The day that Judge James Herman was set to bang the gavel of Mark Melchiori’s construction fraud trial to order, Melchiori — once a lion among Santa Barbara’s high-profile contractors — pleaded guilty to three counts of fraud that carry a maximum sentence of nine years behind bars. “When you start pulling out the trial binders, that’s when the rubber hits the road,” commented prosecuting attorney Casey Nelson.
Even if imposed, the nine-year sentence is considerably less than the 47-year maximum that was suggested when charges were first brought against Melchiori, who is accused of bilking Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis of at least $400,000 for a protracted home remodel job that started nearly nine years ago. In addition, Melchiori is accused of short-changing an indeterminate number of employees and contractors an as-yet-unspecified amount for work performed. The total amount involved is said to be in the neighborhood of $1 million. The fraud was discovered, Nelson stated, only after all work on the remodel stopped. Nelson stressed that he will seek jail time at sentencing.
Melchiori’s defense attorney, Doug Hayes, noted that his client pleaded guilty to only three of the 47 criminal counts against him. Hayes acknowledged his client broke the law but cautioned that it’s not uncommon for many in the construction industry to use funds from one job to finance other projects. “To call him a criminal is to label a whole lot of people in that business ‘criminal,’” Hayes noted. Hayes took exception with Nelson’s charge that Melchiori financed a “lavish personal lifestyle” with Zemeckis’s money, but he acknowledged Melchiori used the funds to cover “personal expenses.” Melchiori, Hayes noted, is 52 and has no criminal record.
To the extent Judge Herman orders restitution on behalf of Melchiori’s victims, Hayes argued putting his client behind bars will make that exceptionally difficult if not impossible. How much restitution is required, prosecutor Nelson stated, has not been precisely tabulated yet.
Melchiori Construction was founded in 1990 by Ugo Melchiori, Mark’s father, and worked its way up from modest beginnings into one of the premier operations in town. In 20 years, Melchiori handled about 1,700 projects, including major efforts with UCSB, the Four Seasons Resort the Biltmore, Chapala One, and The Granada Theatre, to name just a few. Over time, Mark Melchiori took over from his father and by 2010 — about the time of the Zemeckis remodel — the company was experiencing serious turbulence. According to court records, Melchiori had paid himself a salary of $700,000-$900,000 between 2005 and 2009. In 2012, no fewer than 25 lawsuits were filed by unhappy customers, subcontractors, and employees. A few years later, Melchiori would declare bankruptcy.