While she led a mental health clinic in Kensington, Renee Tartaglione turned “a non-profit into a my-profit,” prosecutors told the jury on the first day of the federal criminal trial of Tartaglione.
Prosecutors are charging Tartaglione with 53 counts including theft, conspiracy and fraud, alleging that she bilked more than $1 million in taxpayer money. Authorities said the bulk of that money was stolen from the Juniata Community Mental Health Clinic, which served mostly Medicaid patients.
Tartaglione, 61, is from a well-established political family in Philadelphia. Her mother, Marge, was once the city’s elections chief and her sister, Christine, is a Pennsylvania state senator.
But while Renee Tartaglione ran the Kensington clinic, U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor Peter Halpern said she was no paragon of public service.
For six years ending in 2012, Tartaglione purchased properties the taxpayer-funded addiction center used in North Philly and jacked up rent exorbitantly.
For example, she took over a building the clinic operated that was renting for $4,500 a month and upped the rent more than most were expecting: she began charging the clinic $25,000 a month for use of the space. This came not long after she took over as president of the clinic’s board, Halpern said.
Proceeds were moved into a shell company she operated, prosecutors said, and she spent hundreds of thousands on personal expenses.
It amounts to an embezzlement scheme, Halper told the jury Wednesday.
“She used her position of trust to siphon money out of the clinic — away from the patients and caregivers — and into her own pockets,” Halpern said. “She did this at a time when she was required to care for the clinic and its patients, to put their interest above her own, to act as the shepherd.”
Tartaglione devoted some of the money to renovating her house on the Jersey Shore, authorities said.
“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 said. “The federal money was supposed to help the most helpless, but, instead, she stole it.”
Tartaglione also stands accused of fabricating meeting minutes and other records to make it appear as if the nonprofit’s board approved her actions. Authorities further accuse her of lying on her tax returns to cover up her ill-gotten gains.
Defense attorney Bill DeStefano argued that Tartaglione was not aware of the alleged embezzlement and that her associates, who are cooperating with the FBI, are the real bad actors.
“Employees, dishonest, unfaithful greedy employees said, ‘You know what? Let’s run to the FBI and tell them, all right, we embezzled this money but we cashed all these checks and gave all the cash back to Renee,'” DeStefano said.
DeStefano also told the jury that the matter should not have ever triggered a federal indictment.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” he told jurors. “To look for whether this is really a case that gets resolved by the IRS with an audit, or whether this really belongs in criminal court.”
Those cooperating with the government in exchange for a lighter sentence include former state Rep. Leslie Acosta, Amalia Rodriguez, a billing official, and Acosta’s mother, Sandy Acosta, who worked as an administrator at the clinic.
Over the course of the investigation, FBI agents met with the trio 19 times to build their case, DeStefano told the jury.
He also said Sandy Acosta wore a wire to secretly record conversations with Renee Tartaglione’s husband, Carlos Matos, the Democratic leader of the city’s 19th Ward.
DeStefano said the trio’s testimony cannot be trusted.
“These people have a motive to fabricate,” DeStefano said. “They have a motive to lie.”
In 2010, Tartaglione resigned her post as a deputy city commissioner and agreed to pay the city Ethics Board a $2,700 civil penalty after an investigation found she was engaged in prohibited political activity, including getting campaign materials printed for a state legislative candidate and handling Election Day “street money.”
Matos spent three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to bribing Atlantic City councilmen whose support he wanted for development projects.
WHYY’s Dave Davies contributed to this report