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

"It didn't surprise me that Polo would try to deflect blame by attacking the victims of his fraud," attorney Reger sighs. "But for the Herald to back him up? If you grasp what they're really doing A preying on Cuban prejudice against Mexicans A it's horribly cynical. The irony of this whole thing is that Polo is conning his supporters just like he conned his clients. I just can't believe the Herald would get sucked in."

Particularly in light of the stance taken by federal prosecutors. Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Hoyt has stressed in his motions and in court that the U.S. government's role is not to try the Polo case, but to allow the Swiss that opportunity, based on ample probable cause: the statements PAMG sent to clients, the sworn statements of Polo's former employees, Polo's sudden and unexplained wealth, and finally, Polo's inability to pay back his clients.

Dan Gelber, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, would not comment on the matter. "We do not try cases in the media. But we will always assist reporters to the degree permitted by law to ensure coverage is balanced and responsible. We provide public records and are available to discuss matters. All they have to do is ask."

Maestre stands by the editorials. "I spent weeks researching," he insists. "We have to look into something more in-depth, because if we're going to state an opinion, we'd better be damned sure it's based on something substantial." He says he even consulted a friend who is an expert on extradition, and left messages with U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez and with Reger, neither of whom called back. ("That's bullshit," Reger retorts. "I checked my messages.")

To Maestre the Polo affair is about human rights, not fraud. "There are victims of human rights abuses everywhere, but you've got to consider the cases closer to home. Here's an American who's being held, who has not been charged, by a country [Switzerland] that doesn't extradite to the U.S., for charges that in our courts would be civil," Maestre says. (On this last point, Magistrate Ted Bandstra explicitly found otherwise, stating in his January extradition order that Polo's alleged misdeeds would be considered crimes under Florida statutes.)

"Art [investment] advising is a pretty corrupt business, but this guy [Polo] was just doing what everyone else does and now he's facing this Mexican monster," Maestre adds indignantly. "People assume Polo was a rich, snobby flimflam man, and the irony is that these Mexicans are now enjoying his millions somewhere and our dollars are being used to keep Polo in prison to comply with this fucking Swiss extradition request!"

Editor Jim Hampton is somewhat more subdued. He says he was "satisfied, based on the representations Ram centsn [Maestre] made to me, that this guy was getting a bum deal. He was being held for extradition to Switzerland on a civil matter. I'd never heard of such a thing. It is a civil lawsuit, is it not? That's the way it was always presented to me." Informed that the Swiss charges are, in fact, criminal, Hampton reflects, "Memory is a tricky beast."

The Herald's news coverage, which emphasizes the campaign to exonerate Polo's name, has done little to clarify the facts of the actual case. The paper's approach is typified by a May 23 article by staff writer Alfonso Chardy and El Nuevo Herald staffers Mirta Ojito and Gerardo Reyes. The piece opens with a description of Polo's grim life in his South Dade prison. It goes on to explain, in three sentences, the accusations against him. With little exception, the rest of the story A more than 1000 words A is recounted from Polo's perspective. As the victim, that is, of a "vast conspiracy fueled by intense jealousy." A boxed graphic outlines the claims against Polo, in 26 words, along with his own rebuttals.

This treatment is nothing like the first story the Herald ever wrote about Polo. That was back in July 1988, after the accused embezzler's arrest in Italy. The article, a painstaking expose of Polo's alleged fraud, was compiled by staff writer Mary Voboril (who is now a business reporter at New York Newsday) after weeks spent poring over civil court documents in New York.

Neither Jim Hampton nor Herald executive editor Doug Clifton recalls Voboril's front-page story. Maestre has seen the piece, along with the avalanche of nasty press that accompanied Polo's fall, including an unflattering profile by Dominick Dunne in the October 1988 Vanity Fair. "Martinez-Manautou's PR people," he explains. "They were very effective in getting to reporters. Polo was an art dealer who didn't know how the press worked. He lived in a state of unreality."

If the eyes say anything, recent years have not been kind to Roberto Polo, Sr. A small man with a look of extinguished pride, he shies from the media, as if the anguish his wife externalizes had been turned inward, against himself. Or fate. Or whatever force landed his eldest son in jail and the Polo name in disgrace.

Most days the father, a prosperous civil engineer in Cuba who worked as an office assistant for his son's ill-fated investment company in New York, can be found visiting Efrain Veiga, whose exquisitely decorated Coral Gables home is the nerve center of la causa Polo.

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