Army communications head at Mar-a-Lago is sentenced for lying
By JANE MUSGRAVE | The Palm Beach Post, Fla. | Published: September 27, 2019
WEST PALM BEACH (Tribune News Service) — A military officer who was in charge of all White House communications for the U.S. Army at Mar-a-Lago was placed on probation Friday after admitting he lied to federal agents who were investigating him for child pornography.
Staff Sgt. Richard Ciccarella tearfully apologized to U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks for posting photos on a Russian website of a young relative clad only in her underwear while he was heading up the Army's communication detail for President Donald Trump's exclusive club from August 2017 to March 2018.
"This was the last place I thought I would be," said the 34-year-old who is now stationed in Virginia. Ciccarella said he lied to federal agents when they asked him if he had posted the photos because he was scared. "I will forever regret my actions," he said.
The photos didn't constitute child pornography, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Schiller. But, he said, Ciccarella's lies were troubling.
"Here the lie and the obstruction was to cover up an email address to cover up a much bigger investigation that was going on," said Schiller, who asked Middlebrooks to send Ciccarella to jail for as long as six months.
When federal agents confronted Ciccarella at his office in Palm Beach, he lied about an email account he used to post the photos with the caption, "Dirty comment's (sic) welcome," according to court records. He said the email account wasn't his.
But, when agents asked him to try to use the email address to access the website, it prompted him to enter the missing numbers of his government-issued cell phone. When Ciccarrella's phone rang, it confirmed agents' suspicions that he had posted the photos that attracted lewd online comments.
Ciccarella later admitted he deleted messages he received that were linked to child pornography websites.
In July, roughly two months after his arrest, he pleaded guilty to a charge of making a false statement to a federal agent.
Since his arrest, Ciccarella said his marriage has crumbled and his career is threatened. He received numerous commendations during his 15-year career, that included two tours of Iraq and five years working in the White House where he placed calls for the president and vice president.
After that assignment ended in 2017, he was sent to Palm Beach to head up the Army's communications office at Mar-a-Lago.
Still, despite his years of unblemished service, Ciccarella's superiors have said he could be court martialed, said his defense attorney Michael Salnick.
"The worst punishment I could receive is losing my position in the service," said Ciccarella, who enlisted when he was 19.
While he is on probation for three years, Ciccarella will be required to receive treatment as a sex offender and be prohibited from having any unsupervised contact with minors. He must also complete 100 hours of community service.
Since Ciccarella is already under the care of a psychiatrist, his main concern is a condition that prevents convicted felons from possessing a weapon, Salnick said. As an operations and technology expert, Ciccarella hasn't needed a firearm. Still, the prohibition could prevent him from remaining in the military, Salnick said.
Middlebrooks agreed that Ciccarella could use weapons to perform military duties. Whether relaxing the prohibition improves Ciccarella's career prospects will be up to Army commanders, he said.
Ciccarella's arrest is the third connected to Trump's visits to his exclusive club which he has dubbed the "Winter White House."
Earlier this month, Chinese national Yujing Zhang was convicted of lying to a federal agent and gaining access to a restricted building. A federal jury agreed she had skirted Secret Service agents to get on Mar-a-Lago's grounds in March while Trump was visiting.
In May, 18-year-old Mark Lindblom, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, pleaded guilty to a charge of gaining access to restricted grounds. He said he got into Mar-a-Lago during the Thanksgiving weekend by walking through a beach access point reserved for club members.
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