Wednesday, February 11, 2009
C.A. Upholds Convictions in ‘Freeway Squat’ Insurance Fraud
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday affirmed the conviction of a law office manager and his wife, who drew 22-year prison terms for insurance fraud.
Div. Two, in an opinion by Justice Kathryn Doi Todd, said there was sufficient evidence to convict Ramon Alfonso Zanoletti and Magdalena Zanoletti of all of the charges against them.
Alfonso Zanoletti, whom several witnesses testified had identified himself as an attorney, was convicted of 19 counts of felony insurance fraud and one misdemeanor count of unauthorized practice of law. His wife was convicted of 38 counts of insurance fraud.
In addition to the prison terms, the defendants were each ordered to pay more than $300,000 each in fines and restitution.
The Zanolettis were among the first persons arrested in Operation Freeway Squat by a task force consisting of representatives of the state Department of Insurance, the California Highway Patrol, and the District Attorney’s Office. Agents said they were part of a ring that may have involved as many as 600 people, including clients who were solicited at the scenes of accidents, were involved in staged accidents, or claimed to have been involved in accidents that never occurred.
Alfonso Zanoletti worked in the Van Nuys law office of Hamid Taghizadeh, who was arrested this past December and charged with 86 felony counts, including receiving or offering compensation for referrals, insurance fraud, grand theft of personal property and failure to file income tax returns. Zanoletti also worked at, and leased space for, the Los Angeles clinic of Dr. Charles Franklin, an elderly chiropractor, where his wife was the office manager.
The Zanolettis were charged after search warrants were executed at the clinic and law office in 2004. The warrants were issued largely on the basis of information obtained after a traffic stop of a vehicle driven by Constantino Pinedo, an alleged “capper” involved in the staging of numerous accidents.
Officers discovered Pinedo’s “capping book,” in which the accidents were detailed. Alfonso Zanoletti’s name appeared in connection with several of the entries, and his business cards were also found in Pinedo’s possession.
Witnesses testified that they went to the clinic for treatment, and that they signed in, at Magdalena Zanoletti’s direction, for many more treatments than they actually received. Several testified that the treatments they did receive from Franklin—who was charged along with the Zanolettis but had his case severed due to health issues—were cursory, and that they told the office manager that they did not need further treatment but were told that their cases would be lost if they stopped.
One witness testified that Alfonso Zanoletti told him to “fake” pain in his shoulder and back.
Falsified paperwork regarding the injuries and treatment was submitted to several insurance companies, witnesses testified.
Jurors found both defendants guilty on 19 counts of knowingly filing false or fraudulent insurance claims, in violation of Insurance Code Sec. 550(a)(1), and found Magdalena Zanoletti guilty on 19 counts—involving the same persons—of knowingly creating documents for use in submitting fraudulent claims under Sec. 550(a)(5).
Judge Bob Bowers Jr. sentenced each defendant to three years in prison on one count of insurance fraud under Sec. 550(a)(1), plus one year on each of the other counts, plus a one-year enhancement based on the amount of the fraud. Sentence was stayed on the unauthorized practice of law count and on each of the Sec. 550(a)(5) counts.
Doi Todd, writing for the Court of Appeal, rejected Magdalena Zanoletti’s contention that she could not be convicted of violating two different subdivisions of the statute with respect to the same claimants.
The justice reasoned that each of the offenses was a separate crime because it involved different conduct engaged in either by the defendant or by a coconspirator.
Similarly, Doi Todd reasoned in an unpublished portion of the opinion that substantial evidence supported each of the convictions, even as to a few claimants with whom Alfonso Zanoletti had no personal connection, because all of the crimes occurred within the scope of the conspiracy.
In another unpublished part of the opinion, the justice said Bowers did not abuse his discretion in denying probation. While the defendants had no prior criminal record, and had strong family and community ties, Doi Todd wrote, the sentencing judge was entitled to take into consideration their lack of remorse; the seriousness of staging accidents, which can lead to serious injury or death; and other factors that he cited, based on the Rules of Court, including “protecting society, punishment, deterrence, crime prevention, restitution, uniformity in sentencing, and reintegration of the defendant into society.”
Attorneys on appeal were Allison H. Ting for Alfonso Zanoletti, Danalynn Pritz for Magdalena Zanoletti, and Deputy Attorneys General James William Bilderback II, Lawrence M. Daniels, and Marc A. Kohm for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Zanoletti, 09 S.O.S. 803.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company