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

Republican lawmakers Ros-Lehtinen and Sen. Connie Mack were listed as Polo advocates in an ad appearing in the February 12 edition of the Geneva Tribune. "The text of that ad was sent to us after the fact and it was done without our consent," states Jorge Arrizurieta, Mack's director of state projects, but he says the senator did forward a bundle of material to Secretary of State Christopher on Polo's behalf.

Veiga says he considers anyone who supports Polo, in whatever form, to be a member of Citizens Against the Extradition of Roberto Polo. On this basis, he has forged a most remarkable coalition, one that has united bitter political and ideological rivals. These members, in turn, inevitably cite the same factor as key to their endorsement: the Miami Herald.

Xavier Suarez's involvement is a good example. After lunching with Veiga and Maria Polo, Miami's mayor dashed off a letter beseeching Warren Christopher to block the extradition. "I was only addressing the issue of extradition. That's the classic thing you do in support of a prisoner when the country's judiciary is questionable," Suarez says. "Though I can't imagine that one would be mistreated in Switzerland."

This last thought seems to evoke an element of hesitancy in the mayor's tone. He pauses. "Frankly, I was relying on the Herald editorials," Suarez says finally. "I'm not suggesting anything they haven't suggested already."

On January 25 the Herald published a story on the front of its "Local" section under the headline "P.R. blitz to free art dealer continues." Providing a brief summary of the case, reporters Alfonso Chardy and Gerardo Reyes highlighted the time and money being expended for Polo's cause. Notably absent was mention of the entity that had jump-started the PR blitz: the Herald's own editorial board.

More precisely, editorial writer Ram centsn Maestre. He had known about the Polo imbroglio for years, Maestre says, but he didn't truly understand the story until Efrain Veiga, a former classmate at Georgetown, got in touch with him last fall. Afterward, Maestre had spent weeks speaking with Polo and his backers and reading the reams of documents they provided. Maestre's unsigned editorial, which ostensibly reflected the view of the paper's entire editorial board, ran December 12, 1992, the day Magistrate Bandstra was set to hear arguments in the case.

"In prison, and for what?" the headline pondered. "An art dealer's ordeal." Polo's ordeal, as Maestre framed it, was that of an art advisor who had "created the appearance of wealth" so he could sell artwork for a profit to benefit his clients. Instead, these investors were somehow "persuaded that Mr. Polo was defrauding them [and] set in motion a tortuous and complex legal war." Polo was "the worst casualty of that war," Maestre wrote, a man "resembling the protagonist of a Franz Kafka tale."

Unlike the protagonist of a Kafka tale, though, Polo had managed to duck his accusers for five years, a fact Maestre neglected to mention. Nor did he mention the plaintiffs' claim that Polo never had permission to use their money to buy art. Nor the account statements his company sent out, the validity of which Polo disputes but which led clients to believe their money was safely tucked into time deposits. Nor the ruling by a New York district judge that Polo owed his clients $124 million.

The exhortation from Miami's major daily provided the Polo crusade an instant badge of legitimacy; the editorial was hastily converted into a cover letter for the Polo dossier, and became a powerful recruiting tool.

"I was horrified," says Robert Reger, the New York lawyer who represents Emilio Martinez-Manautou, one of Polo's primary accusers. "They hadn't talked to anybody on the other side. When I called Ram centsn Maestre to lodge a complaint, he told me to write a letter to the editor. I said, 'But look, what I'm telling you is that you've made factual errors here.' I said, 'Don't believe me, go read the record. That should give you grave doubts about this guy.' After a while I just gave up. I had no idea he was going to write another editorial."

Indeed, three months later a second editorial appeared, titled, "Set Roberto Polo free." Decrying Bandstra's decision, Maestre called upon newly appointed Secretary of State Christopher to release Polo, whom he described as "an artist and investment advisor [who] has been decorated by the French government. Mr. Polo has been convicted of nothing," Maestre emphasized. "He has not even been charged in Switzerland."

Maestre failed to explain that last assertion. According to Swiss law, a suspect can only be criminally charged in person, a possibility Polo has forestalled by taking flight. The editorial also stated that only "two of Polo's 70 clients" have accused him. In fact, though the total number of Polo's clients is a matter of dispute, thirteen clients are listed in both the civil and criminal complaints against him. (Maestre did not deem it worthy of mention that only one of Polo's other clients has come forward to publicly defend him, through an affidavit.)

Most peculiar was Maestre's decision to identify plaintiff Martinez-Manautou as "an immensely wealthy Mexican politician who is under investigation for 'sacking' the Mexican Treasury," a claim the writer says was confirmed by a high-ranking politician in Mexico.

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