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United States v. Valentini

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

December 10, 2019

UNITED STATES, Appellee,
v.
RICHARD VALENTINI, Defendant, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS HON. TIMOTHY S. HILLMAN, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

          Seth Kretzer for appellant.

          Mark T. Quinlivan, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Andrew E. Lelling, United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.

          Before Lynch, Selya, and Lipez, Circuit Judges.

          LYNCH, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         A jury convicted Richard Valentini on December 18, 2017, of one count of conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act extortion and one count of aiding and abetting the same. 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 1951. The defendant and his cohorts, ostensibly members of an organized crime organization in the Springfield, Massachusetts area, tried to extort money from Craig Morel, the owner of an interstate towing company, through means such as threatening Morel with death, striking Morel in the face, and telling Morel his access to towing contracts for his business with state and municipal governments depended on his making the extortion payments.

         The defendant primarily challenges the sufficiency of the evidence. The evidence was more than sufficient to support the verdict on both crimes. We also reject two legal arguments he makes, which misinterpret the Hobbs Act. We stress again that the "obtaining of property" element of the Act does not require the government to prove that the defendant personally benefitted or took possession of the property. We affirm.

         I.

         We recite the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict. See United States v. Pena, 910 F.3d 591, 597 (1st Cir. 2018).

         A. The Extortion Scheme

         Morel owns and operates CJ's Towing, a vehicle towing and storage company in Springfield, Massachusetts. CJ's Towing has had state and municipal contracts (for example, for the Massachusetts Turnpike and Massachusetts State Police ("MSP")) and contracts with private automobile clubs, such as Allstate Roadside. CJ's Towing also tows and services vehicles out of state and transports individuals whose vehicles have broken down around Springfield across state lines to Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

         In September 2000, CJ's Towing purchased another towing company and assumed its contracts with the MSP and Springfield police. After that purchase, a local organized crime figure, Frank Depergola, told Morel he would have to pay the mob to provide kickbacks to city officials to ensure that Morel and his company retained these contracts. Morel complied and paid. Nearly a year later, Morel learned the kickbacks he paid went to Al Bruno, the leader of the New York-based Genovese crime family's "crew" in Springfield. Fearing reprisal if he stopped, Morel continued paying the kickbacks. In October 2003, Morel stopped making those payments after CJ's Towing lost its City of Springfield towing contract, as it was apparent that Depergola and Bruno could not deliver on their promises to see the contracts continued. Attempts to collect the unpaid kickbacks from Morel ceased when Bruno was murdered a month later and law enforcement arrested Anthony Arillotta, one of Bruno's associates.

         Almost a decade later, in August or September of 2013, Morel was told that a new crew, headed by Ralph Santaniello and comprised of at least Albert Calvanese, Valentini, and John Basile, would soon begin demanding extortion payments from him. On September 30, 2013, Santaniello and Giovanni "John" Calabrese approached Morel at Morel's secluded Hampden, Massachusetts home and demanded both back payments they claimed Morel owed to Bruno and money for future protection.[1] They also threatened Morel's life if he failed to cooperate or if he contacted law enforcement, and Santaniello struck Morel in the face. Santaniello initially demanded $50, 000 in arrears and $4, 000 per month in ongoing payments but, after some resistance by Morel, reduced his demand to $20, 000 in arrears and $2, 000 per month.

         Morel then sought help from his best friend, an MSP trooper, who referred him to another MSP officer. On October 4, 2013, the MSP fitted Morel with a hidden recording device and gave Morel $5, 000 to give as an extortion payment to the new crew and to see how they would react to an insufficient payment. Later that day, Calabrese brought Valentini with him to collect the money from Morel at Morel's house. Valentini is a big, strong man, bigger than Morel, and, after Morel expressed concern about being extorted, Valentini told him to "relax." Valentini then guaranteed that, in return for continued payments, Morel would be "all set" with a City of Springfield contract and would win a Massachusetts Turnpike contract. When Morel stated he would pay, Valentini stated that Morel was "going to get treated just as good as Al [Bruno] . . . treated [him]." Valentini then stated that Morel was "never going to have a problem with anybody." Calabrese asked Morel to tell them if he had any issues with anyone, and Valentini said: "[I]t's going to end. I guarantee you it will end." Valentini and Calabrese told Morel they would help him in "certain areas," e.g., help Morel obtain towing contracts in exchange for continued payments. Specifically, Valentini stated: "If you need help in certain areas, we can help you out." Later, Valentini stated: "And the only time you gotta see us is when you have a problem. . . . [Y]ou don't want to hang around with us like every day." At Calabrese's demand, Morel then gave him $5, 000. Morel stated he could only pay the rest "piecemeal" over the next few weeks. Calabrese responded that paying over the next week or few weeks was acceptable, but the first payments would need to total $20, 000 and then Morel would need to pay $2, 000 every month going forward. During this exchange about the payments, Valentini was "nodding and kind of participating in the conversation."

         Morel complained about how "steep" the payments were and said he needed more time to pay the entire arrears sum. Valentini said this was acceptable, so long as Morel did not take too long, stating: "Yea. I mean, you know, not a marathon but you know you can . . . you can do, you know." (Ellipsis in original.) Calabrese told Morel that either Calabrese or Valentini would return to Morel's home the following Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. for the next payment. Valentini was part of this discussion about the next meeting. The October 4 meeting was the only meeting with Morel in which Valentini participated.

         There were multiple additional meetings in October and November 2013 during which the crew demanded that Morel pay the remaining $15, 000 of the agreed-upon arrears amount. At an October 9 meeting, at the request of the MSP, Morel gave Calabrese only $500 instead of the $5, 000 he had promised. Later that day, Calabrese and Santaniello visited Morel and angrily threatened him with implied death and other violence. Santaniello then aggressively opened Morel's shirt (looking for, and failing to find, recording devices). Both Calabrese and Santaniello threatened to "get rid of" Morel's towing contracts if Morel did not pay the remaining portion of the $15, 000 by the next Friday. ...


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