Family pleads for mercy, sentencing delayed in Renee Tartaglione’s $2 million scam

Renee Tartaglione exits the federal courthouse in Philadelphia Wednesday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Renee Tartaglione exits the federal courthouse in Philadelphia Wednesday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Family and friends of convicted embezzler Renee Tartaglione Wednesday begged a judge to spare the Philadelphia politico prison time, saying incarceration would leave her elderly mother vulnerable.

“If Renee is not here, my mom will go quicker,” Tina Tartaglione, her sister, who is also a Pennsylvania state senator, tearfully told the judge. “She depends on Renee for everything. So please, I’m asking that you show lenience.”

Their mother, Marge Tartaglione, 85, was the longtime chair of the city commissioners, which run elections in Philadelphia. Renee herself worked under her mother as a deputy city commissioner before resigning and agreeing to pay fines in 2010 after illegal political activity came to light.

A jury last year convicted Renee Tartaglione on 53 charges including theft, fraud, and tax evasion. She defrauded taxpayers by operating the federally supported Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic, which was based in a low-income section of North Philadelphia.

Authorities accused Tartaglione, the clinic’s landlord and the president of its board of directors, of charging exorbitant rents — then approving them. The clinic served patients who mostly relied on Medicaid while Tartaglione siphoned away $2 million. She used $1 million for personal enrichment, prosecutors said, and took kickbacks from employees who helped her dodge taxes from 2007 through 2012.

“She was in a position to be a guardian of this clinic,” federal prosecutor Peter Halpern said in court. “Instead of being a guardian, she enabled herself to make vast amounts of money through theft.”

She was scheduled to be sentenced on Wednesday; instead, U.S. District Judge Joel Slomsky heard hours of back-and-forth from prosecutors and Tartaglione’s defense team about how her crimes fit within the federal sentencing guidelines. For instance, was her scheme considered “sophisticated,” which could enhance the penalty? On that question, Slomsky said no.

Then the lawyers turned to how much Tartaglione must pay in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service and what assets she would be forced to forfeit to authorities. Too many questions swirled around these issues, Slomsky said, so he delayed sentencing for two weeks.

Even after it became apparent that the judge would not be deciding Tartaglione’s fate Wednesday, the defense team called a number of witnesses to deliver statements vouching for her character.

Among them was Tartaglione’s husband and Philadelphia ward leader Carlos Matos, who choked back tears in telling the judge that “to incarcerate my wife would be a cruel and unusual punishment.”

Outside the courthouse, Matos elaborated.

“She’s never, ever been in trouble her whole life,” he said. “If they put her away, it may even kill her, so is that the kind of justice people are looking for? Come on, come on, who believes that?”

Defense attorney Bill DeStefano told the judge that 51 people have sent the court letters attesting to Tartaglione’s high moral standing.

During her trial, prosecutor Halpern offered a different assessment.

“She used her position on both sides of the bargaining table to embezzle money from the clinic, from so-called rent increases, and she did this over and over and over again,” Halpern told jurors last May. “The federal money was supposed to help the most helpless, but, instead, she stole it.”

Tartaglione’s new sentencing date has been set for July 12.

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