Mark Melchiori, who once upon a time ran one of Santa Barbara’s premier construction companies, was perp-walked out of Judge Jim Herman’s courtroom Thursday with his hands cuffed behind his back, after being sentenced to nine years and four months for bilking Hollywood producer and director Robert Zemeckis out of $500,000 in 2012, as well as host of other fraudulent activities. Judge Herman imposed the maximum sentence on Melchiori, noting how the construction executive had used the pen to inflict widespread damage on a multitude of people instead of the sword.
Herman noted the sophistication of the fraud involved. Subcontractors were intimidated into filing inflated invoices, accountants pressured into submitting exaggerated bills, all so Melchiori could enjoy a lavish lifestyle. Melchiori, according to one witness, kept a 9 millimeter Berreta on his desk and a shotgun slung up against his office wall. He used the company to buy a $2 million house, drive an expensive Porsche, and host a bash at the Bacara for his daughter’s 16th birthday party, at which she was given a brand new car as a present.
One of Melchiori’s victims — one of the company’s founding partners — testified that he had heard Melchiori’s ex-wife angrily instruct her daughter to run him over with that car after he’d objected to Melchiori’s antics. Mark Melchiori, the man testified, used the company as his own private bank. Over a four-year period, Melchiori reportedly misappropriated $10 million from the company.
Although Melchiori only stole $500,000 from Zemeckis — submitting false invoices for work that was never done and inflated invoices for work that was only partially done — the movie producer testified in court that he had suffered $1 million in losses. Because Melchiori failed to pay his subcontractors, Zemeckis said, a lien was put on his house, and he was forced to make payments to remove the lien. Likewise, he noted, the job was only half done. When the trouble surfaced, Zemeckis testified, Melchiori failed to return hundreds of phone calls and “disappeared like a thief in the night.”
Judge Herman heard testimony from many other victims, their voices cracking with emotion. Workers went unpaid, their retirement accounts raided, and Social Security payments not made. Retirements were postponed, college education funds depleted. The ex-wife of one former Melchiori employee testified that the financial ruin caused by Melchiori’s declared bankruptcy caused her husband to go into a deep depression; eventually, their marriage failed.
Although Melchiori submitted a short letter expressing sorrow for what he did, he never testified in court. His attorney, Doug Hayes, argued that his client should be given probation. No physical violence had been inflicted, he argued, only financial. And he was sorry. If Melchiori was locked up, Hayes added, he could never make restitution.
Prosecuting attorney Casey Nelson said Melchiori had no intention of ever paying his victims back. In eight years, Nelson said, Melchiori had paid only $640 into a restitution fund, this despite the fact that Melchiori has been earning $9,000 a month working for a contractor in Northern California.
Judge Herman insisted that Melchiori needed do prison time, citing the number of people who’d lost their jobs and savings in the fallout of the company’s eventual bankruptcy. The crime was so complex and premeditated, he added, that it took skilled forensic auditors several investigations to determine all the different ways Melchiori broke the law. The full extent of the economic damage remains still to be determined, said prosecutor Nelson.
Melchiori took over the company his father, Ugo Melchiori, an Italian immigrant, had started. Ugo Melchiori enjoyed widespread respect and admiration within Santa Barbara’s community of contractors, subcontractors, and building trades. Many testifying before Judge Herman were either first- or second-generation Italian immigrants. Several interjected Italian phrases into their testimony.
In an interview in the courthouse hallway during a break, one Italian-born former partner issued a choice curse in Italian and then translated. “A pile of shit,” he said, “is a pile of shit.”