Man in car scam fails to pay back money, accuses judge of bias

The sentencing hearing for a local man accused of more than $1 million scam was postponed Wednesday until the Ohio Supreme Court could rule on an affidavit filed by Richards.

On Dec. 31, Kendall Richards, 49, of 1740 Forest Hills Drive, Vienna, filed an affidavit of disqualification to remove Washington County Common Pleas Judge Mark Kerenyi from his case due to “prejudice, bias and other disqualifying grounds.”

Richards owns Sundowner Used Auto Sales in Parkersburg and was accused of stealing more than $1 million from Marietta resident James Vuksic.

According to police reports, in 2016, Vuksic was approached by his son, Michael James Vuksic and a friend, Scott Francis Marion of 339 Auto Sales about a business proposition.

Cars would be purchased in Canada and sold at an auction in Syracuse, N.Y. Vuksic put up the money for the purchase, while his son and another friend, Mitchell Land, were to go to Canada to buy cars at auctions. Richards would then use his license to sell the cars for a profit.

Richards allegedly pocketed the money from the sales.

In April 2018, Richards pleaded guilty to aggravated theft, a second-degree felony, and was given until Oct. 18 to pay the full restitution of approximately $1.238 million to Vuksic.

Richards withdrew his guilty plea on Dec. 9, as he had not made any payments. In his written statement, he said he was told to pay $1.238 million, but in September, his attorney, George Cosenza, said the amount was now $1.388 million, which was the original amount plus interest.

He had been given until Wednesday to pay the full restitution to Vuksic or he would be sentenced in Kerenyi’s court.

In the affidavit, Richards contends Kerenyi is friends with James Vuksic, the victim of the theft.

“Mr. Vuksic is a former Washington County Commissioner, who has also contributed monetarily in the campaign of Mark Kerenyi for judge,” the affidavit states.

Richards notes that Vuksic’s son, Jamie Vuksic, is director of Washington County Children Services and has worked closely with Kerenyi for more than a decade.

“Mr. Vuksic, being a former county commissioner who is still active in political affairs, has significant personal and political connections to Judge Kerenyi and has had considerable influence over the judges and courts,” Richards wrote.

He added that Kerenyi and Vuksic were also Facebook “friends.”

Vuksic said Wednesday that being Facebook friends doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

“I’m Facebook friends with probably 500 people and I’ve only used Facebook twice,” he said. “If that is disqualification, it would disqualify most of Washington County. (Judge Randall) Burnworth couldn’t hear anybody and Kerenyi couldn’t hear anybody. This is a small county. Everyone knows everyone.”

Vuksic said he knows Burnworth better than he knows Kerenyi, but Richards didn’t object to Burnworth as his judge.

Richards also accused Kerenyi of having ex parte communications with Richards’ attorney, George Cosenza. Ex parte is communication between a judge and party in legal proceedings that isn’t in the presence of the opposing party or their attorney.

In a letter from Cosenza to Richards dated Nov. 20 that was filed with the affidavit, Cosenza stated Kerenyi had expressed his inclination to sentence Richards to the maximum sentence of eight years in prison because of his failure to make any effort toward making restitution.

He told Richards that Kerenyi said he would be willing to reduce the sentence to possibly four years if Richards would deed the property in South Parkersburg to Vuksic. Cosenza stated Richards would be eligible for judicial release after he serves six months in prison. If Richards could make full restitution in that time frame, Kerenyi would likely release him from prison.

Kerenyi said he had an assistant prosecuting attorney present when speaking with Cosenza.

“This allegation is an outright mistruth,” he added.

Richards also accuses Kerenyi of subjecting him to coercive tactics, arbitrary changes of pleas and due process deprivations.

“Without more information, I don’t know how to address these allegations, accept to simply deny them,” Kerenyi wrote in his response.

Washington County Prosecutor Nicole Coil said she doesn’t think the affidavit has merit.

“It is my opinion that the Supreme Court of Ohio is just doing its due diligence at this point, and that this will be just a speed bump in the process,” she said. “The truth of the matter is that Mr. Richards was given an extraordinary opportunity to make restitution, and he has squandered that opportunity. Rather than take responsibility for his own misconduct, he is now selfishly seeking to delay his fate by casting false aspersions on others.”

Kerenyi states the case originated with Judge Randall Burnworth and was only passed to Kerenyi when Burnworth retired, although Burnworth is now filling in as a common pleas judge.

He said Richards pleaded guilty on April 17, 2018, and had until Oct. 18, 2019, to pay full restitution. He failed to pay and requested a continuance in order to make restitution at a later date. He claimed he had restitution in the form of Bitcoin that came into Florida from a boat from China.

Bitcoin is decentralized digital currency without a bank or administrator that can be sent from user to user on the peer-to-peer bitcoin network. “The court found this sketchy, believed him to be a flight risk, and reset his bond in the amount of restitution,” Kerenyi stated.

He added the court had granted Richards several continuances to make restitution and “the state has apparently prioritized restitution over a criminal conviction and has still agreed to dismiss this case if the defendant makes restitution.”

As for Vuksic influencing the court as a former county commissioner, that was also not true, Kerenyi said.

“In Washington County, there is a healthy conflict between the county commission and the court,” he said. “I have ordered the court’s budget every year I have been in office. There is no undue influence over the courts by any past or present commissioners.”

Kerenyi also said he didn’t see any campaign contributions from Vuksic, only his ex-wife.

The Supreme Court has said that Kerenyi has no authority to preside over Richards’ case until they have ruled on the affidavit.

Michele Newbanks can be reached at mnewbanks@mariettatimes.com

At a glance:

• Vienna resident Kendall Richards filed an affidavit of disqualification against Washington County Common Pleas Judge Mark Kerenyi,

• Richards pleaded guilty in 2018 to aggravated theft, a second-degree felony.

• He was accused of stealing more than $1 million from Marietta resident James Vuksic.

• Richards claims Kerenyi is prejudiced and biased against him.

Source: Times research.