Cyber founder seeks dismissal of charges
PITTSBURGH — Defense attorneys for a man charged with illegally siphoning more than $8 million from a cyber-charter school he founded want a judge to dismiss the charges, or throw out much of the evidence against him, because of alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
The attorneys for Nicholas Trombetta, the founder and former CEO of The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, contend federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh improperly used informants to record conversations with attorneys “who the government knew were providing legal advice to Trombetta” and conversations in which the informants learned of advice Trombetta got from attorneys.
That violates Trombetta’s attorney-client privilege and should result in dismissal of the charges if it’s determined the grand jury relied on that information, the defense argued.
“The government’s actions in this case were widespread, long-standing, deliberate and shocking,” Trombetta’s lead defense attorney, Adam Hoffinger, wrote.
Failing that, the defense attorneys want U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti to keep out of evidence any information the government got from search warrants based on the recordings, notably Trombetta’s emails.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh declined to comment on the allegations filed Tuesday.
Trombetta surrendered in August after resigning months before from the school also known as PA Cyber, which he founded in Midland in 2000.
U.S. Attorney David Hickton contends Trombetta manipulated related companies that he created to draw additional money from the school, which he spent on himself, real estate and a $300,000 plane.
Trombetta allegedly bought a Bonita Springs, Fla., condominium for $933,000, paid $180,000 for houses for his mother and girlfriend in Ohio, and spent $990,000 more for groceries and personal expenses, Hickton said. The rest of the money allegedly was funneled through Avanti Management Group, to create what Hickton likened to Trombetta’s “retirement account.”
Avanti was a for-profit company that did contract work for the National Network of Digital Schools.
Trombetta, 59, of East Liverpool, Ohio, allegedly controlled Avanti through four “straw” owners who pretended to own the company that Hickton contends was really 80 percent controlled by Trombetta. Two of those alleged “straw owners” are cooperating with the government and beginning in January 2012 agreed to have their conversations “with Trombetta, his lawyers and others” recorded using hidden devices, Hoffinger wrote.
“The government had to have known that wiring its informants to record these lawyers was almost certain to interfere with Trombetta’s attorney-client relationships,” Hoffinger wrote.
A heavily redacted memorandum said the informants recorded conversations involving four attorneys who represented Trombetta or the various companies he controlled, and conversations about Trombetta’s former criminal defense attorney, J. Alan Johnson.
PA Cyber and the National Network of Digital Schools have continued to operate under new management since Trombetta resigned. With more than 11,000 students, PA Cyber is by far the largest of the state’s 16 cyber schools.
Conti has not scheduled a hearing on the defense motion.