The Crooks, Their Greed, Their Mistresses & The Crime
It's almost dark as Stephen Greenstein pulls off Route 28 into the Denny's parking lot in Stoneham. He would rather not be here: He has dinner plans with his wife, Diane, and he isn't sure what excuse he'll come up with if he's late. He can't tell her the truth Â— that he's meeting his best friend, Martin Robbins Â— because Diane hates Robbins, to the point of lecturing her husband about his poor taste in friends. To avoid marital conflict, Greenstein fashions this covert friendship with Robbins that feels more like an extramarital affair.
Greenstein walks briskly to the front door of Denny's. It's a pleasant winter's night Â— Thursday, February 11, 1999 Â— upper 30s, slight breeze, partly cloudy skies. But Greenstein doesn't notice the weather. He's worrying about Robbins, who sounded anxious on the phone and insisted they meet right away. It made no sense. Robbins seemed to be living the high life lately, vacationing frequently and bragging about the success of his heir Â— finding business. Working with a secret connection at the state Treasury and with women he met in Internet chat rooms, Robbins collected hefty commissions from companies by helping them claim money they were owed by the state.
Greenstein spots Robbins Â— a father of three and former football star at Malden High School in the 1960s Â— at a booth near the cash register. He's sweating and pale. “Oh, Jesus, what's the matter?” Greenstein asks. Robbins lifts his bulky frame from the booth. “Let's go to the back,” he says, leading the way to a secluded table.
“We're in trouble,” Robbins says.
“What do you mean, 'We're in trouble?'” Greenstein shoots back.
“I tried to withdraw some money.”
“You remember the document I had you sign and notarize?” Robbins says. “Well, that's for a $6.5 million claim, and it's being investigated. I tried to take the money out of the bank.”
“You tried to take $6.5 million out of the bank? What are you, a moron? How could you involve me in this?”
“My connection at the Treasury called,” Robbins says. “The police are there, and I'm not supposed to know. I'm going to put the money back. They won't know. It's going to be okay.”
The next day, investigators from the Attorney General's Office descended on the state Treasury offices at One Ashburton Place on Beacon Hill. They wanted to talk to longtime employee John Trischitta about one of his responsibilities, the unpaid check fund (UPCF), a multimillion-dollar account that holds the unclaimed checks of companies that do business with the state. (Money that's never claimed eventually winds up in the state's general fund.) Investigators also wanted to know what Trischitta knew about a man named Martin Robbins. Robbins, who had already raised the suspicions of tellers at the BankBoston branch in Lynnfield, tried to withdraw more than $6 million from his account, money that had originally come from the UPCF. Not only was Robbins's paperwork not in order, but he had also managed over the previous few months to annoy most of the bank's employees with his pushy attitude.
Investigators suspected someone inside the Treasury had alerted Robbins to their probe, because early on that Friday morning a check drawn on Robbins's account Â— payable to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the amount of $6,550,504.19 Â— had arrived at the Treasury. Robbins was trying to return the money, but it was too late.
Police knew they had stumbled onto something big. What they didn't know was they had stumbled onto the biggest theft of public funds in Massachusetts history Â— the biggest cash theft, in fact, of any kind ever in this state. They didn't know that for most of the 1990s, Treasury employees conspired with businessmen and politically connected outsiders to loot state coffers of at least $9.4 million, sometimes brazenly walking out the front doors with briefcases full of cash and spending some of it on gifts for their wives and mistresses. Investigators also didn't know that two of the thieves hadn't bothered to flee the crime scene, so confident were they that the Treasury, under the watch of Republican state Treasurer Joseph Malone in the 1990s, was about as secure as a 10-year-old's piggy bank. Robbins's futile attempt to return the stolen money proved the final chapter in a story of crime, greed, temptation, deceit, arrogance, patronage, lust, and, in the end, stupidity. Pieced together from court records and interviews with investigators, Treasury employees, and the families and friends of the accused, it's also a disturbing tale of government ineptitude.
“Everyone likes to demonize these men and call them terrible, unconscionable people,” says Richard Gargiulo, the attorney for one of the six men ultimately convicted in the scheme. “But the reality is that what allowed this to occur is the gross incompetence of the administration responsible for the taxpayers' money.”
The scandal would rock Beacon Hill and effectively end Malone's promising political career. It would also allow two ambitious Democrats Â— Treasurer Shannon O'Brien and Attorney General Thomas Reilly Â— to stand tall and take credit for “cleaning up” the Treasury's mess, which also included an unrelated theft of $7.1 million between 1997 and 1998 by a Texas data corporation. But it was the local thieves who sparked a swift and sweeping statewide probe. Still, even after a series of guilty pleas, one eye-opening trial, and pledges to tighten the Treasury's internal controls, one unsettling fact remains: To this day, no one really knows how much money was stolen.
All the police knew that Friday was that John Trischitta, who everyone called Trixie, was sweating profusely and contradicting himself with nearly every answer. Do you know Martin Robbins? No, I don't. Are you sure? I don't know. What do you mean you don't know? Okay, I know him. How do you know him?
I met him once. Did he ever give you anything? I don't think so. Are you sure? He gave me Boston College basketball tickets once. Did he give you anything else? I don't know. Are you sure? He gave me $20,000 once. He gave you $20,000?
“It pretty much snowballed from there,” recalls Lieutenant Stephen Matthews, a lead investigator on the case. It wasn't long before Trischitta admitted to helping Robbins form an heir-finding service. In return for feeding Robbins inside information about unclaimed money in the unpaid check fund, Trischitta got about $50,000 in kickbacks from Robbins.
New state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien was trying not to panic. Only two weeks into her administration, her staff was still settling in when the state police showed up. They didn't have to travel far to find the crime scene Â— their offices are on the 19th floor of the same building. “We didn't get in our cruisers and drive out to Charlestown to interview bank robbers,” says Matthews. “We walked down seven flights and interviewed state employees.”
That evening, after his interviews with police, Trischitta walked to the parking lot with Deputy Treasurer Robert Foley and Foley's girlfriend, Amelia Viscomi, another Treasury employee. Foley was a Malone appointee who was in his last few weeks at the Treasury after lobbying unsuccessfully to stay on under O'Brien. Viscomi and Foley tried to console Trischitta, who was crying. His life was crumbling. Not only had he clearly implicated himself during his interviews with police; he also told Viscomi that he was having marital problems. “I'm screwed. My life is over,” Trischitta mumbled in the parking lot. “I want to jump off a bridge.”
When police arrested Trischitta and Robbins a week later, shocked Treasury employees gathered in Foley's spacious corner office, behind the sign on his door that said “Mean People Suck.” “Bob just stood there with tears in his eyes,” Treasury employee Corinne Krueger told police. “Bob likes to help people all the time, and I said to him, 'Bob, this is one thing that you can't help Trixie with.'”
Truth is, Foley was probably crying over his own fate. He was Trischitta's partner in crime, and he wasn't so sure his partner could keep his mouth shut. Just a few days earlier, on February 14, Foley had met with Trischitta outside a Friendly's in Lexington. Suspicious that Trischitta might be wearing a recording device, Foley insisted on writing notes back and forth and directed Trischitta on what to tell investigators if they asked about earlier thefts.
A week later, Foley drove to the Newton Marriott, where he met Richard Arrighi, a friend and former Malone fundraiser who had just returned from vacationing in Aruba. They met in the hotel restaurant but moved to Arrighi's car, where Arrighi expressed concern about his own Treasury theft: a $1.6 million job he pulled off in 1992 with the help of Trischitta, Foley, and Arrighi's college pal, lawyer Ronald Borino. Arrighi was concerned, but hardly panicked. “Everything will be okay if no one talks,” he told Foley.
Problem was, people talked. Trischitta ratted out Thomas Ciliberto, an heir-finder from Rhode Island, as well as Robbins and Foley. And Foley named Borino, Arrighi, and fellow Treasury employee Scot Butcher. (None of the seven men would agree to be interviewed for this story.) In the end, four of the accused cooperated with police, and every defendant pleaded guilty except for Butcher, who was acquitted in November of stealing $60,000 from a Treasury vault. For almost a decade, the men operated with stealthlike efficiency. Had it not been for the bumbling and greed of two of them, their swindling might have gone undetected. But Robbins, a failure in one business venture after another, and Trischitta, a lifelong follower whose own lawyer called him a “patsy” in court, couldn't resist taking one last $6.5 million shot at the good life.
When Arrighi, Borino, and Foley wanted to meet beautiful women other than their wives or girlfriends, they descended on Boston bars with cash, attitude, and enough fake names to ensure the women couldn't call them in the morning.
The year was 1990, and the three men, all in their thirties, partied like college freshmen. Arrighi, dubbed “Slick Rick” for his ability to talk his way out of anything, was seen as the most successful of the three. Married to his high school sweetheart, the tan, athletic Attleboro native and Suffolk Law School graduate was a partner in the real estate division of the law firm Warner & Stackpole. An avid gambler and golfer, he was also a key fundraiser and personal attorney for a rising figure in Republican circles, Joe Malone, whose aspiration was to become state treasurer and, eventually, governor.
It was at Suffolk that Arrighi met Borino, a former class president and football star at North Providence Senior High School. Borino had struggled to start his own law practice and had become increasingly reckless, drinking heavily and experimenting with drugs.
Foley worked as an accountant, but his real goal was to be a bigtime real estate entrepreneur. Flush with cash one day and in debt the next, the personable Norwood native relished gambling trips to Las Vegas and sometimes borrowed money from his wife's mother to finance mortgage payments on his real estate ventures, few of which his wife knew about. (She learned of her husband's interest in Peaches restaurant in Providence only after someone spilled a drink on her and was chastised for bothering “the owner's wife.” “Do we own this restaurant?” she asked her husband. “I have an interest in it,” Foley replied.)
In 1990, Malone was elected treasurer by vowing to reform the Treasury and fight political corruption. Arrighi, who was on Malone's transition team, convinced him to hire Foley, who was brought on as director of accounting in 1991 and quickly promoted to assistant treasurer and deputy treasurer in charge of cash management.
Foley was a gregarious and popular presence at the Treasury. He threw lavish parties for his employees, bragged about a shopping mall he owned in Ashland, and earned the devotion of those who worked under him. “It was like a cult,” says one former Treasury employee who asked not to be identified. “They were a clique, and they saw Foley as this young, up-and-coming guy who really cared about his employees. They probably would have drank the Kool-Aid for him.”
Of all the Treasury employees, none admired Foley more than Trischitta, who got his chance to work closely with Foley when he was handed control of the unpaid check fund. Soon after Trischitta took it over, the Treasury received a public-records request from the Coastland Group, an heir-finding company, seeking a list of all the checks in the UPCF. As Trischitta and Foley worked on the request, they noticed just how huge some of the claims in the fund were, and that many had been settled years before but mistakenly left in the system as unpaid.
Foley hatched a plan: Trischitta should leave the Treasury and start an heir-finding business. Both men would share in the profits. Trischitta balked, afraid of losing his pension or health insurance. So Foley turned elsewhere, recruiting Ciliberto, the longtime companion of a man Foley worked with at an accounting firm in Norwood. Foley and Trischitta provided Ciliberto inside information about large unpaid checks in the UPCF, Ciliberto tracked down the people who were owed the money, and Foley and Trischitta each got 25 percent of the finder's fees. Foley instructed Trischitta that when other heir finders requested the list of uncashed checks in the UPCF, Trischitta should tell them only about those under $5,000. The rest, Foley reasoned, were his.
While that kickback scheme was unfolding, Foley was preparing a bolder theft with Arrighi and Borino. During a number of discussions in Arrighi's Boston law office and during gambling trips to Las Vegas, the three men plotted to steal three checks from the UPCF totaling $1.6 million. The checks, meant for the DeMatteo Construction Company, had actually been paid to DeMatteo back in 1988, but the record was erroneously left in the unpaid fund.
At first Arrighi and Borino didn't want Trischitta involved, adamant about keeping their connection to him secret. But Foley insisted they needed Trischitta to process the phony claims, and eventually Foley told Trischitta only that some “wise guys” would be making the claim.
Using a bogus heir-finder claim, the four men Â— Arrighi, Borino, Trischitta, and Foley Â— got the $1.6 million out of the Treasury. “Arrighi and Borino couldn't believe it had worked,” says Matthews, the lead investigator. “They were skeptical until they physically had the checks in their hands.”
Arrighi and Borino used their experience as business lawyers to move the checks into a series of real estate trusts, and then into a Waltham real estate development project, before finally cashing out. Trischitta, unaware of the complicated investment schemes, pestered Foley for his $200,000 share. No problem, said Foley, who proceeded to do what he often did when he needed extra cash: He strolled to the Treasury's teller cage and stole as much as he needed.
It was the most difficult decision of Ciliberto's life: He was 47, he was not rich, and there was an $812,500 check Â— “a gift from God,” Trischitta told Ciliberto Â— just sitting there for the taking in the UPCF. The check was actually made out to C.A. England, but Ciliberto had searched for that company for more than a year and found nothing.
Trischitta wanted to steal the money, but Ciliberto was reluctant. His heir-finding business, until this point, had recovered money for real corporations. Taking this check was outright theft. Ciliberto did what many people do when faced with a difficult decision: He made a list of the pros Â— better life, financial security, a shot at the big time Â— and the cons Â— jail, ruined reputation, lost friends.
A month later, his decision made, Ciliberto posed as the beneficiary of the $812,500 check and split the money with Trischitta. “I'd seen so many scumbags go out and steal and get away with it,” Ciliberto later told the Boston Globe. “There I was, plodding along. I thought maybe this was my turn.”
Trischitta was having similar urgings. “In a lot of ways, Trischitta is your typical public-sector employee in a large public organization,” says Gerard T. Leone Jr., former head of the criminal bureau of the Attorney General's Office. “He comes to work every day, he gets his benefits, he takes his check home every week, and it isn't much money. And he had people coming to him all the time with information that allowed them to make money. So finally Trixie says, 'You know what? I'm getting my piece of the action. I'm going to be a player.'”
Trischitta hadn't been much of a player growing up in Malden, where he was an awkward and overweight child who lived in the shadow of his smart, athletic older brother. He was a below-average student who loved sports but didn't excel at them. “He was a huge sports booster,” recalls Malden Mayor Richard Howard, who went to high school with Trischitta. “I hung around with a lot of the jocks, and Trischitta was liked by most of them. He wasn't the most popular guy, but he had a good sense of humor.”
After spending most of his adult life living with his parents, Trischitta shocked his friends when he courted and married Diane Martiniello in 1990. (They have since separated.) “No one who knew [Trischitta] thought he would be anything other than a stay-at-home fat boy,” his own lawyer said during his sentencing hearing.
Foley, on the other hand, had tasted success and wanted more. “He didn't need anyone's help to steal from the Treasury,” says Leone. “But the schmuck cut his friends in because he thought it would be a good business opportunity.”
Foley did some good work at the Treasury, earning coworkers' praise and Malone's trust. (Malone declined to comment for this story.) Still, employees there said he could be abrasive, particularly toward women, and Malone's deputy treasurer wanted Foley fired for being an ongoing management problem. Foley pleaded his case to Malone, who trusted Foley and refused to fire him. In fact, Foley was able to get most of what he wanted at the Treasury: In 1992, he secured a job for his friend Scot Butcher. Asked at Butcher's trial last fall about the “screening process” Butcher went through, Foley said the Treasury didn't really work that way. Hiring was based “on who you know,” he said. “It's politics.”
Soon after joining the Treasury, Butcher and Foley realized they had something in common besides securing their Treasury jobs through connections: Both were having affairs with Treasury coworkers. Needing alibis to keep these affairs secret, they began socializing as a foursome.
It was sometime around Christmas 1993, according to Foley, when Butcher, who was in charge of cash management at the teller's cage, came to his office with a bag filled with $60,000. Foley said Butcher told him the money wasn't listed on the books and that they should split it. Foley, who told police the teller's cage was routinely left unmanned and that he stole cash at will, said he and Butcher split the $60,000 and later went to DeScenza Diamonds, where they bought Christmas presents for their wives and girlfriends.
Eight years later, Foley's testimony about the money in the bag, along with statements from two investigators who said Butcher had admitted he stole the money, seemed like strong evidence against Butcher. But he denied all of it at his trial in November, and his lawyer poked enough holes in the case to sway a jury to acquit Butcher.
“Was I disappointed by the verdict? Yes, I was,” says Attorney General Tom Reilly. “But it didn't take away from, in my mind, what we accomplished in this investigation: six guilty pleas and most of the stolen money recovered. Butcher was a minor player, so if there was going to be one case that ended up this way, this was it.”
Of the seven men initially charged in the thefts, Arrighi's motivation is the most puzzling. “Arrighi didn't need the money,” says investigator Leone. “If you look at the money he got, it was really a fraction of what he was making.”
But Arrighi, whose parents were blue-collar workers in Central Falls, Rhode Island, lived a life of excess. He spared no expense for himself or his mistress, Stacy Gomatos, securing her a job at the Treasury. Gomatos declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement filed in court she said: “He told me that since his net worth was $6 million, he could easily support two households.”
Arrighi could also easily get what he wanted out of Malone, using his position as a fundraiser and Malone family attorney to secure substantial Treasury-related business for the law firms where he worked. And while Arrighi was involved in only one scheme Â— the $1.6 million DeMatteo theft (he was also indicted in a separate tax-fraud case) Â— investigators call him “a snake,” and the Attorney General's Office considers him a mastermind of the Treasury plot.
“Arrighi represents what this case is all about,” says Reilly. “That's the reprehensible level of corruption that took place at the intersection of business, politics, and law. This is public corruption in its worst form, and he had a key role in all three levels. He was a lawyer who used his legal skills to advance this corrupt scheme and steal money from the public Treasury. Then he was a fundraiser who used his political access to meddle in the operations and [hiring practices] of the Treasury.”
Reilly wanted Arrighi jailed for eight years, but Superior Court Judge Charles Thomas Spurlock didn't buy the mastermind theory, sentencing him to three. Borino, who had cooperated with investigators, got two and a half years; Robbins, four years; Trischitta, four and a half. Foley and Ciliberto were still awaiting sentencing at press time.
The one Treasury employee the probe never touched Â— though some political insiders say it wasn't for a lack of effort by Reilly Â— was the man at the helm: Joe Malone.
“It's pretty obvious why Reilly wanted to stick it so badly to Arrighi,” says one Republican source close to the investigation. “Reilly wanted Joe Malone's head on a platter from the beginning, and when he couldn't get anyone to give him up, he went after the nearest guy to Malone and portrayed that guy as the most crooked, most corrupt, and most culpable. And that's just politics as usual in this state.”
Who knows how long the stealing would have continued if Trischitta and Robbins hadn't gotten sloppy? In October of 1998, the two men were en route to an O'Brien fundraiser when they discussed submitting a phony claim for a $6.5 million check in the UPCF in the name of the Cambridge Economic Development Corporation, which had dissolved in 1986. Trischitta and Robbins planned to forge a power-of-attorney letter. All they needed was a signature in the name of Robert DeGregorio, the corporation's last treasurer.
Until that point, Robbins had managed to build a successful heir-finding business with the help of Trischitta, who alerted him to big claims in the check fund. Recently divorced, Robbins staffed his business with women he met in Internet chat rooms. One, Judith Fagin from New York City, was drawn to Robbins by the words “executive” and “real estate” on his America Online profile. The two corresponded by e-mail before meeting at an Atlantic City casino. A second woman, Jean Bickersteth, a teacher from Michigan, was, for a time, engaged to him. Both women declined to comment for this story.
In addition to his stealing, Robbins did some legitimate heir-finding work, reuniting individuals and companies with money they didn't know they were owed. But even then he wasn't always straight, lying about the amount owed his clients and pocketing the difference. He told one retired Lowell businessman, who had already been paid $95,000 the state owed him, that he could be paid again. “You wouldn't believe how screwed up the Treasury is,” Robbins told the man. “They don't keep track of their money. There's millions of dollars just floating around. This $95,000 is yours to have.” The man refused, so Robbins simply took the money for himself.
Needing that bogus signature to make the $6.5 million theft, Robbins showed up at the office of his friend Stephen Greenstein and told him to sign the name “Robert DeGregorio” on a phony Cambridge Economic Development Corporation limited power of attorney. Greenstein would later tell police that Robbins demanded he not look at the names on the letter. That way, if asked, Greenstein could say honestly that he didn't know what he had signed. “I did it as a favor to my friend,” Greenstein, who was never charged, told police. (Their subsequent conversation at that Stoneham Denny's is based on police records and other sources.)
Robbins submitted the forged document and a claim letter to Trischitta, who issued one check for $5,304,246.43, and another for $1,221,153.28, to the Cambridge Economic Development Corporation in care of Robbins. Robbins deposited the checks on November 24, 1998, into his BankBoston account. “I made a big score,” he boasted to Greenstein.
But he also made a big mistake. Robbins had never been able to tone down his cockiness, and he was antagonistic to the tellers at the BankBoston branch in Lynnfield. One of them, Elizabeth Lonergan, told police that Robbins “was just so obnoxious” and that “all of us were very suspicious of his activities.”
“The employees at the bank were saying to themselves, 'We're this little branch in Lynnfield, you're in here acting obnoxious with your millions of dollars, so what exactly are you all about?'” says Matthews, the investigator. “So they made the call to our office, and that started the ball rolling.”
Matthews wonders why Robbins wasn't more discreet. Then again, Robbins's bumbling is a fitting end to an almost inconceivable story.
“How is it possible that they got away with it for so long?” Matthews asks. “How is it that we had a culture at the Treasury that allowed this to happen? How is it that no one ratted any of these guys out or had the moral fortitude to stand up and say, 'Hey, are you nuts? You can't steal millions of dollars from the Treasury'? These thieves didn't wear masks. They didn't use a gun. They opened their briefcases and slipped some cash in, or they wrote a check. How on earth is that possible?”