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.
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.”
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.
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.