A Georgetown civic leader who said he was robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars by a purported mob associate working as his driver sought justice by complaining to police.
While his driver was ultimately convicted and jailed, formerly secret wiretap recordings made from his cell phone reveal another side to Georgetown Planning Board Member Christopher Rich. The recordings eventually were used to free the employee and now are drawing new scrutiny for Rich.
Rich, a former attorney, has a resume that includes stints as a hospital CEO and part-owner of the Georgetown Country Club. He’s also running for a seat on the Georgetown Board of Assessors.
It’s a background that makes his decision to hire Joseph LaFratta all the more puzzling.
LaFratta is a reputed mob associate whose criminal record dates back decades. When Rich hired him, LaFratta was finishing a federal sentence for stealing alumni donations from Tufts University, where he used to work.
After the two had a falling out, Rich told police that LaFratta stole more than $200,000 from him by taking his checks and forging his signature. Based largely on Rich's word, a judge convicted LaFratta of forgery and other charges and sentenced him to six years in jail.
But the judge didn't hear the whole story at first.
LaFratta’s phone had been tapped as part of an organized crime investigation into gambling and narcotics. Numerous conversations between LaFratta and Rich were recorded.
“It seems pretty clear that you were talking about illegal activity,” FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked Rich.
“Mr. LaFratta was tried and convicted for issues in my office. And nothing ever came up between state police or anything like that,” Rich replied. “I would imagine that would have been the place for it to come out. There were never any illegal activities spoken between Mr. LaFratta and myself.”
The transcripts didn't come out at trial because they hadn't been turned over by prosecutors.
Rich later told FOX Undercover it wasn’t him on those recordings, that state police were mistaken in identifying him.
But state police organized crime investigators had no doubt it was Rich talking to LaFratta, noting in an affidavit that “LaFratta – who has been intercepted calling Rich either “Chris” or “Chris Rich” – speaks to Rich on an almost daily basis, and the two appear to be involved in some criminal activity together.”
And one conversation they listened in on "…clearly demonstrated that Rich is a partner in LaFratta's gambling business” state police wrote in their affidavit.
A transcript of one conversation shows the two talking about a potential gambling windfall depending on the outcome of the 2005 Superbowl, New England Patriots versus the Philadelphia Eagles.
“If they lose we win big big."? Rich asks.
“Yeah," LaFratta replies. "Big big. Very big."
"Pay off the boat big?" Rich asks.
"Pay off a couple of boats" LaFratta says.
The two also discussed what state police called "…a potential scheme to rob the Georgetown Country Club" of a $40,000-dollar Superbowl betting pool.
"Maybe you should send somebody over there to visit," Rich says.
"’Cause that would be a nice score," says LaFratta.
FOX Undercover asked Rich about what was in the transcripts.
“Weren't you talking about having him rob the Georgetown Country Club?” asked Beaudet.
“Ha. Absolutely not. I was part owner of the Georgetown Country Club,” Rich replied.
“Conversations about gambling?” Beaudet asked.
“No sir,” Rich replied.
“It’s on tape. We have the transcripts. Be happy to show them to you,” Beaudet said.
“Glad you have transcripts. If anything of that ilk was ever done or brought out I would imagine it would have come out in Mr. LaFratta's criminal trial, where he was convicted. And by the way is presently serving time,” Rich said.
Rich is right that LaFratta was convicted.
But he's no longer serving time.
He sat down for an interview with FOX Undercover.
“I have to say I'm no angel. I have a bad history. I’ve done a lot of things that I regret. But every time I ever committed a crime and got caught, I pled guilty,” LaFratta said. “But this time I didn't commit any crime.”
LaFratta says he didn’t commit the crime because the checks weren’t forged.
“He gave you those checks?” Beaudet asked.
“Absolutely. Every one,” LaFratta replied.
“Why did he give you all those checks?” Beaudet asked.
“He had ideas and things he wanted to do,” LaFratta said. “Maybe he watched The Sopranos one too many times.”
LaFratta wont' say what he did with the money, but says Rich was enamored with his underworld connections.
“Every week I was with him his cigars got bigger,” LaFratta said. “I don’t know what he was thinking, to be honest with you. I think he thought he was part of something.”
“A gangster?” Beaudet asked.
“Yeah, maybe,” LaFratta said. “I know when he realized he wasn't a gangster he went and joined the Knights of Columbus, so maybe he's underboss with them.”
LaFratta’s joking now, but he was looking at spending six years in jail, all the while suspecting his phone was tapped and that records from those calls would probably free him.
“I'm sitting there and no one cares. I knew this stuff was out there, and nobody cared,” LaFratta said. “My mother was my best investigator. She called people, she ran around like a nut. And we ended up having to do it on our own.”
“Did you think you'd be sitting there for the whole six years?” Beaudet asked.
“Absolutely,” LaFratta replied.
Seven months into his six-year sentence, another inmate sent records from his own case proving that LaFratta’s phone was tapped and conversations between he and Rich were recorded.
After reading transcripts of the calls between Rich and LaFratta, Salem District Court Judge Robert Brennan ordered a new trial. Brennan is the same judge who earlier presided over LaFratta’s trial and, acting as the jury, found him guilty.
“The difference between Mr. Rich's presentation on the witness stand and the person that I saw or heard about, or heard from I guess indirectly on those transcripts, is again nothing short of, I'm not stunned but…it would have affected my assessment of his credibility,” Brennan said at October 8, 2010 hearing.
“When they ordered me a new trial, the judge said, ‘Mr. LaFratta, these conversations don't necessarily paint you in too good of a light, either,’” LaFratta said.
“But I never said I was in a good light,” he continued. “Chris Rich was the officer of the court. You know what I mean? He was an attorney…he's the one that portrayed himself to be a victim throughout all this. Those conversations show that he is no victim. Not now or never was.”
Asked why the wiretap transcripts weren’t turned over before LaFratta’s trial, Essex County First Assistant District Attorney John Dawley said his office was unaware of their existence at the time because the organized crime investigation was being run by prosecutors in Middlesex County.
Once they were discovered, Dawley said, they were turned over immediately.
Asked if Rich could be charged, a spokesperson for the Essex DA said the office is taking a look at the entire case, and all options remain open.
That includes the possibility of re-charging LaFratta even though the DA dropped the original case against him.