Thursday, February 12, 2009
Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Court-Approved Theft of a Disabled
Child’s Funds By a Convicted Felon!
Most parents feel that the worst thing that could happen to them would be for their child to die before them. But for a sole-surviving single parent of a disabled child, the greatest fear is that something that may happen to themselves, leaving their child uncared for and unprotected. If such a parent dies leaving no other family to care for the child, it is the duty of the state to step in and protect those who cannot protect themselves and who have no one to offer them protection.
But, what if the individuals assigned to protect your child, the lawyers and the courts, are the ones who are victimizing them? A recent Samuel Jackson movie, Lakeview Terrace, about an abusive cop living next door to a young couple asked the question “Who do you call for help when you can’t call the police?” A local mother in Westchester, Andrea Masotti, a sole-surviving single mother of a disabled child, has been asking herself a similar question for the past five years: “Who do I go to for legal recourse, when it’s the courts who are abusing my child?”
Mrs. Masotti approached the Guardian with her incredible story last week. A story that involves top political players, past and present, in Westchester County and Albany; a story that is filled with greed, deception, and plain old-fashioned criminality; a story that actually started long before Mrs. Masotti’s daughter was born; a story that started with one of the most notorious of Westchester’s politicians, Joseph Pisani, Republican ex-State Senator and State Attorney General contender from New Rochelle.
Pisani was a 20-year veteran of the New York State Senate representing New Rochelle, and the surrounding area, while Mrs. Masotti was married
to her husband, Vito. She recalls hearing his name mentioned at times in the neighborhood and among her friends and family, but never met Pisani during the duration of her marriage. “My husband was a hairdresser” she told the Guardian. “We ran in much different circles than an Albany politician”. Sadly, Mrs. Masotti’s marriage did not last. But it survived long enough for her and her husband to adopt a young child from Eastern Europe, a child who each parent loved and cared for.
Vito Masotti, being many years older than his wife, fell into declining health in the mid-1990’s, suffering kidney problems and recurring bouts
of cancer. During this timeframe, the Masotti’s daughter was also exhibiting signs of cognitive disability and several medical issues. At the initial onset of his own personal health problems, Vito approached his long-standing tax accountant, Frank Marino, a close friend and family advisor, to draft a concise will that would provide for his daughter.
This will, which Vito Masotti drafted in 2001, named several individuals as executors for his daughter’s estate, among them her godmother, an individual trusted by both the child and her mother. Vito emigrated from Italy after the Second World War and applied a hardworking, thrifty attitude towards his work and his new home. Although not highly educated, Vito amassed a sizable fortune in his lifetime, which included an apartment building that was providing $150,000 a year in income at the time his will was drawn. Vito decreed that this income should be for his daughter’s care in her lifetime. In addition, he maintained a two-bedroom apartment in the building which was to be his daughter’s home upon his demise.
Between the income from the rental apartments, and the free rent on her father’s apartment, Vito’s daughter would be well-provided for in her lifetime and would have sufficient income to cover her medical and personal needs. Such was Vito’s intent until Joseph Pisani entered the picture.
In 2004, Vito’s health took a turn for the worse with a relapse of his cancer and the loss of a kidney. At the same time, Vito’s daughter suffered several setbacks complicating her disability and increasing her medical and living costs. Although previously unknown to all the family, Joseph Pisani interjected himself into Vito’s life at this time and somehow managed to convince the dying man to alter his will, nominating Pisani as executor and trustee of a airs and as Vito Masotti’s attorney for child support matters regarding his daughter. Vito Masotti died not long afterwards, leaving Joseph Pisani in control of his entire $1.4 million estate and his daughter’s support.
Since the demise of Vito Masotti, Joseph Pisani has done nothing to assist Vito’s daughter, even refusing to provide her with the basic special education she needs for her cognitive difficulties and denying her medical treatment. Court records filed with the Surrogate’s Court in White Plains document that Joseph Pisani has vigorously opposed support applications for the young Ms. Masotti’s needs and advocated for the removal of
her own mother as her guardian.
Pisani has allowed the rents on Vito’s apartment building that he left for his daughter’s care to decline, and is in the process of trying to sell it. He has not provided any accounting whatsoever to Ms. Masotti, or her mother, as to where any, or all, of the $1.4 million estate has gone. Andrea Masotti, now in her 60’s, confided to the Guardian that she has spent her entire retirement and life savings to provide for her daughter herself and fight for her needs these past few years in an uphill battle in our local courts. Now left with limited resources of her own, Mrs. Masotti is currently
scrambling to find work to pay for the needs of herself and her daughter.
This case would be horrific enough if it were not for the fact that Joseph Pisani has absolutely no legal authority whatsoever to draft any will, offer himself as an executor or trustee of an estate, or be appointed legal representative for child support issues at all, SINCE HE IS A CONVICTED FELON!
This Joseph Pisani is one and the same Joseph Pisani who was disbarred and removed from the New York State Senate in 1986 on federal charges of mail fraud, income tax evasion, the of client funds, and embezzlement.
And now he’s at it again. But this time, it’s with the Court’s blessings.The history of Pisani’s corruption is a long one. On August 1, 1984, Pisani
was sentenced to four years in prison and was fined $69,000 on fraud and tax evasion charges by the Federal District Court in Manhattan. The United States prosecutor on the case, Charles La Bella, portrayed Pisani at trial as a public official who “abused his position”.
Among the charges filed by La Bella against Pisani were Law Practice Mail Fraud, Campaign Fund Mail Fraud, Income Tax Violations, Obstruction Of Justice, Embezzlement of over $80,000, Failure To Pay Taxes, and Misleading A Grand Jury. Pisani’s second wife, Kathryn Godfrey, was also charged at the trial with committing Perjury during the grand jury’s investigation of the fraud and tax charges. Ms. Godfrey had been employed as a stenographer for a state commission headed by Pisani before his divorce and their subsequent marriage.
During the course of the trial, La Bella revealed evidence that Pisani embezzled state funds by purchasing a summer home in Washingtonville, New York from a Joseph Mallon and giving him a “no show” state job in exchange. La Bella also charged Pisani with embezzling money from his former law firm and using his campaign funds for his personal needs and those of Ms. Godfrey.
La Bella provided evidence that Pisani used these funds to buy gifts for his then-girlfriend, Godfrey, to take vacations, and invest in professional boxing, while listing these payments as campaign costs on his financial statements.
Two high ranking New York State representatives, Charles Rangel, and Robert Garcia, appeared at Pisani’s trial as character witnesses, but the Federal jury found him guilty anyway on 18 of the 39 counts in the indictment. Among the crimes Pisani was indicted for, was a Mail Fraud charge involving the funds of his former client. According to the records of that indictment, on file with the Westchester County Surrogate’s Court in White Plains for the probate of Vito Masotti’s estate: “On or about August 8, 1979, the defendant JOSEPH R. PISANI directed that $3,604.02 of funds credited to Erma Jean Gina in a client escrow account be withdrawn, charged to Erma Jean Gina, and paid to John Talaska in connection with the repayment of certain monies invested by John Talaska, at a guaranteed interest rate of 10 percent, with the defendant PISANI”. In addition,
the trial transcripts note that: “He (Pisani) forged her signatures. This was not some sort of legitimate transaction”. (emphasis added).
In 1985, Pisani won an appeal to reverse some of his 1984 conviction but the mail fraud charges have stayed. He only served one year and one day of his sentence, most of it in a Federal halfway house, Project Return, in Manhattan. However, while there, he was found in possession of an “illegal substance” and was removed. Immediately upon his release from prison, Pisani was offered a local government position in Westchester County by then-County Executive Andrew O’Rourke. O’Rourke was quoted at the time as admitting “The political system takes care of its own”.
Pisani himself had helped other political associates in the past with their political careers, notably Al and Jeanine Pirro. On the Albany Law School alumni website it notes this connection with some amusement: “Al Pirro, ALS ’74, famous lawyer (his clients include Donald Trump). Al was convicted of tax evasion in June 2000. In law school, Al worked for State Senator Joe Pisani, who was later convicted of tax fraud.”
Turning down O’Rourke’s political position, Pisani went to work initially as a salesperson but eventually became a lobbyist in 1989 for a trash-hauling firm with mob connections while it was being investigated by the New York State Assembly for illegally dumping building debris. Pisani was also accused by the Westchester County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children of establishing a fake child abuse agency in Yonkers that illegally issued detective licenses and guns. The Westchester County Society claimed in court papers that the Yonkers agency had not investigated any cases of child abuse, and had no employees but had somehow registered 34 individuals as “Peace Officers” with the state, a distinction that allows them to carry guns and identify themselves as detectives. The court petition named Pisani and the ex- Yonkers Police Commissioner, Charles Connolly, in the action.
Pisani was not without friends after his conviction. He hosted a regular call-in talk show on the local New Rochelle radio station owned by William
O’Shaughnessy. On his first radio show, Pisani was joined on the air by the mayor of New Rochelle, Leonard Paduano, who stopped by to tell him “it was an honor” to be there despite the fact that Pisani had just admitted to his listeners having plead guilty to tax evasion, being disbarred, ndulging in an extra-marital affair for 24 years, and serving time in jail. O’Shaughnessy was still listing Pisani as a “friend of Bill” in his 2004 book: More Riffs, Rants, and Raves. Despite claiming he was working as a construction industry salesperson, making only $300 a week, Pisani was also listed by renown sculptor, Arthur Glickman, as having several of Glickman’s sculptures in his “private collection” placing himself in a small group of Glickman’s collectors, among them the Estee Lauder family and the owners of Wendy’s restaurants.
Pisani also used his political connections after his release from prison to aid business owners in their tax battles with local municipalities. Despite being convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion, Pisani has been allowed to represent clients in 794 cases from 1986 through the present. He has cases scheduled before the Supreme Court this month. Pisani has used his knowledge of the system against the constituents he used to represent; most of his tax cases have been against Yonkers, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, Mamaroneck, Greenburgh, and Mount Pleasant, lowering the taxes of hundreds of corporations in these towns and placing the burden on the local residents of those towns instead.
These cases are listed on the New York State Unified Court System website records for Westchester County as being handled by “Joseph R. Pisani, Esq.” Yet notably absent from these case records is a reference to the employment limitations placed upon Pisani because of his conviction and disbarment.
According to the State of New York, Certificate of Relief from Disabilities, NYSID # 0817057K, Pisani did not receive a full release from the state, “removing all legal bars and disabilities to employment, license, and privilege” until January 1, 2008. Yet, from the date of his release from prison in 1986 to the present, Pisani was allowed to handle 794 tax cases in the Westchester Supreme Court as “Joseph R. Pisani, Esq.”
Worse yet, for the past five years, Pisani was allowed to represent Ms. Masotti on child support issues in Westchester Courts despite being barred from the State of New York to do so until last year. Why did the Chief Administrative Judge of this Court, Francis Nicolai, allow a felon convicted of embezzlement of client funds, who is also a disbarred attorney prohibited from using his legal license during this period, from appearing anywhere near the family courts in his courthouse on child support and other financial issues? It’s not like Nicolai does not know who Joseph Pisani is. As an ex-New York State Senator, his face is very familiar to our local politicians, many of whom he put in their jobs. During this same period, Pisani was allowed to handle the estate of Vito Masotti in White Plains Surrogates Court before Judge Scarpino. Why did Scarpino allow a convicted felon to go anywhere near the trust funds of a disabled child? The will itself drawn up by Pisani in 2004 that Scarpino is probating is of
questionable legality since it was drafted by a convicted felon and witnessed only by Pisani’s then-wife, his ex-mistress, Kathryn Godfrey, herself a convicted felon found guilty of perjury. Scarpino and Nicolai have a fiduciary responsibility to the disabled community to protect them from abuse.
Is it too much to ask our Courts to prevent convicted embezzlers from being trustees for a disabled child’s estate? Why have Scarpino and Nicolai
never once demanded to see a full accounting for the $1.4 million that was in Ms. Masotti’s trust fund? Court rules clearly state that trustees must provide full and regular accountings to their clients and to the courts. So why isn’t there a single accounting on record with Scarpino’s court since 2004 for this trust? Mrs. Masotti sent a letter to Surrogate’s Court in December and January asking for relief for her daughter. Scarpino did not even reply to her letters, dismissing them to a mere court clerk instead of at least a court attorney, Charles Scott, for the official Surrogate response. Scott’s response to Mrs. Masotti’s pleas for aid for her daughter: “Regarding the concerns raised in your letter, the executors are accountable to all beneficiaries. At such time as they settle their account (their bills), your daughter (name withheld), and you as her guardian, will be given notice by citation and an opportunity to be heard”.
The Court is totally and utterly wrong here. As many Guardian readers are aware, this writer is a co-guardian of my disabled brother and the trustee on his Special Needs trust, which drew Mrs. Masotti to my attention. My responsibilities include not only providing a full accounting annually, but also a complete accounting whenever the co-guardian or my brother ask for one. In addition, the trust for a disabled individual over the age of 21, as Ms. Masotti now is, is governed by New York State Mental Hygiene laws and the Department of Social Services. Trustees may not spend any monies in the trusts that may affect the disabled individual’s services from DSS. Any major expenditures and changes, such as the sale of an apartment building, must be approved by DSS. According to these laws: The Department’s regulations set forth the circumstances under which it
must be given notification prior to expenditures that tend to deplete trust principal. 18 N.Y.C.R.R. § 360-4.5(b)(5)(iii)(c). If the proposed expenditure does not reach the level set forth in the regulations, no prior notification to the Department of Social Services is required. Moreover,
“notification” does not equal “approval”.
Nevertheless, when the Trust has been established pursuant to Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law, the courts will likely list the Department as a person or entity entitled to notification of all proceedings, as in a “non SNT” Guardianship. Hence, the Department receives notice of applications brought by the Trustee to make expenditures that do not “tend to deplete trust principal”. The Department will thus have a forum in which to object to proposed expenditures, even if they are below the regulatory level. In other words, Pisani has had to provide accounting of his use of the funds in this trust all along to both the Courts and DSS. So where are these accountings? And why is the Court now taking the position that Ms. Masotti and her mother have to wait to even be allowed to ask for a full accounting until after the lawyers settle their bills? If Pisani gets his hands on this trust first, with his background as a convicted embezzler, what guarantees is the Court offering Ms. Masotti that any of her money will be left?
Is the law and justice being ignored here because the lawyer in question is an ex-New York State Senator who in-fluenced the political careers of many of those now in power? The Guardian intends to pursue this case.