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

Ortiz-Murias immediately began alerting Polo's clients, some of whom had read with alarm accounts of Polo's jet-setting. The investors demanded their money back. Polo negotiated a payment schedule, even auctioned off a number of his pieces. But he missed deadline after deadline. "He made a decision," Ortiz-Murias asserts in his statement, "that his clients were not going to do anything against him for fear of losing anonymity."

If that was the case, Polo was wrong. In April 1988 a dozen clients filed criminal charges in Switzerland and a civil suit in New York. An international arrest warrant was issued. Polo took flight, just three weeks after the French government had annointed him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters for donating to the Louvre a work by eighteenth-century painter Jean Fragonard and a jewel-encrusted crown worn by the wife of Napoleon III.

Police caught up with Polo on the Italian Riviera at the end of June 1988. Thus, he enjoyed the curious distinction of becoming the only inmate to enter Lucca prison wearing the green and white rosette of a French dignitary. Thanks to the U.S. District Court judge back in New York, Polo would eventually become the only prisoner ever bailed out of Lucca a month before being determined to be liable to his former clients for $124 million.

The banner was plastic, red, white, and blue, and big as a billboard. "FREE ROBERTO POLO," it howled in foot-high letters, slapping against a cyclone fence in downtown Miami. A dozen protesters milled in front of the sign, munching grilled cheese sandwiches and waving homemade placards at the traffic whizzing by.

Four years had passed since a severely emaciated Polo was freed on bail from Lucca. He had remained in Italy to battle his extradition to Switzerland, but fled on March 30, 1989, after his last-ditch appeal was rejected. He landed in Miami, where he returned to the passion of his youth: painting. While the fugitive mulled over his defense, he made no secret of his whereabouts -- several national magazines noted his reappearance -- and in April 1992 the Swiss caught up with him.

He had just delivered a box of chocolates to his lawyer's Brickell Avenue office when two U.S. marshals in civilian clothes stopped his car and handcuffed him. While he sat in South Dade's Metropolitan Correctional Center, his own lawyers and federal prosecutors seeking his extradition inundated U.S. Magistrate Ted Bandstra with legal briefs. In January of this year, Bandstra found that "there is probable cause to believe that Polo committed each offense" as cited under the Swiss extradition treaty, and further, that the alleged offenses would be considered crimes under Florida law. He issued an extradition order, concluding that "the evidence strongly suggests that at least certain of Polo's clients had not authorized him and had no knowledge of his art and other purchases using their funds."

The ruling infuriated Polo defenders, driving them to the streets on this gusty Saturday in April. And none was angrier than Maria Theresa Polo, Roberto's mother, who now waved a sign warning that Justice Dies in Magistrate Bandstra's Court. She hoped that Sen. Bob Graham would take heed. Graham, ensconced in the Hyatt Regency Hotel across the street, was in town to interview candidates for federal judgeships, Bandstra among them.

"Bandstra has all the proof of my son's innocence and he throws it away," Maria Polo spat. "My son was a professor at age eighteen. He was a flower of the Cuban community. He was so talented the French made him a dignitary. Now those Mexican investors have stolen five years of his life and destroyed his name. My own life has been threatened. They don't want me in the street telling the truth!" She shook a fist for emphasis, shooed the wisps of white hair from her face, and turned to a TV cameraman who had begun filming the rally. "I say, 'Freedom for Roberto Polo! Freedom for Roberto Polo!'"

Like all effective rhetoric, the outburst played to several sentiments at once: ethnic pride, mistrust of authority, mistrust of foreigners, personal sacrifice, maternal devotion.

Nearby a dapper man in sunglasses stood nodding. Efrain Veiga had met Polo twenty years earlier in Washington and befriended him upon his return to Miami. Co-owner of Yuca, the chic Coral Gables eatery, Veiga had hung one of Polo's silkscreen works in his restaurant and even named an appetizer in his honor: the Polo Croquette. Now Veiga served as chairman of Citizens Against the Extradition of Roberto Polo, the organization that sprang into action after Bandstra's ruling.

"Roberto cannot fight from prison alone," Veiga explained. "He will be railroaded to Switzerland. That's why we have taken to the streets. We need to reach the people. The politicians. The media."

In the five months since Bandstra's ruling, Veiga and Maria Polo have proven adept at all three. Their relentless networking has made Roberto Polo the cause celäbre of the Cuban exile community. Mayors and magnates attend his court hearings. Congressmen and commissioners write letters on his behalf. Aides to Bill Clinton, perhaps even Hillary herself, are said to be bending the presidential ear over the Polo injustice.

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