clear when Cucciniello was arrested a year ago, and Manev wrote about the "psychological shock" of losing all his hopes in one day.
"Some day we all have to stand in front of God and answer for all our deeds. It is on that day that Ralph will receive his full sentence," Manev wrote.
Other victims, who were denied entry back into the country after Cucciniello lied that they could travel freely, were strung along for months afterwards with Cucciniello continuing to play out the charade.
Seamus Walsh and Jennifer Quinn were such a couple, who thought Cucciniello’s efforts had put them on the right track. The mess left them with strained family relations and a lack of trust in people.
"I always taught I was a forgiving person; not believing in "an eye for an eye," but not any more. Please see that this man is not allowed free to destroy the lives of anyone else," Quinn wrote.
In another case, an Australian woman suffered complications during her pregnancy following a blood test that all the immigrants went through as part of physicals Cuccinielli falsely said were required by immigration officials.
Caroline Murphy from Chicago told Damiani she lost her fiancee after she was banned from returning here from Ireland and he can’t drop his commitments in America.
"I have been left devastated and crushed by Ralph Cucciniello’s actions. In his attempt to con innocent people out of large sums of money, he succeeded in ripping my life to pieces and ruining all of my future plans. To my fiancee and friends in America, it is as if I am dead, there one day and gone the next, without any chance of saying goodbye or a farewell kiss. I may never see him again and our relationship has fallen apart," she wrote.
"Although I will never get over the loss I endured, I will feel some consolation knowing that he will never have the opportunity to inflict this level of pain on anyone else again in the future," Murphy concluded.
Waddock read from portions of a report from the probation officer, who said Cucciniello "groomed his victims like any predator." The officer said his victims "were working here and contributing to their communities - something Ralph Cucciniello has never done."
Cucciniello, who has been serving time at MacDougal-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, complained to Damiani that he had no access to phones until the last three weeks and if he had another 90 days he could attempt to make restitution.
"I have always made full restitution. Check my records," Cucciniello told Damiani, to laughter from the courtroom.
Barry said because of Cucciniello’s background, as soon as he was sentenced he would be put in "protective custody," making it impossible for Barry to help get the money back.
"My job was to help the victims, oddly enough," Barry said after the sentencing.
Cucciniello has one more shot at a lesser sentence.
If he comes up with $300,000 in the next nine months, Waddock said he has agreed to hold a hearing on a sentence of 20 years, suspended after 12 years.
Timothy Reardon, an investigator with the state’s attorney office who gathered the evidence in the case, was pleased with its conclusion.
"My grandfather was an illegal Irish immigrant so I was happy to help out those who were trying to make a better life for themselves," Reardon said.

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