Two women guilty in Shoreline gifting tables case

New Haven Register, Connecticut/February 20, 2013

Hartford - Many who turned down invitations to join the Women's Gifting Table said the group seemed too good to be true, that something had to be wrong with it.

According to a federal jury, they were right.

A 17-day roller-coaster-ride of a trial - complete with nap-inducing testimony of various tax forms and a peculiar anecdote of a severed rabbit's head - ended Wednesday with a guilty verdict for two leaders of the Women's Gifting Table.

Defendants Donna Bello and Jill Platt, both of Guilford, were found guilty in U.S. District Court of all charges after 12 jurors deliberated for about two hours. Sentencing is scheduled for May, and both women remain free.

The case drew statewide attention with elements worthy of a Hollywood plot: transactions involving millions of dollars, an unsolved murder of a table member, a mysterious severed animal's head seen as a threat, a lying witness, a secret recording and the destruction of lifelong friendships. Then there's the possibility the trial has threatened the judgeship nomination for witness Shelley Marcus, who gave advice to women involved.

Bello and Platt were found guilty of one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit to defraud the IRS, while operating tables from 2008 to 2011. Bello, 56, also was convicted of 11 counts of wire fraud and two counts of filing a false tax return. Platt, 65, was convicted of four wire fraud counts and one count of filing a false tax return.

The government had labeled the tables an illegal pyramid scheme that worked to hide income from the IRS - for example, by storing cash in freezers instead of banks - and defraud both the IRS and participants.

Norm Pattis, who represented Bello, Jonathan J. Einhorn, who is Platt's attorney, and Platt all said after court adjourned that they were "disappointed" with the verdict. Einhorn said his client would appeal the decision, while Pattis said he would "evaluate all options."

Platt said she felt the jurors looked at her and Bello in the same light.

"I would have hoped they (jurors) would have given a little more time to discuss the charges. I'm very different from Donna. My circumstances are very different. … I think everything was decided before they went in," Platt said outside the courtroom.

She added the woman who invited her on the table claimed to have met with an attorney, who said tables were legal, and seeing lawyers join the tables gave her confidence in their legality.

The charges carry maximum prison terms that range from three to 20 years, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, but Einhorn said it's too early to speculate on a sentence. Judge Alvin W. Thompson, who presided over the case, said probation officers will compile a report to aid in a sentence decision.

Essex resident Bettejane Hopkins, a third woman arrested in May after a grand jury indictment, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the IRS in December and faces up to five years in prison, though part of her plea deal recommends between 30 to 37 months.

Women joined the gifting tables by paying what they were told was a tax-free "gift" of $5,000 to a high-ranking member and recruited other women. As more people joined, members climbed the table's four levels before reaching the highest status and receiving $5,000 from eight women. Once they received $40,000 each, they left the table or rejoined.

Hopkins made at least $89,500 on the tables, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, while Platt said during an August 2010 deposition for then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal's civil investigation that she made about $90,000.

It's unclear how much Bello made, as witnesses said they heard she went through six, eight, 10 or more times.

Defense lawyers, prosecutors and witnesses created an image of Bello as the leader of the enterprise. She's said to have spread it across the Shoreline upon receiving group guidelines from a friend and monitored table operations, whether she was a member of particular tables or not.

Bello wrote in emails that when she joined tables, Platt and Hopkins were always the two people she brought on as recruits.

"BJ, Jill and I have been a triangle for a year through several tables. We work well together. I don't want to change this," Bello wrote in an email entered into evidence.

Platt was portrayed as another "senior sister," but also as someone who helped introduce people to tables over lunch or coffee before they attended an official party or meeting. However, Einhorn said she was just like all the other witnesses: simply a participant.

Pattis often called into question why Bello and Platt were singled out for prosecution, since two witnesses allege tables are still operating on the Shoreline and many made significant amounts of money without reporting it.

U.S. Attorney David B. Fein said the verdict should serve as a warning to anyone continuing to participate in the tables and that the investigation is ongoing.

"As the jury's swift verdict of guilty on all counts makes clear, 'Gifting Tables' are pyramid schemes and illegal, plain and simple," Fein said.

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