Ex-judge saw 20-year friendship derailed by sour business

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A chance meeting roughly 20 years ago at the former Pittsburgh nightclub Donzi's brought the veteran judge and the young tennis player together.

Florida's real estate collapse drove them apart.

For more than two decades, the friendship flourished -- and the money flowed -- between retired Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert P. Horgos and former Monroeville tennis star Alfredo J. Sararo III, two men whose differences were as wide as their 22-year age gap.

"Alfredo Sararo III was like a member of his family," said Louis M. Tarasi Jr., one of Mr. Horgos's lawyers.

Mr. Horgos helped Mr. Sararo get a job as a probation officer. Later, he and Mr. Sararo became business partners, made speculative property investments in Florida, and drew other prominent Pittsburghers -- including lawyers, a doctor and another judge -- into the booming Gulf Coast real estate market.

But the two have since fallen out, and since at least 2007 have been under federal investigation for their land dealings.

They are also locked in several legal battles over financial and property losses that Mr. Tarasi said have brought the judge to financial ruin.

After talking on the phone up to 24 times a day at one point, according to Mr. Sararo's estimate, the only contact the two have these days is with attorneys present.

In a recent interview, Mr. Tarasi described the federal probe as "dormant." But law enforcement sources said the case remains active, with federal investigators exploring the tax consequences and other aspects of the onetime partners' land deals.

Mr. Tarasi also detailed numerous developments in the judge's 2008 federal fraud and racketeering suit against Mr. Sararo and others, which claims that his former friend conspired with notaries, lawyers and Fifth Third Bank to take his money and property through forged documents.

That case, Mr. Tarasi said, is progressing "forthwith." He said Fifth Third Bank recently made a written, six-figure settlement offer, which he rejected as insufficient, to cover losses to Mr. Horgos estimated as at least $1.2 million.

Mr. Sararo denies all wrongdoing, said his lawyer, Robert Rosenblatt.

Fifth Third declined comment.

Mr. Tarasi, who would not allow Mr. Horgos to be interviewed, said his client has been hurt financially and also feels responsible to repay friends who invested and lost perhaps $2 million of their own money.

Those investors include Mr. Horgos's two brothers and two of his cousins; Senior Common Pleas Judge Gerard M. Bigley; Pittsburgh lawyers Samuel Kamin and his son, Jonathan; a Scott doctor, Dominic Brandy, who is known for performing hair transplants, and his brother, Jerry; and former Stowe commissioner James Selelyo and his wife, Robinson Commissioner Stephanie Triko-Selelyo, who have also sued Mr. Sararo in federal court.

In a recently obtained deposition of Mr. Horgos in a lawsuit he filed against Mr. Sararo in Charlotte County, Fla., Mr. Horgos said all of those investors put in between $150,000 and $450,000 each to buy Florida property.

Mr. Horgos revealed that the IRS questioned him about unreported sales of Florida properties -- sales he claims he knew nothing about and were orchestrated by Mr. Sararo. He also said the FBI and Pittsburgh-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Conway, who is directing the investigation, questioned him in 2007.

Disputed documents

Lawyers and investigators are trying to unravel a series of complicated banking and real estate transactions. But authenticating documents at the heart of the dispute will be tricky due to allegations of fraudulent papers and forged signatures.

Mr. Tarasi said a handwriting expert retained on behalf of Mr. Horgos has identified more than 30 documents -- deeds, checks, account authorizations and powers of attorney -- that do not have his client's true signature.

But complicating things further: Mr. Horgos acknowledged in his deposition that he has signed the "H" in his name two different ways.

That deposition and one of Mr. Sararo, which have not been made public, show the two sides agree on few things. Many of the questions lawyers asked, for instance, had to do with resolving conflicting information about the purchase of property in Charlotte County.

Answers to other questions provide a window into the pair's business dealings and relationship.

In his deposition, Mr. Horgos said that while a sitting judge he:

• Used his office fax machine and his secretary, Charlene Baker, to send Mr. Sararo a recommendation letter that helped him get his job as an Allegheny County probation officer, and instructions on caring for the judge's Naples condominium.

"That's not extraordinary use of county business in my opinion," Mr. Tarasi said. "I think he only did that once or twice."

Ms. Baker declined comment.

• Maintained a relationship with a boyhood chum, Ernest J. Kaschauer, who is a convicted felon, and used the fax machine at Mr. Kaschauer's business, the Swissvale Express Market, on Noble Street.

Mr. Horgos claimed he was unaware of Mr. Kaschauer's criminal history, which includes guilty pleas in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties to retail theft in 1986, 1987, 1990, 1993, 2002, and 2007, and a federal conviction in 1995 for interstate transportation of stolen property. Mr. Kaschauer, 68, received a 22-month sentence.

Mr. Kaschauer, however, said the judge spoke with him about his federal conviction.

"He asked me about it," Mr. Kaschauer said. "If he don't remember that, that's fine."

• Said he disclosed rental income he received from his Sewickley Hills home in the 1990s in mandatory filings with the state Supreme Court and State Ethics Commission. A review of those filings, however, shows Mr. Horgos did not.

Mr. Tarasi said his client was not required to disclose that type of rental income. However, the forms require judges to disclose rental income above a certain threshold.

"He might have made a mistake," Mr. Tarasi said.

In statements filed in 2007 and 2008, Mr. Horgos declared rental income from a luxury condominium he owned in Naples in the Dunes II development, as well as one of the Charlotte County properties involved in the dispute with Mr. Sararo.

• Socialized twice with Mr. Sararo in the "executive offices" of Club Erotica, a McKees Rocks strip club.

Mr. Horgos knew the owner, Vincenzo Isoldi, from getting his hair cut at a salon Mr. Isoldi ran, Mr. Tarasi said. Property records also show that the judge sold a Munhall property to Mr. Isoldi in 1999.

Mr. Isoldi recalled that the judge entered the club through the back door and spent only a few minutes in the offices with him and Mr. Sararo, who was a regular at the establishment.

Nightclub meeting

Mr. Horgos, 61, and Mr. Sararo, 39, were unusual candidates for friendship.

Mr. Horgos handled complex litigation during a 26-year career on the bench. The Munhall native graduated from Villanova University's law school, spent a brief time in Harrisburg, and eventually moved to Sewickley Hills. Before getting involved in buying Florida land with Mr. Sararo he had limited real estate experience.

Mr. Sararo, 39, was a Monroeville tennis star with an associate degree from the Community College of Allegheny County who made the judge his son's godfather. He moved around the country holding different jobs, from probation officer to tennis pro at what is now the Oxford Racquet Club in Monroeville, to real estate "consultant."

Mr. Sararo has also had recent brushes with the law in Florida over fraud allegations in connection with theft and passing bad checks. One case is pending, he pleaded no contest in another, and charges were dropped in a third.

Long before those arrests, Mr. Sararo spent a night at Donzi's, the former nightclub in the Strip District. Mr. Horgos was there as well. A shared birthday -- May 17 -- led to their meeting.

"...They announced 'People that have a birthday to come forward' or whatever. And we did, and I got to meet him," Mr. Horgos said. "And from there, our relationship, I guess, just blossomed."

Mr. Sararo said they met in 1992, and he did not recall any birthday celebration.

Mr. Horgos said he and Mr. Sararo had several mutual friends, including New Kensington lawyer Duke George Jr. and his family. Mr. George's son, Christian, is a close friend of both Mr. Sararo and his brother, Christopher.

After their meeting, Mr. Horgos and Mr. Sararo began going out to dinner several nights a week. Mr. Horgos recommended him for a job as a probation officer.

Mr. Sararo then entered the franchise pizza business with Varol Ablak, president of Vocelli Pizza (formerly Pizza Outlet), whom he met through mutual friends in Pittsburgh. Eventually, Mr. Horgos got involved, too, as Mr. Sararo's partner in a shop in Morgantown, W.Va.

Mr. Sararo moved to the Naples, Fla., area in 2000 and got involved in flipping real estate, earning about $90,000 on his first sale. He began banking with Fifth Third Bank and Regions Bank. Both institutions would end up being sued by Mr. Horgos.

In 2001, Mr. Horgos made his first foray into Florida real estate, buying his Naples condominium after visiting Mr. Sararo.

Mr. Sararo said he and Mr. Horgos agreed to buy properties together. Mr. Horgos would line up investors. Mr. Sararo would handle the details on the ground, obtaining information about real estate and handling payments.

Mr. Sararo stated that "a lot of agreements that were done were written up by Mr. Horgos or his secretary, Charlene."

Mr. Horgos "wanted to become an avid investor, seeing what his Dunes condo did," Mr. Sararo said, adding that Mr. Horgos planned to find buyers for properties. "He knew a lot of people."

Around 2004, Mr. Horgos's Pittsburgh friends began to invest.

Mr. Horgos said Judge Bigley got involved after overhearing a telephone discussion between Mr. Horgos and Mr. Sararo while eating with Mr. Horgos at the Churchill Valley Country Club.

Mr. Horgos said he approached the Kamins, the Brandys and Judge Bigley, who gave him money orders.

As Mr. Sararo explained it: "I didn't have a relationship with the Brandys or Bigley or the Kamins ... Judge Horgos had the relationship with them ... I didn't know them. They weren't just going to send me all the money."

At least one potential investor, Mr. Isoldi, said in an interview that Mr. Horgos approached him to buy in. He declined.

A ruptured friendship

In 2008, Mr. Horgos filed a series of lawsuits accusing Mr. Sararo of conspiring with others to strip him of his ownership in his Florida properties. He accused Fifth Third Bank of allowing Mr. Sararo to make unauthorized withdrawals from an account of sums as high as $645,000.

One of the Fifth Third bankers Mr. Sararo said he did business with was Frances Agosto, who is named in the federal suit by Mr. Horgos. Ms. Agosto confirmed in a 2008 interview that she had spoken with the FBI.

Ms. Agosto, a former financial center manager at the bank in Naples, recently pleaded guilty in Collier County, Fla., to embezzling funds. She admitted that she stole about $26,000 from two customers of the bank. It could not be determined whether the case is related to Mr. Horgos's allegations. Ms. Agosto is scheduled to be sentenced next month and faces up to 15 years in prison.

Mr. Tarasi said he believes that Mr. Sararo set up his client early in their relationship, ingratiating himself with the idea that the judge's connections could one day be exploited.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Sararo's lawyer has the opposite view.

"Former Judge Horgos used his position of trust to mislead some of his fellow judges and friends into overpaying for real estate in southwest Florida," Mr. Rosenblatt said.

"If you believe that the banks, real estate attorneys, and the other defendants all conspired to defraud an experienced, sophisticated long-serving, experienced judge, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you."

Correction/Clarification: (Published Feb. 2, 2010) Louis M. Tarasi Jr., a lawyer for retired Allegheny County Judge Robert P. Horgos, says his client never had a joint account at Fifth Third Bank with Alfredo J. Sararo III and says he has the bank records to prove it. This story as originally published Jan. 31, 2010 about the men's relationship did not clarify that the information about the account was based solely on Mr. Sararo's testimony during a deposition in a suit Mr. Horgos filed against him in Florida.

Marylynne Pitz contributed. Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962. Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.


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