Trial begins for art dealer Rocco DeSimone, accused of $6M con

PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) – A former art dealer earlier convicted of tax fraud duped investors out of $6 million and used the money to buy cars, antique Japanese swords and valuable works of art, a prosecutor said as the man’s trial began in federal court Wednesday.

Rocco DeSimone has pleaded not guilty to mail fraud and other charges in the case. His defense attorneys declined to deliver an opening statement. But they wrote in a pre-trial court filing that they plan to argue that DeSimone’s business dealings relied on information provided by his accountant, Ronald Rodrigues, who they say also had a financial interest in those dealings.

John McAdams, an assistant U.S. Attorney, told a jury in U.S. District Court in Providence that DeSimone convinced acquaintances and others to invest in inventions he said major international corporations, including Nintendo and Sony, had offered to buy for millions of dollars.

“He made false promises and outright lies to get their money,” McAdams said. “He took their money, and he spent it.”

Prosecutors say in an indictment that he used the money to buy sport utility vehicles, several centuries-old Japanese swords, a 1915 painting by French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir and “one Japanese scroll painting of an eagle sitting on a branch.”

In one case, prosecutors say, DeSimone convinced Robert McKittrick, a medical doctor he met through a friend, that he could sell two of the doctor’s inventions for millions of dollars in exchange for a one-third ownership stake.

McAdams said DeSimone, who entered court in handcuffs, falsely told McKittrick that he was a close friend of the CEO of Fidelity Investments and convinced McKittrick to give him an ownership stake in one invention — the Drink Stik — in exchange for facilitating the sale of the device to Fidelity. He later said Raytheon Co. and Tyco International Ltd had also submitted million-dollar offers for the product, although they had not, according to the indictment. The Drink Stik is a device that connects beverage containers to respirators and gas masks worn by military officers in contaminated areas.

Prosecutors said DeSimone, who they say did not know the Fidelity CEO, obtained $1.2 million in funds and about $4.9 million in property and other assets and that he used similar claims to attract and defraud investors in inventions by McKittrick and others.

McKittrick, a key prosecution witness, said Wednesday that he gradually came to believe that DeSimone was involved in a scam, particularly in the summer of 2007, when DeSimone was ordered to prison after losing an appeal on an earlier tax fraud conviction.

DeSimone was convicted in 2005 of cheating on his taxes.

McKittrick, who called DeSimone “a con man and a liar,” said that even after that, the former art dealer asked McKittrick to visit him in prison because he had met a fellow inmate interested in buying Drink Stik.

DeSimone “used my invention — that I designed to help people — to hurt a number of people,” McKittrick said. “He used his influence, his fast talking and his maneuvering.”

During a cross-examination of McKittrick, one of DeSimone’s defense attorneys, Thomas F. Connors, asked whether McKittrick’s ultimate motivation in the case was financial gain from his as-yet unsold invention. McKittrick said he only wanted to keep DeSimone from hurting investors further.

The cross-examination will continue on Thursday.

When FBI agents raided DeSimone’s house in March 2008, his wife, who DeSimone’s defense attorneys have said was undergoing cancer treatment, called him while he was in prison on the tax fraud conviction. Two days later, DeSimone escaped from prison, but he turned himself in after only four days on the lam.

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