The Collector

What do Armando Valladares, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Miriam Alonso, Xavier Suarez, Alex Penelas, Steve Clark, and the Miami Herald editorial board have in common? They're just a few of the big names enlisted by accused embezzler Roberto Polo in his fight to a

Roberto Polo couldn't even begin to explain. All he knew was that at some point the money had stopped being money. This was something those around him would never fathom A the sycophants who slobbered for his invites, the art dealers who gasped at his bids, the investors who shoved their millions at him. Cash was green and grubby, pawed like pornography, and invariably overlooked for its true merit: as a conduit to beauty.

There was nothing senseless (let alone shameful) about his orgies of acquisition, for he pledged every nickel in a crusade to teach the world what perfection meant. He was a collector of ideal forms. Plato with an Amex card.

Draped in diamonds and emeralds and fabrics he had anguished over, his wife Rosa was not simply stunning. She was perfect. His five-story Manhattan townhouse, crammed with Renoirs and Monets and Rodins, was a work of art itself, like the glamorous parties he bankrolled. "He scatters money like rose petals," one columnist gushed. And that seemed the point of life. At least in the New York of the Eighties. Beauty explained itself. Guilt was spelled like it sounded: without the u.

There was confusion, then, when the lawyers and cops came after him. How is it, Polo wondered back in the fall of 1988, that a life of such immaculate taste could be dashed by men who wouldn't know a Boucher from a Fragonard? Gone were the masterpieces, the lavish homes, the jewels fat enough to curve a royal spine. In their place: incarceration.

The prison, in the walled city of Lucca, outside Florence, Italy, was inhuman. Teeming with murderers and Mafiosi, guarded by sadists. The food was inedible. The toilets didn't even work. And here sat Polo, who had once displayed in his home Marie Antoinette's very own commode.

A conspiracy. It wasn't a matter of if, but who. A jealous associate had surely hatched the plan. The Mexicans, those corrupt bumpkins, were only too happy to pile on. Five years ago they'd felt blessed to entrust their funds to him. Then boom, they'd accused him of squandering $110 million, had his assets frozen, filed a criminal complaint in Switzerland, and sought to ship him off to Geneva. The press corps, those dupes, had cast him as a suave swindler whose fall was predicated on the wretched excess of the Eighties. "A Gatsby for the Reagan era," they'd dubbed him.

But even in this bleakest hour, hounded by fools and philistines, Polo knew fate would boomerang. He'd dropped 40 pounds already. Delicate bones poked at his skin. He had barely the strength to pace his cell. Soon the Italians would have to grant him bail, unless they wanted a corpse sent to Switzerland. Then escape, to the one city in the world where he could resurrect his good name: Miami.

A Cuban in his hometown. A misunderstood artist. A martyr to Mexicans. The newspaper there A what was it called, the Herald? A would understand. So would the good city fathers. Any hint of this nonsense about standing trial in Switzerland, and Polo would strike back mightily. Nobody was going to railroad him, not without invoking the wrath of leaders the likes of Xavier Suarez, Steve Clark, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Alex Penelas, Miriam Alonso, Sim centsn Ferro, and a thousand others.

Just a few more pounds. Just a few more weeks. Polo would prove, once and for all, that the Reagan era A the epoch that catapulted him from insecure aesthete to Concorde aristocrat A was not yet dead in sweaty South Florida. There the essential tenet survived: tell your story often enough, and eloquently enough, and it becomes the truth.

The truth of it -- the sad, unvarnished, truth of it -- is that Roberto Polo has reason to fear judgment.

By his own admission, he received more than $100 million from clients during the Eighties. Although quarterly statements mailed out to investors assured them their money was safely appreciating in short-term time deposits, Swiss and U.S. authorities say most of that money was gone by 1988, spent by Polo on art and jewels and a failed fashion house. In a sworn statement, a key former employee asserted that her boss destroyed records to veil the alleged fraud. A U.S. District Court judge in New York issued a default judgment in 1989, ruling that Polo owed thirteen of his clients more than $120 million. The judgment has never been appealed. The plaintiffs have collected less than half that amount from the disbursement of Polo's known assets and are still trying to track down assets he allegedly has hidden.

Polo contends his clients authorized him to invest in collectibles and that his extravagant lifestyle helped him sell these pieces at a profit. He claims the account statements his accusers have produced are bogus and denies owing them any more money.

Every judge who has reviewed evidence of Polo's alleged wrongdoing -- in France, Switzerland, Italy, New York, and Miami -- has ruled against him. The case now rests with U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who must decide whether Polo, 41, should be extradited to Switzerland to stand trial on the three criminal counts A including embezzlement and breach of trust A that he has dodged for five years.

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