The checks written to Leslie Acosta purportedly covered her work as a contract quality assurance analyst at the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic.
The reality, the 45-year-old former state representative told a federal jury Tuesday, was that many of those checks were immediately cashed and the money turned over to Renee Tartaglione, president of the Fairhill neighborhood addiction clinic and scion of a legendary Philadelphia political family.
Acosta said that her mother, Sandy Acosta, a cofounder of the Juniata center and its administrator, first approached her in 2007 and said she needed help with what prosecutors have called a check-cashing scheme, saying, "You're the only person I had some confidence in."
"Why did she need help?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter N Halpern.
"She didn't exactly say," Acosta replied, adding: "It was for Renee Tartaglione. … There was some conflict of interest, and Renee wanted to avoid taxes."
The alleged check-cashing scheme may have worked well for the 61-year-old Tartaglione. For Acosta, not so much.
The influx of cash under her name left her with $21,462 in federal income tax owed for 2008. The 2009 tax owed was a little better, Acosta testified, but only because she padded her business expenses.
It was Acosta's first public statement about the scheme since September, when, during her 2016 reelection campaign for the state House, the Inquirer and Daily News reported her federal guilty plea to conspiracy to commit money laundering. She said she participated in the scheme from 2007 until she left Juniata in December 2010. Acosta was reelected in November.
Acosta, herself a member of a prominent political family in North Philadelphia's Fairhill neighborhood, is arguably the key prosecution witness in Tartaglione's trial on fraud and theft charges from the operation of the Juniata center, from which she siphoned $1 million, according to federal prosecutors.
But the center scandal has ensnared both families in criminal charges. Acosta said she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering in a deal with federal prosecutors, who say her role in the check-cashing scheme resulted in a loss of $623,000. She will not be sentenced until after Tartaglione's trial, and said she hopes to avoid prison.
Sandy Acosta, 69, a former North Philadelphia ward leader and wife of former State Rep. Ralph Acosta, a Democrat who served from 1985 to 1995, was charged in the case with wire fraud, theft from a health-care benefit program, aggravated identity theft, and money laundering. She also pleaded guilty, testified on Monday, and is awaiting sentencing.
According to Leslie Acosta, her family and the Tartagliones had been associated for about four decades. Renee Tartaglione's mother, Margaret, or "Marge," was chairwoman of the City Commissioners, overseeing city elections, for 36 years. Her sister, Christina "Tina" Tartaglione, is a state senator representing much of the Northeast.
But Acosta also described a relationship permeated with rivalry and suspicion.
Acosta, who then also worked as a contract analyst for the federal Defense Logistics Agency in the Northeast, said she quit the Juniata clinic in December 2010 primarily because she was at odds with Carlos Matos, 68, Renee Tartaglione's husband and a Kensington ward leader who served three years in a federal prison after being convicted of bribing three Atlantic City Council members.
"There was some conflict I had with Juniata, primarily with Carlos Matos," Acosta told the U.S. District Court jury. "There were just issues I saw that I was not in agreement with."
Although Tartaglione was Juniata's president, it was Matos who had the well-appointed office at the clinic, Acosta said, adding, "He played many roles, but I don't know what role he had at Juniata." Matos has not been charged.
Defense attorney William DeStefano challenged Acosta's credibility, suggesting that she and her mother were trying to save themselves at the expense of the Tartaglione family. DeStefano accused her of habitually lying and said she deceived her employer, as well as the IRS and the voters of the 197th Legislative District, who twice elected her to office.
"Don't you think it was an act of deception that you ran for elected office after you pleaded guilty and didn't tell anyone?" DeStefano asked.
"No, I don't think that was deception, because this case was under seal," Acosta replied, adding that the federal probe of Tartaglione was then still before a grand jury.
Acosta appeared composed and calm on the witness stand, even when DeStefano probed her relationships with women and the fact that she often did not live at her legal address in the 2500 block of Palethorp Street.
"That's my private life," Acosta said.
Acosta also acknowledged that she had intended to remain in the state House after her election last November – until House leaders forced her to quit in January.