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Embezzlement charges tossed

| Friday, April 20, 2012

Barry Tregembo didn't think things could get worse than in 2009 when state police charged the business manager of his Washington County Ford dealership with embezzling more than $534,000.

On Tuesday, the Bentleyville businessman said the situation hit a new low after Judge Paul Pozonsky granted a motion to dismiss all criminal charges against Elisa Liberatore-Thomas, 35, of Brownsville, because prosecutors denied her right to a speedy trial.

"This has all been really devastating to my family, me and the business. I lost my Ford dealership over this, and I was getting close to retirement age," Tregembo, 73, said yesterday.

Police alleged that Liberatore-Thomas, who earned $35,000 a year, began to divert money from the dealership into three personal accounts in 2004. The losses continued until January 2008, when the thefts were discovered and she was fired, police said.

"I've reopened a used car dealership (Tregembo Motors), and we are bouncing back ... but I am very disappointed over this whole development," he said.

In a 12-page opinion, Pozonsky granted a defense motion under Rule 600, which specifies that a trial must be held no later than 180 days from the date on which the complaint is filed if the defendant is incarcerated and 365 days if the defendant is free on bond.

The time-limit rule is rarely enforced because it is usually waived by defendants.

In the Liberatore-Thomas case, Pozonsky found that 418 days had elapsed because of numerous continuances and that the Commonwealth has not done "everything reasonable within their power to see that the case is tried on time."

"As late as Nov. 22, 2011, more than two years after filing of the complaint, the Commonwealth had still not provided all the discovery (evidence) to defendant or defense counsel. A review of this record, as well as the arguments of counsel, show that the Commonwealth filed these charges, then for over a year, continued to investigate the alleged crimes while the charges were pending against the defendant," Pozonsky wrote.

Pozonsky's ruling blames the dismissal on the former Washington County district attorney, Steven Toprani, and new District Attorney Eugene Vittone, who worked until August under Toprani before leaving to run his campaign for the office. Vittone had prosecuted the case until his departure.

In August, the case was assigned to Assistant District Attorney Josh Carroll, who needed time to become familiar with the case, according to the ruling.

"When Mr. Carroll became the lead prosecutor on the case, the Commonwealth had already gone well beyond its allotted 365 days under Rule 600," Pozonsky wrote.

Vittone's chief of staff, Steven G. Fischer, said yesterday that Vittone plans to appeal the dismissal to state Superior Court.

"We respectfully disagree with the opinion and intend to file an appeal. We remain confident the case will move forward," Fischer said.

Fischer declined to discuss what the county's argument will be to the appellate court because it is still being litigated.

Tregembo said he was pleased that the decision will be appealed. He is frustrated with the whole episode, he said, including putting total trust in an employee "but taking my eye off the ball" as he focused on keeping the business afloat during the recession.

"But this shouldn't have happened. I do know that (Liberatore-Thomas) is the cause of some of the delays. ... She changed attorneys last year and requested a delay," Tregembo said.

Liberatore-Thomas waived her right to a preliminary hearing in January 2010, according to court records.

"I started to get a bad feeling when I went to court last year and saw she had hired Dennis Paluso (of Charleroi) as her attorney. Paluso was the Democrat running for district attorney and Vittone was the Republican candidate, and they were arguing this case against each other for a while," Tregembo said.

Paluso could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Bruce A. Antkowiak, professor of law, legal counsel, and director of the Criminology, Law and Society Program at St. Vincent College, near Latrobe, said it is rare for Rule 600 arguments to succeed in dismissals.

"It's very unusual. ... It's a very exceptional occurrence," he said.

Ankowiak said even in cases where it appears Rule 600 has been violated, courts usually deny the motions if judges determine prosecutors have "exercised due diligence and the circumstances causing the postponement were beyond the control of the Commonwealth."

However, the Liberatore-Thomas case is not the only Rule 600 case in Washington County. In August, Toprani appealed a similar decision determining failure to meet speedy trial requirements in a robbery case dismissed against Brandon Wise, 28, of Washington.

Wise allegedly robbed an acquaintance by breaking into his home. The crime was captured on video.

Judge Janet Moschetta Bell dismissed the case, ruling that Wise's right to a speedy trial was denied by delays in Toprani's office, according to court records.

A ruling on that case is pending in Superior Court.

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