Romano testifies in final day of his federal fraud trial

Josh Romano, a once-prominent house flipper, took the stand on Wednesday during the final day of his federal trial on charges of conspiring to commit bank fraud and committing wire fraud against one of his former lenders. (BizSense file images)

It’s now up to a jury to decide the fate of once-prominent local house-flipper Josh Romano, who took the stand Wednesday on the third and final day of testimony in his federal criminal trial on fraud and embezzlement charges.

Romano, who faces counts of conspiring to commit bank fraud and committing wire fraud against one of his former lenders, testified Wednesday that he had no knowledge that funds were being misappropriated between six of his home rehab projects financed by Tuckahoe Funding LLC, a so-called hard money lender owned by local homebuilder Rhett Starke.

Josh Romano

Romano put the blame for the missing funds on S. Page Allen & Associates, the Midlothian-based law firm that managed the projects’ escrow accounts and was tasked with disbursing construction draws to Romano with authorization from Starke.

Prosecutors allege that $1.2 million in funds was moved among the accounts and ultimately lost in a scheme orchestrated by Romano with assistance from Lindsey Passmore, a former paralegal at the firm and a friend and employee of Romano’s.

Romano maintained that his job “was bricks and sticks” and left the accounting and other financial work to others, including Passmore, who he’d hired for a time to handle his finances. It was Passmore and her then-boss Page Allen who had access and authority to move the funds, Romano argued, adding that he never asked Passmore to do so.

Passmore has pleaded guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and testified in the trial in hopes of a lighter sentence. She previously testified that she moved the funds to help Romano, who had grown frustrated with paying interest on Starke’s loans while being unable to access the funds himself.

Romano alleged that Starke had said he was OK with the concept of moving funds between projects. In his testimony Tuesday, Starke said he floated the idea of moving funds from one escrow account to another, but via loan refinancing and under his direction.

Michael Moore, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, took issue with Romano’s claim and said Romano had never volunteered it in his testimony in his Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings, which included a lawsuit from Starke that was ultimately dismissed in Romano’s favor.

In his cross-examination, Moore told Romano he never mentioned Starke in his bankruptcy testimony, to which Romano — who was told repeatedly Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Payne to stick to “yes” or “no” answers in his responses — replied, “I never got the opportunity to expand upon it either.”

When Moore remarked that Romano was only bringing it up now “when it’s in your best interest,” Payne told Moore to stop his remarks.

In his closing argument, Moore argued that Romano was reframing past events in an effort to push Passmore “under the bus” and avoid blame for the funds being misappropriated.

“You’ve seen in the past three days what happens to people who place their trust in Josh Romano,” Moore told the jury, adding that Starke had lost over $1 million and Passmore was now a convicted felon.

“Romano is just as guilty as she is because he induced her to do it,” Moore said. Of Romano’s testimony, he added, “That was just part of his campaign of gaslighting … to make it look like Mrs. Passmore did this all herself.”

“The person whose interests were to be protected here were Rhett Starke, not Josh Romano,” Moore added. “It was Rhett Starke’s money, not Josh Romano’s money.”

Romano’s attorney, Vaughan Jones, countered that argument in his closing statement.

“That law firm was not there just to protect the Starkes,” Jones said, referring to Rhett and his wife Brie. “That law firm was also there to protect Mr. Romano.”

A vandalized Cobblestone sign in front of one of the homes mentioned in the indictment.

Jones argued that Passmore had worked for Allen before she worked for Romano and resumed working for Allen after getting an inside look at Romano’s finances.

He said publicity from Romano’s HGTV pilot made him a target, and that Passmore had seen from looking at his books that Romano was a bad businessman who could be taken advantage of.

“He’s not some ‘Richmond rich-and-famous;’ he’s ‘Richmond famous,’” Jones said. “It turns out, that celebrity was a curse. It put a target on him.”

Jones also argued that Passmore and Allen had both testified that ledger balance reports that the government’s evidence relied on could have been revised and reworked after the fact.

“These single ledger balances are not gospel,” Jones told the jury, adding that they were created by Allen and Passmore only after Romano confronted them about the missing escrow funds.

“That’s criminal, it’s important and it’s unavoidable,” Jones said.

Responding to Jones’ closing statement, Moore said Jones’ argument is unreasonable when considering guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“You’d have to believe that Mr. Romano is the unluckiest guy on the planet. That’s what you’d have to believe to acquit,” Moore told the jury.

“Being a bad businessman is not a crime,” Moore added. “But stealing (from funds for that business), that is a crime.”

Other testimony Wednesday came from Breese Romano, Romano’s ex-wife who collaborated with him on interior designs and co-starred with him in Richmond Rehabbers, the HGTV pilot that featured the business and upped the couple’s local profile.

Josh Romano during filming of the HGTV “Richmond Rehabbers” pilot.

Breese said publicity from the show put pressure on Josh to succeed with his Cobblestone Development Group and keep work coming, describing the scenario as a waterfall effect that made them wonder why they couldn’t have the funds to get more projects done.

“The HGTV show made us very popular. Everybody wanted something from us,” Breese said.

Asked what effect the mounting pressure had on Josh, Breese said, “It was incredibly hard to watch. It put a major strain on our relationship. I don’t think he slept for two weeks one time.”

Added Romano in his testimony, “That was a lot of fun. It was cool they depicted us.

“Breese said we were ‘Richmond famous.’ I’d have to agree,” he said. “Everywhere, people would stop us.”

Asked if monetary rewards followed the publicity, Romano said, “If anything, I felt it put a target on our back,” adding that it allowed people to “cancel” them and use it as leverage against them.

As Jones put it in his closing argument: “This situation destroyed them. As a result of what they go through, they don’t survive as a couple.”

Romano faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the conspiracy count, as well as a $250,000 fine, full restitution, forfeiture of assets and three years’ supervised release.

Jury deliberations are slated to start at 9 a.m. Thursday.

Josh Romano, a once-prominent house flipper, took the stand on Wednesday during the final day of his federal trial on charges of conspiring to commit bank fraud and committing wire fraud against one of his former lenders. (BizSense file images)

It’s now up to a jury to decide the fate of once-prominent local house-flipper Josh Romano, who took the stand Wednesday on the third and final day of testimony in his federal criminal trial on fraud and embezzlement charges.

Romano, who faces counts of conspiring to commit bank fraud and committing wire fraud against one of his former lenders, testified Wednesday that he had no knowledge that funds were being misappropriated between six of his home rehab projects financed by Tuckahoe Funding LLC, a so-called hard money lender owned by local homebuilder Rhett Starke.

Josh Romano

Romano put the blame for the missing funds on S. Page Allen & Associates, the Midlothian-based law firm that managed the projects’ escrow accounts and was tasked with disbursing construction draws to Romano with authorization from Starke.

Prosecutors allege that $1.2 million in funds was moved among the accounts and ultimately lost in a scheme orchestrated by Romano with assistance from Lindsey Passmore, a former paralegal at the firm and a friend and employee of Romano’s.

Romano maintained that his job “was bricks and sticks” and left the accounting and other financial work to others, including Passmore, who he’d hired for a time to handle his finances. It was Passmore and her then-boss Page Allen who had access and authority to move the funds, Romano argued, adding that he never asked Passmore to do so.

Passmore has pleaded guilty to a felony charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and testified in the trial in hopes of a lighter sentence. She previously testified that she moved the funds to help Romano, who had grown frustrated with paying interest on Starke’s loans while being unable to access the funds himself.

Romano alleged that Starke had said he was OK with the concept of moving funds between projects. In his testimony Tuesday, Starke said he floated the idea of moving funds from one escrow account to another, but via loan refinancing and under his direction.

Michael Moore, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, took issue with Romano’s claim and said Romano had never volunteered it in his testimony in his Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings, which included a lawsuit from Starke that was ultimately dismissed in Romano’s favor.

In his cross-examination, Moore told Romano he never mentioned Starke in his bankruptcy testimony, to which Romano — who was told repeatedly Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Payne to stick to “yes” or “no” answers in his responses — replied, “I never got the opportunity to expand upon it either.”

When Moore remarked that Romano was only bringing it up now “when it’s in your best interest,” Payne told Moore to stop his remarks.

In his closing argument, Moore argued that Romano was reframing past events in an effort to push Passmore “under the bus” and avoid blame for the funds being misappropriated.

“You’ve seen in the past three days what happens to people who place their trust in Josh Romano,” Moore told the jury, adding that Starke had lost over $1 million and Passmore was now a convicted felon.

“Romano is just as guilty as she is because he induced her to do it,” Moore said. Of Romano’s testimony, he added, “That was just part of his campaign of gaslighting … to make it look like Mrs. Passmore did this all herself.”

“The person whose interests were to be protected here were Rhett Starke, not Josh Romano,” Moore added. “It was Rhett Starke’s money, not Josh Romano’s money.”

Romano’s attorney, Vaughan Jones, countered that argument in his closing statement.

“That law firm was not there just to protect the Starkes,” Jones said, referring to Rhett and his wife Brie. “That law firm was also there to protect Mr. Romano.”

A vandalized Cobblestone sign in front of one of the homes mentioned in the indictment.

Jones argued that Passmore had worked for Allen before she worked for Romano and resumed working for Allen after getting an inside look at Romano’s finances.

He said publicity from Romano’s HGTV pilot made him a target, and that Passmore had seen from looking at his books that Romano was a bad businessman who could be taken advantage of.

“He’s not some ‘Richmond rich-and-famous;’ he’s ‘Richmond famous,’” Jones said. “It turns out, that celebrity was a curse. It put a target on him.”

Jones also argued that Passmore and Allen had both testified that ledger balance reports that the government’s evidence relied on could have been revised and reworked after the fact.

“These single ledger balances are not gospel,” Jones told the jury, adding that they were created by Allen and Passmore only after Romano confronted them about the missing escrow funds.

“That’s criminal, it’s important and it’s unavoidable,” Jones said.

Responding to Jones’ closing statement, Moore said Jones’ argument is unreasonable when considering guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“You’d have to believe that Mr. Romano is the unluckiest guy on the planet. That’s what you’d have to believe to acquit,” Moore told the jury.

“Being a bad businessman is not a crime,” Moore added. “But stealing (from funds for that business), that is a crime.”

Other testimony Wednesday came from Breese Romano, Romano’s ex-wife who collaborated with him on interior designs and co-starred with him in Richmond Rehabbers, the HGTV pilot that featured the business and upped the couple’s local profile.

Josh Romano during filming of the HGTV “Richmond Rehabbers” pilot.

Breese said publicity from the show put pressure on Josh to succeed with his Cobblestone Development Group and keep work coming, describing the scenario as a waterfall effect that made them wonder why they couldn’t have the funds to get more projects done.

“The HGTV show made us very popular. Everybody wanted something from us,” Breese said.

Asked what effect the mounting pressure had on Josh, Breese said, “It was incredibly hard to watch. It put a major strain on our relationship. I don’t think he slept for two weeks one time.”

Added Romano in his testimony, “That was a lot of fun. It was cool they depicted us.

“Breese said we were ‘Richmond famous.’ I’d have to agree,” he said. “Everywhere, people would stop us.”

Asked if monetary rewards followed the publicity, Romano said, “If anything, I felt it put a target on our back,” adding that it allowed people to “cancel” them and use it as leverage against them.

As Jones put it in his closing argument: “This situation destroyed them. As a result of what they go through, they don’t survive as a couple.”

Romano faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the conspiracy count, as well as a $250,000 fine, full restitution, forfeiture of assets and three years’ supervised release.

Jury deliberations are slated to start at 9 a.m. Thursday.

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Erin Schoenfelder
Erin Schoenfelder
1 month ago

How is it that Romano is always the victim in every single scenario? Build a bad house, grew too fast. Misappropriated money, bad businessman. Marriage fell apart, stress of business. Lies on the stand, didn’t understand the question. He built bad houses for the simple fact he doesn’t know how to build. Ask the homeowner’s he left in his wake. They are out tens of thousands of dollars. If 1.2 million appeared in my business account, I’d want to know where it came from. He knew full well he didn’t have the money. And guess what, if it wasn’t supposed… Read more »

James Dillon
James Dillon
1 month ago

Did the lawfirm commit fraud? Yes. But the most important question is WHY would the law firm/Passmore go out of the way to embezzle money? There was no financial gain for them. Would they go to such great lengths to commit fraud just because they feel bad for Josh? No! The simple answer is because Josh made it happen through begging, pleading, convincing, coercion or all of the above. The man is a narcissist and pathological liar and very good at getting people to feel sympathy for him. Most of us that got burned by him will recover with just… Read more »

James Dillon
James Dillon
1 month ago
Reply to  James Dillon

Also, the TV show(one episode that was absolutely terrible) didn’t give people a reason to cancel him. He got canceled because he’s a liar and a thief.

Mike Plesser
Mike Plesser
1 month ago

“Everybody wanted something from them?” Does Breese Romano mean honesty, integrity, ethics and just a general sense of being a moral human being? If she thinks for one second that people don’t put her in the middle of this as well, she is wrong. If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. She knows what went on. She testified that they lived in her mother’s basement, which was in Lower Tuckahoe, didn’t mention the house on West Avenue or Hanover Avenue. They were barely getting by with their Richmond Country Club membership, kids in private school and… Read more »

John Morant
John Morant
1 month ago

Where is the money? Either it was deposited into Romano’s account or it wasn’t. Looks like it wasn’t from the previous bankruptcy case that sided with Romano – the FBI concluded. Where is the money?

James Dillon
James Dillon
1 month ago
Reply to  John Morant

Its all spent. It was taken under false pretenses and spent on things that it wasn’t supposed to be.

Mike Plesser
Mike Plesser
1 month ago
Reply to  John Morant

It was all deposited into his account. There’s a paper trail. At the bankruptcy trial, Lindsey Passmore didn’t testify. Had she testified, his bankruptcy would not have been discharged. The money is long gone, buying other properties, losing money on flips, country clubs dues. The list goes on.

Erin Schoenfelder
Erin Schoenfelder
1 month ago

Now that a guilty verdict is in for 4 counts, is Richmond BizSense going to retract all the puff pieces of everyone else being “alleged victims” and “so-called?” Just wondering if we can now officially call Josh Romano exactly what he is, a criminal or will Spiers dance around that topic?