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

As headquarters of Citizens Against the Extradition of Roberto Polo, the Veiga estate has been overtaken by mountains of documentation. Copies of the Herald ads, sent in by concerned citizens and marked with messages such as, "®La extradici centsn, porque es Cubano?" sit on an imposing glass table in the living room, beside transparencies of Polo's paintings. Stacks of Xeroxed articles, letters of support, and other exhibits await collating nearby. A crop of "Free Polo Now" bumper stickers donated by a car rental agency are on the way. Hundreds of abridged Polo dossiers, each destined for a member of the U.S. Congress, fill the cottage out back.

People drift in and out of the house, all of them exuding a certain polite edginess. Voices remain low. Eyes avert. A young Italian man in sweatpants introduces himself as Roberto, a friend of the family. He digs out several recent articles about the Polo case from European magazines, then retreats through the lovely garden in back and out of sight.

Jose Castro, Polo's uncle, emerges from the kitchen. "We all work here together," he announces. "It is like a beehive of helpers." An elfin man in spectacles and tennis garb, he snatches up a sheet of slides, artworks Polo completed in Miami before his incarceration in South Dade. They are striking works, stark figures etched into a canvas of aluminum and wood, with patches of shocking color superimposed. One ominous piece hangs in the sitting room: a chef staring sullenly through a windowpane, as if from behind bars.

The command center may appear makeshift, but it's obvious thousands of dollars are being poured into Polo's defense. The advertisements. The PR firms. The legal fees. The photocopying.

And that has Polo's accusers suspicious. Plaintiff attorney Reger says his firm has lawyers in five cities trying to seize Polo's far-flung assets for repayment to his former clients, who claim they have yet to see half their original investment. "And in every city," Reger asserts, "Polo is fighting tooth and nail to keep from giving up these assets." In fact, Reger believes Polo is employing friends and family to hide the goods. For instance, Jose Castro and Roberto Consentino, the young Italian, are both officers in a company being used to obscure Polo's ownership of a home in Coral Gables, according to the affidavit of a former Polo associate filed in a French civil court. Both men deny the charge.

No doubt the most expensive item for Polo has been Ed Shohat, a prominent Miami lawyer whose bills, Polo says, satisfied former clients have agreed to pay. Shohat is proving to be worth every penny. Bright, witty, and readily available to the media, he has articulated an aggressive legal defense. The central target: Swiss investigating magistrate Vladimir Stemberger, whose extradition warrant, Shohat claims, is "based on documented falsehoods."

First, and most glaring, is Stemberger's statement that he questioned employees of Polo's Swiss company. "That just never happened," Shohat says. "We interviewed the employees, and they all deny giving him any testimony."

Second, Shohat disputes the assertion that millions of dollars passed through accounts controlled by Polo at Credit Suisse bank in Geneva. "The magistrate doesn't provide a single bank record in his warrant," the attorney asserts. "Yet we retained an accounting firm to audit PAMG's account and they found that not a single dollar of investor money had passed through the account."

Third, Polo had the authority to invest in art, based on the power-of-attorney forms investors signed. His "unexplained" wealth was part of an image -- that of a celebrated art connoisseur -- cultivated to drive up the prices of clients' investments. No documented approval of individual investments exists because Polo's secretive clients gave oral instructions.

Last, Shohat contends that Polo's alleged crimes are either not listed in the Swiss-U.S. extradition treaty, or not considered crimes in Florida.

U.S. Magistrate Bandstra, obviously, disagreed. "Polo, through valiant efforts of his attorney, and assistance of many individuals, offers plausible 'explanations' for much of his conduct and to confront much of the Swiss evidence. Nevertheless, probable cause exists," he noted in his January 11 ruling, finding further that Polo's alleged crimes in Switzerland would be considered criminal acts in Florida, as well.

"There is no evidence to indicate my client defrauded anyone," Shohat counters. "Someone engineered this Swiss magistrate to sign off on the warrant."

Such proclamations no longer shock Vladimir Stemberger. Not after five years of trying to pin down Polo, of reading ads in Swiss papers smearing his own reputation, of answering the impertinent questions of journalists incited by Polo. "I am very sorry for Mr. Polo, but I did not ask him to open a company here, then to run from my questions," Stemberger says by phone from Geneva.

The magistrate, whose investigative role is roughly analogous to that of a grand jury in this country, vividly recalls interviewing Polo's employees during the two days he searched PAMG's office. It was then, he explains, that he also seized bank records showing a steady dissipation of funds from multimillion-dollar accounts controlled by Polo: "I think it's 75 or 80 files, about two cubic meters of paper," the magistrate estimates. "I didn't see the necessity of sending it all over. But if the American authorities need it, I will provide them.

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