Last Monday, in a windowless courtroom in Riverhead, L.I., George Guldi approached a wood lectern and delivered a lesson in aesthetics. A former Suffolk County legislator, Mr. Guldi is currently defending himself against charges that he stole an $853,000 insurance check, following a fire at his home. But what color was the check? he wanted to know. The witness called it “blue or tan.”
“Tan can be yellow,” Mr. Guldi pointed out, straining to seem nonchalant, his belly dangling over his leather belt. “Is it possible the check was red?”
“I don’t believe so,” said the witness, Ethan Ellner.
“Blue and yellow are only two of the primary colors,” said Mr. Guldi. A prosecutor’s objection struck that remark from the record, and the bizarre trial whirled onward.
For more than three weeks, before 12 jurors and a steadily growing audience of press and local citizens, Mr. Guldi has huffed and puffed, invoking everything from steroids to Lord Voldemort in a desperate attempt to discredit his accusers and salvage his good name. He has turned what was meant to be a weeklong trial into a war of attrition, and he is just getting started.
In March of 2009, the district attorney’s office charged Mr. Guldi, Mr. Ellner and three others with an incredible mortgage-fraud scheme, one whose $82 million haul ranks among the largest in state history. This strange investigation touches on almost every aspect of life in Suffolk County, including the Hamptons, and stretches to Manhattan in the form of mortgage trial codefendant Donald MacPherson, who owns the SoHo Journal and a downtown fetish photography studio. Five months after the allegations of mortgage trickery, Mr. Guldi was arrested a second time and charged with insurance fraud. Because of its comparative simplicity–four felony counts, as opposed to a staggering 110–the insurance trial began first.
Although only a prelude to the main event, this trial, expected to conclude sometime within the next week, is no trifle. Each charge carries a minimum five-year sentence, and a conviction would mark Mr. Guldi as a criminal in the eyes of future juries, making the already daunting mortgage-fraud trial, tentatively scheduled for later this year, an even steeper climb.
In his opening statement, Mr. Guldi made a play for the jury’s sympathy. “I lost everything,” he said, his normally powerful voice lowered for effect. He is not accused of setting his house on fire, but of pocketing the insurance company’s $853,000 check, which was supposed to be deposited in escrow and put toward the home’s reconstruction. Instead, Mr. Guldi, prosecutors say, stashed the money in a private account and left the destroyed home to fester.
“This insurance check was my money, not the bank’s,” he told the room, with mournful sincerity. “They’re prosecuting me for taking my own money!”
Mr. Guldi is a bulging man, with a great squeezed reptilian neck, brillo-pad hair and pockmarks dotting his face. He has a penchant for colorful bow ties. In court last Monday, his tie was orange, his suit tan, with bits of fraying visible along a shoulder seam and a pant leg. Besides occasional barks of laughter, Mr. Guldi’s expression was mostly stern; at one point, he stared down a giggling toddler in the back of the courtroom.
Raised in Westhampton Beach, the 56-year-old millionaire has been a fixture of political life in Suffolk County for two decades. He used the wealth that came from a successful real estate law practice to put three sons through college and raise two more children with his second wife.