By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Feeling the Burn
A wealthy, well-connected Newport Beach husband and wife are the mystery victims in an alleged extortion plot by their former personal trainer and an ex-chairman of the OC Democratic Party
One-eyed vitamin- and weight-loss-supplement king Richard “Dick” Marconi and his wife, Priscilla, are an attractive, older, wealthy Newport Beach couple who enjoy publicity in glossy coffee-table magazines. The Marconis regularly attend high-society events, do impressive charitable work and have been seen near ringside at Las Vegas-casino boxing matches. After giving campaign contributions, they’ve gained access to top Orange County law-enforcement officers, including District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and, when he was in office, Sheriff Mike Carona. Indeed, as revealed during Carona’s federal trial, which ended with the ex-sheriff getting a 66-month prison sentence, the couple enjoyed a friendship with the corrupt cop.
But despite the Marconis’ prior love of the spotlight, they’ve recently become media-shy, and after some digging, the Weekly has discovered why. According to multiple law-enforcement sources, the couple has been telling authorities an embarrassing behind-the-scenes story of an alleged sexual affair involving a $150-per-hour, supposedly gay personal trainer; love letters; gifts, including a diamond-encrusted Hublot watch; intimate photographs; illicit narcotics; luxurious vacations; vicious betrayals; threatening telephone calls; and a $360,000 extortion plot that snared the former chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party and included a sting operation worthy of a Hollywood flick.
OC crime hasn’t been this scandalous since Eddie Allen, the husband of the vice chairwoman of the local GOP, was caught swindling millions of dollars from rich Republicans in the early 1990s by fabricating a wildly sensational personal history that could have inspired Forrest Gump.
You may have read the bare basics of the Marconi tale several weeks ago on this paper’s Navel Gazing blog or in a brief Orange County Register story. But—thanks to an attempt by the district attorney’s office to prosecute the early stages of the case in relative secrecy—neither the Register reporters nor I knew at the time that the Marconis were involved. Indeed, the DA’s office, which issued a press release about the extortion-plot arrests of ex-Democratic boss James Toledano and personal trainer Michael Earl Roberts, didn’t identify who’d been the alleged victim or victims. The complaint against Toledano and Roberts referred not-very-cryptically to the Marconis as “Richard M.” and “Priscilla M.”
It took me a couple of minutes to crack the code. Here’s the Marconi/law-enforcement version (based on interviews and records) of events: Priscilla “Bo” Marconi met Roberts through her hairdresser in 1995, and he became the couple’s fitness trainer. In about 2001, the Marconis invited the then-30-year-old, 6-foot, 205-pound Roberts to move into their Newport Beach estate. Dick Marconi “understood” that Roberts was “a homosexual” and therefore “was considered safe and appropriate for Priscilla to spend time with,” police wrote in a report.
For years, Roberts and Priscilla enjoyed a bond that she has described as like “two high-school girlfriends.” They shopped, ate, exercised and even vacationed together. Roberts considered Dick—an accomplished artist and race-car enthusiast who owns the Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin—“like a father.”
But the relationship began souring in 2003 when Roberts’ behavior became “erratic” from methamphetamine and steroid use and because he’d borrow money from them and their wealthy friends without repaying it, according to the DA’s criminal complaint. By 2004, the Marconis had had enough. They asked Roberts to vacate their mansion. The following year, they told authorities they’d received numerous “angry and threatening” telephone calls from Roberts. In August 2006, Roberts was served with a restraining order.
The feuding continued into 2007, when Roberts hired Costa Mesa attorney James Toledano, the onetime chairman of the county’s Democratic Party and a three-time unsuccessful state assembly candidate. Toledano crafted a Nov. 21, 2007, settlement-offer letter to Priscilla, claiming that her “egregious conduct . . . of unlawful harassment” had harmed Roberts. (Toledano indicated that Priscilla had told people Roberts was a drug dealer, according to police records.) Priscilla contacted lawyer Richard Roper, and negotiations continued until May 2008, when Roberts “left messages for Priscilla M. stating he would destroy her,” the DA’s complaint alleges. A second restraining order was requested against Roberts on May 19.
The following day, Toledano told Roper that Priscilla had committed perjury by denying a sexual affair with Roberts in legal documents filed for the restraining order. Toledano bolstered his contention by showing Roper “photos, letters and cards” and threatening to expose the affair in Orange Coast magazine if Priscilla didn’t pay Roberts as well as return an expensive watch Dick had given the trainer and that was later taken away, according to the complaint.
Police detectives further assert:
• The size of the extortion payment was determined “by calculating a sum which Michael Roberts believed Priscilla M. could arrange privately to pay without Richard M.’s knowledge.”
• In a June 5, 2008, meeting, Roberts, Roper and Toledano discussed an agreement that banned Roberts from revealing his allegations to the press and concocted an explanation for the cash payment “with the purpose of fending off the Feds,” apparently a reference to the IRS’ criminal division.
• The next week, Roberts became frustrated by delays, and on June 9, he told Dick about the affair and that Priscilla was willing to pay him “to make the whole thing go away.”
• Toledano demanded a $10,000 fee from the Marconis.
• On June 12, 2008, Roberts left a voice-mail message for Priscilla stating, in part, “Hey, shitbag . . . I fucking cannot stand you. . . . I will gladly fuck you up.”
The following day was the stuff of movies. When Roberts drove his silver 2004 Acura to the northeast section of the Radisson Hotel parking lot at 3 p.m., he thought he’d exchange his evidence for a payoff from Roper. But things didn’t go exactly as he’d planned. Roberts, who’d made plans to leave the country, mentioned that he possessed a 9mm Glock, handed over his documents and accepted a large green duffel bag stuffed with $360,000—including stacks of $100 and $50 bills, a $10,000 check for Toledano, and a letter from Priscilla claiming the money “was a financial gift in appreciation for their many years of friendship.”
Unfortunately for Roberts, Priscilla had previously alerted authorities. Roper was wearing a live electronic-eavesdropping wire, and undercover Newport Beach police detectives swooped in to arrest Roberts; the money was returned to Priscilla. For the next 10 months, prosecutors investigated the case, and in May, charges were filed. The delay may have been due to a simple fact: It’s fairly unusual for a prominent, veteran lawyer to be charged with extortion, especially given his obligation to obtain settlements for clients whom he believes have been wronged. But, recently asked to explain his side, Toledano said, “Scott, you know I can’t talk to you about this.”
(Disclosure: Nearly 10 years ago, his son briefly worked as a Weekly intern.)
Ron Brower, Roberts’ attorney, is on vacation and couldn’t be reached for comment.
The defendants, who have pleaded not guilty to extortion and conspiracy charges, remain free on $100,000 bail each and are awaiting trial. A pretrial hearing has been set for Aug. 7.