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

Citizens Against the Extradition numbers among its local supporters William Delgado, executive director of the Latin Builders Association; Miami Commissioner Miriam Alonso; mayors Xavier Suarez and Julio Martinez and Dade's former mayor, Steve Clark; Alpha 66 president Andres Nazario Sargen; county commissioners Alex Penelas and Pedro Reboredo; and all 85,000 members of the National Executive Committee of Cuban Municipalities in Exile. The list, usually affixed to the group's literature, keeps getting longer.

Polo's first big-name backer was Armando Valladares, a survivor of Castro's prisons and ex-U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, who now heads a nonprofit foundation outside Washington, D.C. He learned of Polo's case last year, through a chance encounter with Maria Polo.

Next came the documentation. Neatly bound and divided into exhibits, the Polo dossier contains hundreds of articles, affidavits, and records A the "hard evidence" of Polo's innocence. "In the beginning I said, 'This is just a mother who thinks her son is innocent,'" Valladares recalls. "But after reading the material, I decided this was quite a surrealistic case. There is absolutely no evidence against Polo."

Word of the travesty spread quickly. Valladares contacted Rolando Blanco, a prominent Hialeah businessman, who read the Polo file and began making calls of his own. To Julio Martinez, mayor of Hialeah. To U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. To Alex Penelas, who was so outraged about the case that he visited Polo for three hours in prison.

"It just seems to me to be a grave, grave injustice," notes Penelas, himself a lawyer. "I'm up here in New York today and I'm fighting for his release, making calls and trying to put people together. Polo's a very, very impressive guy." Penelas says he read all the material Polo partisans presented him. "Plus I met with the guy. Plus I met with his lawyer. Plus I've asked around the Cuban community, just to make sure I wasn't getting involved in something that didn't have merit." He did not, however, have a chance to inspect the court records, or query Polo's accusers or consult the federal prosecutors arguing for extradition. "They're really not in the loop on this," Penelas observes.

The loop, thanks to Efrain Veiga and company, does include dozens of media outlets. Back in December the restaurateur paid local publicist David Pearson $5000 to spearhead the Polo campaign, but Veiga soon took over. "I can do a better job myself," he points out, quite accurately.

The Sunday after Bandstra's ruling, Veiga and Maria Polo led a petition drive that garnered 10,000 signatures. That same day Citizens Against the Extradition paid almost $30,000 for two full-page ads in the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. Since then the group has placed full-page ads in two Swiss papers and hired a Swiss public relations firm. One freelance journalist contacted by the firm has written two lengthy stories assailing the extradition request for European magazines. He says more are on the way. Even Mexican journalists have found an angle: the central plaintiff is a politician whom they claim suspiciously amassed millions and invested them outside Mexico.

Local lobbying has turned the extradition into a hot story. The glut of coverage in the Spanish-language media has dependably (and often not-so-subtly) painted Polo as a victim rather than the alleged perpetrator of a $110 million fraud.Univision's Miami affiliate, WLTV-TV (Channel 23), as well as Telemundo affiliate WSCV-TV (Channel 51), have diligently chronicled the Polo crusade: the hearings, the rallies, the pro-Polo press conferences. Veiga prevailed upon his friend Elliot Rodriguez to compile a report for WPLG-TV (Channel 10). El Nuevo Herald has run several news pieces; columnist Alberto Vargas G centsmez also weighed in with a commentary.

Nor is the Polo cause limited to Miami's corridors of power. Anticipating the failure of legal appeals, Veiga already has set his sights on Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who holds ultimate veto power on all extradition requests. In April Veiga led a busload of Miamians to the nation's capital, where they assembled amid the cherry blossoms and tulips of Lafayette Square, across from the White House. "All the major networks turned out. We would have gotten heavy coverage, but Waco stole the whole news," Veiga recalls bitterly, referring to the cult-compound fire that killed 80.

A month later, however, the smooth-talking gastronome found himself at a White House reception to celebrate Cuban American Indepedence Day, where he was able to work on Hillary Clinton for a full 90 seconds before the First Lady moved on. During an earlier reception he also cornered Bob Graham. "The senator knew quite a bit about the case and said he would help," Veiga remembers. "He told me, 'There's definitely no reason that man should be where he is.'" On the flight back to Miami, Maria Arias, the president's sister-in-law, lent her voice to the chorus backing Polo, adds Veiga.

Curiously, some of the local politicians who have endorsed Polo seem reluctant to discuss the matter. "The mayor asked me to call you to tell you that he doesn't want any coverage on this," reports Jill Sommer, secretary to Mayor Julio Martinez of Hialeah. Steve Clark and former state Democratic Party chairman Sim centsn Ferro failed to respond to more than half a dozen phone calls. City commissioner and mayoral candidate Miriam Alonso was faxed a list of questions and was phoned more than a dozen times. She never answered. Nor did U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, though her chief of staff jotted down New Times's questions and promised to secure a reply.

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