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Mystery surrounds wealth of Bucks family accused of fraud

Glittering jewelry with hundreds of diamonds. A mansion towering over farmland near New Hope. More than 30 luxury cars - Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys.

This Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, photo shows the mansion called “Clairemont,” in New Hope, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
This Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, photo shows the mansion called “Clairemont,” in New Hope, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Read more

Glittering jewelry with hundreds of diamonds. A mansion towering over farmland near New Hope. More than 30 luxury cars - Ferraris, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys.

Extravagant trappings were a fixture for the Risoldis, the politically connected Bucks County clan charged with duping insurers out of millions of dollars, according to filings from prosecutors and defense attorneys.

What remains unclear is how a family whose members include a lawyer, a turnpike employee, a retired sheriff's deputy, and a matriarch who works as a receptionist afforded such a lifestyle.

Answers may begin to emerge this week, as a preliminary hearing in Bucks County Court kicks off what is expected to be a contentious legal battle.

The Attorney General's Office claims the family, known for its longtime support of local Republicans and headed by 67-year-old Claire Risoldi, committed rampant insurance fraud, collecting $20 million in payments after three fires in five years at their 10-acre New Hope estate known as Clairemont.

Risoldi, four relatives, and two others were charged in January with conspiracy, fraud, and other felonies. Her husband, Thomas French, was among the defendants, but he killed himself in February, writing in suicide notes that he was innocent but overwhelmed by pressure.

The family's attorneys contend that the insurance payouts were legitimate and approved by the insurers, and that prosecutors' case won't stand up.

"The charges against Claire Risoldi are unwarranted, and we believe this case will look very different, and far less favorable to the commonwealth, following the preliminary hearing," said Jud Aaron, one of Risoldi's lawyers.

Brian McMonagle, lawyer for Risoldi's daughter Carla Risoldi, called the charges against her "the height of absurdity."

Prosecutors declined to comment on the case.

Aaron, McMonagle, and other defense attorneys declined to discuss how the Risoldis may have acquired their wealth, except to say it was not rooted in fraud.

"I don't even know where that comes into play," McMonagle said, noting that initial arguments were likely to center more on the Risoldis' interactions with insurers.

'The question'

Still, court documents offer a glimpse of the Risoldis' lavish surroundings, leaving political and legal observers wondering how the Risoldis afforded the things they apparently owned, even if they were buoyed by fraud.

"That's the question," said one lawyer watching the case who asked not to be identified discussing it.

Claire Risoldi is the lead defendant in the state's presentment. Her first husband, Carl P. Risoldi, died from cancer in 2001, and he had been collecting disability payments from a tile company where he had earned $75,000 to $85,000 per year as a foreman, the charging document said.

In a 1993 interview with insurers, the presentment said, Claire Risoldi estimated the couple's annual income - including from unspecified investments - was between $80,000 and $90,000.

No assets

Upon his death, Carl Risoldi left no assets, according to his will. All his possessions were co-owned with his wife, the will said. In 2013, she married French, a retired police officer and deputy sheriff who earned $29.62 an hour in that position before stepping down in 2011, a county spokesperson said.

In court filings, prosecutors said Risoldi works as a receptionist at her daughter's law office, although it didn't specify her compensation.

In another document, Claire Risoldi said she owned more than $10 million worth of jewelry, including five pieces worth more than $1 million each. Most of those were made of gold or platinum and were adorned with hundreds of diamonds.

Defense attorney Jack McMahon said that Risoldi's first husband gave her most of the jewelry and that it was among her most prized possessions.

Wearing the lavish jewels at public events "defined Claire Risoldi, and, [in] many ways, were her persona," McMahon wrote in the fall in a letter to prosecutor David Augenbraun.

Risoldi's daughter Carla runs a law practice in Bucks County specializing in criminal defense and family law. She was an assistant district attorney for a year in the early 1990s, according to a county spokesperson.

Risoldi's son Carl most recently worked as a public-affairs specialist for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority, where he earned about $74,000 annually, an agency spokesman said. He has been suspended pending the charges.

Carl Risoldi owns 37 cars, including 18 Ferraris, two Bentleys, and five Rolls-Royces, one from 1928, according to a defense motion.

The Attorney General's Office seized 14 of the vehicles during the probe, court documents say, alleging they were bought with nearly $2 million from fire insurance payouts.

The family's 5,600-square-foot estate, bought for $900,000 in 2000, has an estimated market value of $1.4 million, according to property records. Insurers listed its actual cash value at the time of the 2013 fire as $12.7 million, court papers say. It was not clear why there was such a discrepancy.

As a result of the three fires, in 2009, 2010, and 2013, the Risoldis collected about $20 million in undisputed payments from insurers, the presentment said. Defense attorneys say the money mostly went to house repairs.

Cause of fires

How the fires started has never been determined, though fire officials believe two appeared to have resulted from electrical-wiring issues, according to the presentment. The Risoldis' lawyers say the insurer's investigators and those hired by the Risoldis concluded the fires were not arson.

Property records indicate the Risoldis own five other properties in Bucks County, although at least two of those are offices of Carla Risoldi's law practice. The presentment also says the family was renting properties in Buckingham with insurance proceeds while Clairemont was undergoing repairs.

In his letter to the prosecutors, McMahon took aim not only at the lack of evidence, but also the overall accusations.

"Criminal fraud is done by people who need money," he wrote. "Claire Risoldi did not need money."

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