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

"Polo's attorneys are welcome to look through the documentation I seized," Stemberger adds. "They have been for some months. I've written a letter to his attorney in Geneva. I'm surprised that if they have questions, they don't look themselves."

Twice Polo has filed motions to remove Stemberger from his case for bias. Both an appeals court in Geneva and the highest court in Switzerland denied the request. Stemberger himself says that not only are claims of prejudice patently false, they're also irrelevant. "I will not be the judge at his trial, or the prosecutor. I will not be the one to decide if Mr. Polo is released on bail," he clarifies.

Though reluctant to discuss other details of the case, Stemberger echoes the fear raised by attorney Reger and the plaintiffs: "If Polo has a chance to make all these campaigns, he probably disposes of large sums of funds. Where is the money from? I ask the question. I don't give the answer. But I would find it a little scandalous if a person can base his defense on financial support that comes from the committed offense."

Veiga bristles at this suggestion. "I and other supporters are funding [Citizens Against the Extradition of Roberto Polo]," he says testily. "I don't have to give anybody a detailed accounting." Indeed, because the nonprofit corporation is only a few months old, none of its records have yet become public. Veiga is the corporation's sole agent.

Roberto Polo should have hired a press agent to schedule his jailhouse appointments. Instead, he's had to settle for Veiga and his mother, whom he phones from the Metropolitan Correctional Center four to five times a day. The tally of journalists seeking an audience with him has never been more abundant. It can be safely assumed, in other words, that Polo no longer lives in the state of unreality to which Ram centsn Maestre referred. Given the Everest of clippings he has amassed in his 41 years, it seems doubtful he ever lived in such a state.

Polo makes quite an impression, even in a dreary jailhouse interview room. Tortoiseshell sunglasses in place, black belt crisply knotted around khakis, he has refashioned his prison-issue uniform into an ensemble befitting a Gap advertisement. Tan and trim, cleanly shaven, appropriately forlorn, the new Polo smiles boyishly, the impervious grin of a Brahmin erased.

His egotism, however, persists. He portrays himself as a man who, above all, sought to make the world a more beautiful place. He lingers on the brilliance of his early works, the prizes won, pieces sold. He laments the mental strictures of the art world. Quotes Gertrude Stein. For 45 breathless minutes he chronicles his emergence as a player in the New York milieu, staking his social and artistic pedigree on a litany of dropped names. Andy Warhol. David Hockney. Robert Mapplethorpe. Yves St. Laurent. Jackie O. "I drank a lot of wine with the stars."

He is the fellow who masterminded the seminal "Fashion as Fantasy" show of 1975, saved Sotheby's from a buyout, revolutionized the Rizzoli Gallery. His move to Citibank was inevitable, just as it was inevitable that he would grow "asphyxiated in the corporate environment," like a flower plunked in a parking garage. Even after he left Citibank, he would get calls from his old clients. It was for them, really, that he founded PAMG. They wanted anonymity and a financial advisor with the means to turn art into lucrative commerce. "Why else would they have come to me?" Polo wonders, his Cuban accent softened by a European lilt.

How did this bright path darken? Here his tale grows turgid. For as nimbly as Polo dodges the arrows of accusation, in ascribing motive to his ordeal he becomes conspicuously paranoid.

He admits he made one big mistake: hiring Alfredo Ortiz-Murias, his former superior at Citibank. Ortiz-Murias did attract business, but he was venomously jealous and dangerously deranged. It was he who plotted the downfall. He who enlisted PAMG secretary Ramona Col centsn, and Polo's own wife. He who convinced investors that Polo was a shyster. "He and his secretary said that if I did not pay them $20 million they would make a scandal," Polo seethes. "I said, 'Fine.'"

Polo also contends that his estranged wife Rosa, who is said to be living in Paris, embezzled millions to Zurich. The Mexicans also made a killing. "They're collecting on a default judgment all over the place...without ever showing how much money they entrusted to me," Polo complains.

According to Polo, the skullduggery has seeped into the very fabric of the world's judiciary. Ortiz-Murias, or someone, bribed Swiss magistrate Stemberger to issue his reprehensible extradition request, Polo claims. The Italian judge who ordered his extradition back in 1989 A a decision upheld by the Court of Appeals in Florence and the Italian Supreme Court A was corrupt as well. "We feel there is a black hand in my case," he concludes. "But we don't know how far it extends."

The person most likely to know would be Ortiz-Murias. But unfortunately, like former CIA boss William Casey, Ortiz is not around to answer any questions or defend himself. He died of AIDS in 1989. One of the key plaintiff lawyers, Polo claims, was the gay lover of Ortiz-Murias.

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