Maybe Just Call Him Dr. Conti Instead? Scenes From The Kurniawan Trial
There was an amusing moment at the Rudy Kurniawan trial yesterday afternoon. Jim Wynne, the FBI agent who led the Kurniawan investigation, was on the witness stand and was asked by defense attorney Jerome Mooney to examine an empty magnum of 1937 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée-Conti that Kurniawan and some friends had signed. Mooney asked Wynne if he recognized any of the names. The bespectacled Wynne took the bottle, read aloud a few names, and then paused. “Big Boy?”, he said. “I don’t know who that is.” His comment elicited laughter from some of the reporters and wine experts on hand: Big Boy” is the nickname of the colorful Rob Rosania, a major New York collector who was close to Kurniawan. (When I later examined the bottle, I noticed it was actually signed “Big Boy Style”. I noticed, too, that someone had written “I’m a rat” and that someone had marked the date and time: 02-08-2008 8:38 pm). Don Cornwell and Maureen Downey, who are both attending the trial, whipped out their loupes as soon as the bottle was put on display and immediately judged it to be counterfeit; according to Downey, it had a computer-generated label.) As laughter rippled across the courtroom, Kurniawan turned around to look at the media section, and he was chuckling, too. I will admit that it was nice to see him smile; I was struck, on entering Courtroom 12D in the Daniel Moynihan United States Courthouse in lower Manhattan yesterday, by how awful he looked. I suppose 21 months behind bars would be hard on anyone, but it had clearly been hell on Kurniawan. He was pale and gaunt, barely filling his gray suit, and sadness was etched on his face. It appears no one from his family has come to the trial, which started on Monday, nor have any of his wine cronies been there. He is facing a long prison sentence, and he is totally alone except for his defense team—and they, of course, are being paid to sit at his side.
Mooney is Kurniawan’s second attorney; the 37-year-old collector dumped his first one, Michael Proctor, over the summer. That didn’t leave Mooney much time to prepare a defense; indeed, he is still figuring out how to pronounce his client’s name. Several times Tuesday, he said “Kurn-ee-yay-won,” but another time he pronounced it “Kurnee-a-won”. (Surnames seem to be a challenge for him generally; at one point, he referred to John Kapon as “John Capone”). If Mooney has cooked up a brilliant strategy to save Kurniawan, it was not apparent yesterday. He questioned Wynne for around two hours, and to say that he was grasping at straws would be putting it charitably; the bemused expression on Judge Richard M. Berman’s face pretty much told the story. In his folksy courtroom manner, Mooney grilled Wynne about the evidence that the FBI collected at Kurniawan’s Arcadia, California house the day it arrested him, and he sought to persuade the jury that what prosecutors claimed was a wine counterfeiting operation was really just one oenophile’s enthusiasm run amok. He noted that the FBI had found four bottles of 1985 Henri Jayer Richebourg lined up on a mantle in Kurniawan’s house and that the collector had taken a photo of the bottles. Mooney said there was nothing nefarious about this: Kurniawan just liked to take pictures of his trophy bottles. He also suggested that there was a perfectly innocent explanation for Kurniawan’s habit of removing labels from fancy bottles: he pointed out that Kurniawan was building a home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles and said that perhaps his client was planning to use the labels to wallpaper his new house.
After Mooney took a seat, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Hernandez, the government’s lead lawyer, quickly and methodically demolished the sand castle he had built. Hernandez asked Wynne if he was aware of any plans Kurniawan had to wallpaper his Bel Air pad with labels of famous wines; Wynne, keeping a straight face, said no. Hernandez wondered aloud if perhaps Kurniawan was also planning to use the importer strips, the Nicolas stamps (a reference to the negociant house Nicolas), the stencils, and the wax seals that the FBI had seized from his Arcadia home to decorate the Bel Air mansion. A couple of jurors looked ready to burst out laughing. Hernandez asked that the photo of the four Jayer bottles be shown again. He then produced an email that Kurniawan had sent to one Kristoffer Meier Axel at 12:30AM on March 8th 2012, in which Kurniawan offered to sell him four bottles of 1985 Jayer Richebourg. The email included that same photo. Hernandez pointed out that Kurniawan sent the email just hours before he was arrested by the FBI. Mooney didn’t appear to slump in his chair, but that’s okay: I slumped for him. It was a brutal moment, and hardly the only one that the defense has suffered. And not for the first time, observers were left to wonder how it was that this case even went to trial.
Two interesting tidbits from yesterday:
-Jim Wynne said that Kurniawan had wired $12 million to his brother Dar, who lives in Hong Kong, and another $5 million to his brother Teddy Tan, who resides in Indonesia. Wynne didn’t say when these transfers were made, but that might go some way to clearing up one of the big mysteries in this whole saga: what happened to all the money that Kurniawan made from the two Acker auctions in 2006, and why was he begging people for loans just months later? Wynne said that very little money flowed in the other direction, from Kurniawan’s brothers to him—“minimal amounts,” in his words. This appears to contradict what the government claimed at the time of Kurniawan’s arrest. In the March 9 2012 letter that prosecutors submitted to a US District Judge Denise Cote asking that Kurniawan be denied bail because he was a flight risk, the government asserted that “Kurniawan’s family has demonstrated its willingness to provide him with substantial resources when he needs them. For example, from 2010 to June 2011, one of Kurniawan’s brothers who resides in Asia sent Kurniawan approximately $1.5 million from a bank account on Hong Kong.” I was surprised that Mooney didn’t ask Wynne to explain these seemingly contradictory claims.
-During Wynne’s appearance on the witness stand, the jury was shown a short but intriguing email exchange between John Kapon and Kurniawan. Kurniawan emailed Kapon asking, “Can you get Dar 100 to 200 cases of cheap 80s Bordeaux? Like 81 to 88? 400-700 a cs.” Kapon answered, “Will look into it but those prices barely exist anymore.” The emails were sent on April 14 2008; although it wasn’t pointed out in court, this was 11 days before the Acker Merrall auction at which Kurniawan tried to sell the allegedly fake Ponsot bottles, which ultimately led to his arrest. Why did Kurniawan ask Kapon to get his brother in Hong Kong such a large cache of cheap old Bordeaux, and did this peculiar request set off any alarm bells at Acker?
Speaking of Ponsot: Laurent Ponsot spent a good part of yesterday milling around in the hallway outside Judge Berman’s courtroom, awaiting his call to testify. Thanks to Mooney’s lengthy cross-examination of Wynne, the call never came. Ponsot is expected to finally be on the witness stand today. Ponsot is smart, witty, and has a flair for the dramatic; it should be an entertaining day in court.