NEW YORK — As the sentencing of a Long Island lawyer began Tuesday, the courtroom immediately assumed the posture of a house divided.
The left side of Justice Gregory Carro’s courtroom in Manhattan was filled with supporters and close relatives of the lawyer, Robert J. Cassandro; on the right sat a knot of relatives who were fleeced by Cassandro.
Randy Nassau sobbed as she told the court about handing her life savings of $50,000 over to Cassandro, her brother-in-law, for a real estate deal. She had trusted him, she said, because he was married to her sister.
But he never repaid the loan, and when she asked about the money, he put her off with excuse after excuse, while living an ostentatious lifestyle. “We were family and you took advantage of that love and trust,’’ she said, weeping. “You callously stole our savings.’’
Nassau’s parents, Jerry Perelmutter and Jamie Saddock, also gave victim-impact statements.
Cassandro, 47, was found guilty of first-degree scheme to defraud on May 13 after a two-month trial in state Supreme Court in Manhattan. The jury acquitted him of the more serious charge of grand larceny.
“I am extremely remorseful,’’ he told the judge. “I am sorry to have let everyone down.’’
Carro was unmoved. He sentenced Cassandro to the maximum allowed under state law for operating a scheme to defraud — 15 months to four years in prison. The judge also ordered the lawyer, who faces disbarment proceedings and has declared bankruptcy, to pay back $5.8 million to investors.
“All I can say to your parents is the values they tried to instill in you never made it,’’ the judge said. “You victimized people. You didn’t just make a mess of their lives.’’
Cassandro’s two children broke into tears as the sentence was announced, while other family members who had supported him during the trial, among them his wife and mother, embraced one another.
The evidence presented at trial showed Cassandro had operated a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme for a decade, obtaining loans for at least $11 million from his relatives and friends to build about 30 single-family homes on Long Island. He pledged the new houses as security for the loans.
But prosecutors showed at trial that he had already used the properties to leverage loans from multiple sources, collecting amounts far above what he needed to build the projects.
Prosecutors also presented evidence that Cassandro persuaded several people in Manhattan, including his wife’s parents, to give him $4.6 million over several years, which was deposited into escrow accounts under his control. He used that money as a “slush fund’’ to pay his mortgage, country club dues and personal credit cards, the evidence suggested.
During the sentencing, Sarah Sacks, an assistant district attorney who handled the case, pointed out that Cassandro spent money he had taken from investors on luxuries. He bought a race horse, finished his basement, built a glass-enclosed home gym and a private pool, and paid for expensive bar and bat mitzvah parties. “This defendant lived a life of privilege,’’ she said.
Taking the stand in his own defense, Cassandro portrayed his real estate investments as legitimate business deals that failed. He also maintained his manipulation of the escrow accounts was legal.
His lawyers, Edward J. Mandery and Peter J. Tomao, argued that Cassandro intended to repay the loans and painted his backers as victims of the housing market crash of 2007 and 2008. “He was unable to keep up,’’ Tomao said.