By Chuck Strouse
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But what makes the Polo story intriguing is not this Byzantine legal proceeding, as much as the public relations jihad he and his supporters have waged, an impassioned effort that has thus far compelled the Miami Herald and dozens of prominent Cubans into backing the accused embezzler.
Best though, to start at the beginning.
Polo was born in Havana in 1951, the eldest of two sons. The family fled Castro's regime a decade later. An aspiring artist, Polo spent just a few years in Miami before receiving a scholarship to attend the prestigious Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. He went on to American University, where he studied art and philosophy and met his future wife Rosa, a ballerina and the daughter of a Dominican diplomat. He whisked on to Columbia University for a master's degree in painting and sculpture, managed to evade the draft, and, upon graduating at 23, joined Citibank. He worked as an account manager in international services for five years before founding his own business, Personal Asset Management Group (PAMG).
Polo's company specialized in managing the funds of wealthy foreigners, mostly Latin Americans, with more personal attention than a bank could provide. The outfit also promised anonymity, coveted by millionaires investing outside their own countries. Clients say that they almost invariably asked that their money be stashed in low-risk certificates of deposit (assertions that were later affirmed by the default judgment in New York). The venture thrived, and with it, Polo.
In 1982 he burst onto the New York social scene. As usual he was in a hurry. In the space of two years, he had moved from a modest one-bedroom flat to a $450,000 Park Avenue apartment to a palatial townhouse on East 64th Street that cost $2.65 million. The price tag was dwarfed by the sum Polo expended in a decorating binge that left the place so full of museum-quality pieces that insurers demanded all windows be fitted with steel shutters. Even the toilet paper holder was a valuable antique.
Polo bought and sold insatiably, obeying a conception of beauty as fleeting as it was pure. His dealings became quick lore in the gossipy world of high art. He underwrote charity balls. Picked up outrageous tabs. Like a comet he blazed across the skyline of Manhattan and he made sure the press was there to track his trajectory. Model handsome, eloquent as a professor, he and his lovely wife held the city -- that portion of the city that mattered, anyway -- in his thrall. But as the spending grew more exorbitant -- $1.6 million for a painting by Boucher, $3.85 million for a 41-carat diamond -- the stingy gatekeepers of High Society began to wonder just how this dashing young investor with middle-class immigrant roots fueled his audacious lifestyle. (Polo's average income from 1982 to 1985 was about $62,000, his tax returns later revealed.)
They weren't the only ones.
According to a 1989 sworn statement by Ramona Col centsn, PAMG's office manager, it didn't take long for employees to surmise that Polo was using clients' money for something besides CDs. (After all, PAMG levied an annual management fee of only half a percent, or $5000 for every million dollars invested.) Col centsn herself had written checks to galleries and auction houses and jewelry stores -- checks drawn on the company account.
On several occasions, Col centsn recalls in her 1989 statement, she had phoned banks to check on a client's time deposit, only to find the account in question didn't exist. Employees grew worried. Two quit. When Col centsn confronted her boss, he maintained that he had clients she didn't know about. The objets d'art were their investments. But by 1985 Polo allegedly was taking home shopping bags full of company records. "He also instructed me to erase all the time-deposit computer records," Col centsn stated. "He told me if they could not be erased, he would throw the computers into the river." The office manager also asserted that Polo himself either personally compiled, or reviewed, all account statements sent to clients.
In May 1986 Polo abruptly relocated his operations to Geneva, Switzerland, telling his clients the move would help ensure their anonymity. For $800,000 he bought a Paris apartment overlooking the Seine, loaded its fourteen rooms with "investments," and purchased the fashion house of Cuban-born designer Miguel Cruz, a venture that suited his fascination with the world of fashion but proved a financial disaster, reportedly gobbling up more than ten million dollars in two years.
In the fall of 1987, intent on launching a Miguel Cruz perfume, Polo financed a pair of opulent charity balls. The crowd buzzed over Rosa Polo's blinding jewelry. Society columnists reported that the host had flown in guests from around the world and shelled out more than $600,000 on the fetes. They were to be his swan songs as a socialite.
On October 6 of that year, Alfredo Ortiz-Murias, an assistant vice president at Citibank who had joined PAMG, made a rare appearance at the company's New York office, which had remained in operation after the move to Switzerland. As Ortiz-Murias relates in a 1988 sworn statement, he had just returned from Europe. Aghast at Polo's profligacy, unsettled by behavior that seemed to change from day to day, Ortiz-Murias asked Col centsn how Polo could afford such dalliances. "'But don't you know?'" he recalled Col centsn asking him. "'Roberto is using clients' money.'"