Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Baptist fraud trial becoming marathon

YH, who is forever beating me at my own game, sends this along:

Phoenix, Arizona - The trial of two men charged with theft and fraud in the 1999 collapse of the Baptist Foundation of Arizona has already gone on for a month in Maricopa County Superior Court and is expected to last at least five months more.

By the time it's over, the state will have spent more than $1.6 million on the trial, just for experts, accountants and outside attorneys, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

On the other hand, the defendants, who say they lost all of their money when the foundation went out of business, have a defense fund of nearly $4.6 million.

Fortunately for everyone, six-month trials are few and far between.

"We've been stretched to the utmost to be competitive in court with some very sophisticated trial procedures," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.

"I think you'll find on both sides: This is one of the most exhaustively researched cases," Goddard said. "And in terms of using the electronic potential of the courtroom, this case is going to set some new standards."

William Crotts and Thomas Grabinski each face three counts of fraud, 27 counts of theft and two counts of illegally conducting an enterprise in the wake of the foundation's 1999 bankruptcy. They are accused of taking more than $550 million from more than 11,000 investors. If convicted, they each could be sentenced to nearly 34 years in prison.

Five other BFA employees or associates already have pleaded guilty to related felony charges in exchange for their testimony against Crotts and Grabinski. A sixth is too ill to go to trial.

The expense of the trial comes from the fact that there are multiple defendants and hundreds of thousands of legal and accounting documents to keep track of.

The Attorney's General's Office has four attorneys, a paralegal, a technology expert and a victim's rights advocate working on the case full time. Their salaries are not reflected in the $1.6 million the AG's Office anticipates spending.

Crotts' and Grabinski's legal defense money comes from a 2004 civil court case. The two executives sued BFA's insurance company when it balked at paying their legal expenses.

A Superior Court jury awarded $2.1 million to Crotts, the foundation's former president, and $2.5 million to Grabinski, its legal counsel.

The complexity of the case accounts in part for its length. Prosecutors must first instruct the jurors in standard accounting practices before making a case that BFA violated those practices. In addition, because each defendant has his own attorney, the state's witnesses are cross-examined twice, once by each attorney.

But it is rare for a criminal trial to last six months.

The 2003 trial of Brian Finkel, the abortion doctor found guilty of sexually abusing his patients, took four months.

Last year, the trial of Wendi Andriano, who was convicted of murdering her husband, took four months.

Ricky Wassenaar's trial earlier this year for taking over a guard tower in a state prison lasted two months.

Goddard recalls a seven-month fraud trial he prosecuted as an assistant attorney general in the 1970s.

And defense attorney Michael Piccarreta, who represents Crotts, took part in a six-month federal trial in the 1980s involving church workers accused of smuggling refugees into the country.

"So I guess these things come along every 20 years," Piccarreta said.

See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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