The Westchester Guardian by Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief - February 12, 2009
Most parents feel that the worst thing to happen to them would be for their child(ren) to die before them. But for a sole-surviving single parent of a disabled child, the greatest fear is that something happens to them, 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 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 “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 you go to for legal recourse, when it’s the courts who are abusing your child?” Mrs. Masotti approached the Guardian with her incredible story last week. A story that involves the top political players past and present in Westchester County and Albany. A story that is filled with greed, deception, and plain old-fashioned criminal acts. 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.
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 in 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 of committing perjury during the grand jury’s investigation of the fraud and tax charges. Ms. Godfery 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 used his campaign funds for his personal needs and for Ms. Godfrey. La Bella provided evidence that Pisani used these funds to buy gifts for his then-girlfriend, Ms. Godfrey, 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 on 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 above 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 his 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 web site 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 thirty-four (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.
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 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, 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 NYS 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 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 has Scarpino and Nicolai never once demanded to see a full accounting for the $1,400,000 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 please 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 (DSS). 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".
Nonetheless, 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-NYS Senator who influenced the political careers of many of those now in power? The Guardian intends to pursue this case and win justice for Ms. Masotti.
More on Scarpino and Nicolai: