Amati conviction upheld; sentence vacated
More than 2 1/2 years after his conviction and 14 months after his appeal was heard, suspended District Justice Ronald Amati, of Monongahela, won and lost in the same appellate court ruling.
In a ruling posted on its Web site, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions of Amati and former Belle Vernon Area School District teacher Debra Vlanich. In the same ruling, Amati’s sentence was “vacated.”
On Feb. 5, Amati was convicted in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh on one count each of criminal conspiracy to operate an illegal gambling business, operating an illegal gambling business and conspiring to obstruct state or local law enforcement.
Vlanich was found guilty of conspiracy to operate an illegal gambling business
Attorneys for Amati and Vlanich then argued that their clients had been entrapped and too few people were involved to constitute an illegal gambling business. Those arguments were rejected by the appellate court.
The court ruled that Amati’s 42-month sentence was too harsh, suggesting 21 to 27 months would have been sufficient. A new sentencing hearing was ordered to be held in Pittsburgh.
The ruling leaves the door open for the lower court to revisit whether Amati perjured himself when he testified during the trial, which ran Jan. 4 to Feb. 5, 2001.
“Since the case will be remanded for resentencing, the district court will have an opportunity to reconsider the perjury issue. We make no final determination on that subject, but merely note that a finding that appellant obstructed justice by false testimony at trial must set forth specifically the testimony found to be false, and must be based upon that testimony itself, rather than counsel’s interpretation of the testimony. We note also that the jury’s finding of guilt does not establish that the jury rejected appellant’s testimony,” the judges stated in their ruling.
The ruling, filed Wednesday, comes more than a year after a three-judge panel heard the case July 12, 2002.
U.S. District Court Judge Gustave Diamond, who presided over the trial and sentenced Amati, told The Valley Independent he will hold a sentencing conference with attorneys for both sides Monday. A date for resentencing will follow, he said.
Diamond welcomed the appellate court ruling.
“That’s their ruling and I accept it,” Diamond said. “I made the ruling I made. I felt I was properly interpreting the sentencing guidelines. They felt differently.”
If the lower court follows the sentencing guidelines suggested in the Third Circuit ruling, Amati soon could be released from jail.
Amati began serving his sentence June 11, 2001.
When he will be released, however, depends on how Diamond views a perjury issue.
According to the ruling, Diamond found that Amati “committed willful and intentional perjury in an attempt to support his defense of entrapment. …”
If that finding remains, Amati’s sentence could be reduced to 33 months, Diamond said. Based on that, Amati would be eligible for release in November.
Defense attorney Efrem M. Grail, who argued Amati’s case in the appellate court, said he received the ruling late Thursday.
“I think Ron would see this as a bittersweet victory,” Grail said. “He was hoping for exoneration by the appellate court by having his conviction overturned.”
Grail said Amati is “grateful” the appellate court ruling “vacating” the sentence will make the suspended district justice eligible for release. Grail expressed hope that the judge would order Amati’s release during the resentencing hearing.
Asked if he thought Amati would be freed before the end of the year, Diamond said, “I would think so.”
Whether Amati returns to the bench, though, will be up to the state.
On April 23, 1999, the state Supreme Court ordered Amati “relieved of all judicial and administrative responsibilities until further order of this court.” Amati, however, continued to receive his salary.
District justices received salaries of $55,027 in 1999 and $56,348 in 2000. The salary rose to $57,475 in 2001.
He was suspended without pay shortly after a federal jury convicted him.
Asked if the Judicial Conduct Board would recommend Amati be removed from office as a result of the recent ruling, chief counsel Joseph Massa Jr. said, “This is a priority matter and we will take due and deliberate action.”
In the wake of the suspension, Senior District Justice Walter Mark, of Canonsburg, took over Amati’s district court operation in Monongahela.
Despite his suspension in April 1999, Amati won the Democratic nomination for re-election in May 1999. Less than a month after he was indicted on federal gambling charges, Amati was overwhelmingly re-elected to a six-year term.
Although he was sworn in at the end of 1999, Amati never returned to the bench.