By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Roberto Polo couldn't even begin to explain. All he knew was that at some point the money had stopped being money. This was something those around him would never fathom A the sycophants who slobbered for his invites, the art dealers who gasped at his bids, the investors who shoved their millions at him. Cash was green and grubby, pawed like pornography, and invariably overlooked for its true merit: as a conduit to beauty.
There was nothing senseless (let alone shameful) about his orgies of acquisition, for he pledged every nickel in a crusade to teach the world what perfection meant. He was a collector of ideal forms. Plato with an Amex card.
Draped in diamonds and emeralds and fabrics he had anguished over, his wife Rosa was not simply stunning. She was perfect. His five-story Manhattan townhouse, crammed with Renoirs and Monets and Rodins, was a work of art itself, like the glamorous parties he bankrolled. "He scatters money like rose petals," one columnist gushed. And that seemed the point of life. At least in the New York of the Eighties. Beauty explained itself. Guilt was spelled like it sounded: without the u.
There was confusion, then, when the lawyers and cops came after him. How is it, Polo wondered back in the fall of 1988, that a life of such immaculate taste could be dashed by men who wouldn't know a Boucher from a Fragonard? Gone were the masterpieces, the lavish homes, the jewels fat enough to curve a royal spine. In their place: incarceration.
The prison, in the walled city of Lucca, outside Florence, Italy, was inhuman. Teeming with murderers and Mafiosi, guarded by sadists. The food was inedible. The toilets didn't even work. And here sat Polo, who had once displayed in his home Marie Antoinette's very own commode.
A conspiracy. It wasn't a matter of if, but who. A jealous associate had surely hatched the plan. The Mexicans, those corrupt bumpkins, were only too happy to pile on. Five years ago they'd felt blessed to entrust their funds to him. Then boom, they'd accused him of squandering $110 million, had his assets frozen, filed a criminal complaint in Switzerland, and sought to ship him off to Geneva. The press corps, those dupes, had cast him as a suave swindler whose fall was predicated on the wretched excess of the Eighties. "A Gatsby for the Reagan era," they'd dubbed him.
But even in this bleakest hour, hounded by fools and philistines, Polo knew fate would boomerang. He'd dropped 40 pounds already. Delicate bones poked at his skin. He had barely the strength to pace his cell. Soon the Italians would have to grant him bail, unless they wanted a corpse sent to Switzerland. Then escape, to the one city in the world where he could resurrect his good name: Miami.
A Cuban in his hometown. A misunderstood artist. A martyr to Mexicans. The newspaper there A what was it called, the Herald? A would understand. So would the good city fathers. Any hint of this nonsense about standing trial in Switzerland, and Polo would strike back mightily. Nobody was going to railroad him, not without invoking the wrath of leaders the likes of Xavier Suarez, Steve Clark, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Alex Penelas, Miriam Alonso, Sim centsn Ferro, and a thousand others.
Just a few more pounds. Just a few more weeks. Polo would prove, once and for all, that the Reagan era A the epoch that catapulted him from insecure aesthete to Concorde aristocrat A was not yet dead in sweaty South Florida. There the essential tenet survived: tell your story often enough, and eloquently enough, and it becomes the truth.
The truth of it -- the sad, unvarnished, truth of it -- is that Roberto Polo has reason to fear judgment.
By his own admission, he received more than $100 million from clients during the Eighties. Although quarterly statements mailed out to investors assured them their money was safely appreciating in short-term time deposits, Swiss and U.S. authorities say most of that money was gone by 1988, spent by Polo on art and jewels and a failed fashion house. In a sworn statement, a key former employee asserted that her boss destroyed records to veil the alleged fraud. A U.S. District Court judge in New York issued a default judgment in 1989, ruling that Polo owed thirteen of his clients more than $120 million. The judgment has never been appealed. The plaintiffs have collected less than half that amount from the disbursement of Polo's known assets and are still trying to track down assets he allegedly has hidden.
Polo contends his clients authorized him to invest in collectibles and that his extravagant lifestyle helped him sell these pieces at a profit. He claims the account statements his accusers have produced are bogus and denies owing them any more money.
Every judge who has reviewed evidence of Polo's alleged wrongdoing -- in France, Switzerland, Italy, New York, and Miami -- has ruled against him. The case now rests with U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who must decide whether Polo, 41, should be extradited to Switzerland to stand trial on the three criminal counts A including embezzlement and breach of trust A that he has dodged for five years.
But what makes the Polo story intriguing is not this Byzantine legal proceeding, as much as the public relations jihad he and his supporters have waged, an impassioned effort that has thus far compelled the Miami Herald and dozens of prominent Cubans into backing the accused embezzler.
Best though, to start at the beginning.
Polo was born in Havana in 1951, the eldest of two sons. The family fled Castro's regime a decade later. An aspiring artist, Polo spent just a few years in Miami before receiving a scholarship to attend the prestigious Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. He went on to American University, where he studied art and philosophy and met his future wife Rosa, a ballerina and the daughter of a Dominican diplomat. He whisked on to Columbia University for a master's degree in painting and sculpture, managed to evade the draft, and, upon graduating at 23, joined Citibank. He worked as an account manager in international services for five years before founding his own business, Personal Asset Management Group (PAMG).
Polo's company specialized in managing the funds of wealthy foreigners, mostly Latin Americans, with more personal attention than a bank could provide. The outfit also promised anonymity, coveted by millionaires investing outside their own countries. Clients say that they almost invariably asked that their money be stashed in low-risk certificates of deposit (assertions that were later affirmed by the default judgment in New York). The venture thrived, and with it, Polo.
In 1982 he burst onto the New York social scene. As usual he was in a hurry. In the space of two years, he had moved from a modest one-bedroom flat to a $450,000 Park Avenue apartment to a palatial townhouse on East 64th Street that cost $2.65 million. The price tag was dwarfed by the sum Polo expended in a decorating binge that left the place so full of museum-quality pieces that insurers demanded all windows be fitted with steel shutters. Even the toilet paper holder was a valuable antique.
Polo bought and sold insatiably, obeying a conception of beauty as fleeting as it was pure. His dealings became quick lore in the gossipy world of high art. He underwrote charity balls. Picked up outrageous tabs. Like a comet he blazed across the skyline of Manhattan and he made sure the press was there to track his trajectory. Model handsome, eloquent as a professor, he and his lovely wife held the city -- that portion of the city that mattered, anyway -- in his thrall. But as the spending grew more exorbitant -- $1.6 million for a painting by Boucher, $3.85 million for a 41-carat diamond -- the stingy gatekeepers of High Society began to wonder just how this dashing young investor with middle-class immigrant roots fueled his audacious lifestyle. (Polo's average income from 1982 to 1985 was about $62,000, his tax returns later revealed.)
They weren't the only ones.
According to a 1989 sworn statement by Ramona Col centsn, PAMG's office manager, it didn't take long for employees to surmise that Polo was using clients' money for something besides CDs. (After all, PAMG levied an annual management fee of only half a percent, or $5000 for every million dollars invested.) Col centsn herself had written checks to galleries and auction houses and jewelry stores -- checks drawn on the company account.
On several occasions, Col centsn recalls in her 1989 statement, she had phoned banks to check on a client's time deposit, only to find the account in question didn't exist. Employees grew worried. Two quit. When Col centsn confronted her boss, he maintained that he had clients she didn't know about. The objets d'art were their investments. But by 1985 Polo allegedly was taking home shopping bags full of company records. "He also instructed me to erase all the time-deposit computer records," Col centsn stated. "He told me if they could not be erased, he would throw the computers into the river." The office manager also asserted that Polo himself either personally compiled, or reviewed, all account statements sent to clients.
In May 1986 Polo abruptly relocated his operations to Geneva, Switzerland, telling his clients the move would help ensure their anonymity. For $800,000 he bought a Paris apartment overlooking the Seine, loaded its fourteen rooms with "investments," and purchased the fashion house of Cuban-born designer Miguel Cruz, a venture that suited his fascination with the world of fashion but proved a financial disaster, reportedly gobbling up more than ten million dollars in two years.
In the fall of 1987, intent on launching a Miguel Cruz perfume, Polo financed a pair of opulent charity balls. The crowd buzzed over Rosa Polo's blinding jewelry. Society columnists reported that the host had flown in guests from around the world and shelled out more than $600,000 on the fetes. They were to be his swan songs as a socialite.
On October 6 of that year, Alfredo Ortiz-Murias, an assistant vice president at Citibank who had joined PAMG, made a rare appearance at the company's New York office, which had remained in operation after the move to Switzerland. As Ortiz-Murias relates in a 1988 sworn statement, he had just returned from Europe. Aghast at Polo's profligacy, unsettled by behavior that seemed to change from day to day, Ortiz-Murias asked Col centsn how Polo could afford such dalliances. "'But don't you know?'" he recalled Col centsn asking him. "'Roberto is using clients' money.'"
Ortiz-Murias immediately began alerting Polo's clients, some of whom had read with alarm accounts of Polo's jet-setting. The investors demanded their money back. Polo negotiated a payment schedule, even auctioned off a number of his pieces. But he missed deadline after deadline. "He made a decision," Ortiz-Murias asserts in his statement, "that his clients were not going to do anything against him for fear of losing anonymity."
If that was the case, Polo was wrong. In April 1988 a dozen clients filed criminal charges in Switzerland and a civil suit in New York. An international arrest warrant was issued. Polo took flight, just three weeks after the French government had annointed him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters for donating to the Louvre a work by eighteenth-century painter Jean Fragonard and a jewel-encrusted crown worn by the wife of Napoleon III.
Police caught up with Polo on the Italian Riviera at the end of June 1988. Thus, he enjoyed the curious distinction of becoming the only inmate to enter Lucca prison wearing the green and white rosette of a French dignitary. Thanks to the U.S. District Court judge back in New York, Polo would eventually become the only prisoner ever bailed out of Lucca a month before being determined to be liable to his former clients for $124 million.
The banner was plastic, red, white, and blue, and big as a billboard. "FREE ROBERTO POLO," it howled in foot-high letters, slapping against a cyclone fence in downtown Miami. A dozen protesters milled in front of the sign, munching grilled cheese sandwiches and waving homemade placards at the traffic whizzing by.
Four years had passed since a severely emaciated Polo was freed on bail from Lucca. He had remained in Italy to battle his extradition to Switzerland, but fled on March 30, 1989, after his last-ditch appeal was rejected. He landed in Miami, where he returned to the passion of his youth: painting. While the fugitive mulled over his defense, he made no secret of his whereabouts -- several national magazines noted his reappearance -- and in April 1992 the Swiss caught up with him.
He had just delivered a box of chocolates to his lawyer's Brickell Avenue office when two U.S. marshals in civilian clothes stopped his car and handcuffed him. While he sat in South Dade's Metropolitan Correctional Center, his own lawyers and federal prosecutors seeking his extradition inundated U.S. Magistrate Ted Bandstra with legal briefs. In January of this year, Bandstra found that "there is probable cause to believe that Polo committed each offense" as cited under the Swiss extradition treaty, and further, that the alleged offenses would be considered crimes under Florida law. He issued an extradition order, concluding that "the evidence strongly suggests that at least certain of Polo's clients had not authorized him and had no knowledge of his art and other purchases using their funds."
The ruling infuriated Polo defenders, driving them to the streets on this gusty Saturday in April. And none was angrier than Maria Theresa Polo, Roberto's mother, who now waved a sign warning that Justice Dies in Magistrate Bandstra's Court. She hoped that Sen. Bob Graham would take heed. Graham, ensconced in the Hyatt Regency Hotel across the street, was in town to interview candidates for federal judgeships, Bandstra among them.
"Bandstra has all the proof of my son's innocence and he throws it away," Maria Polo spat. "My son was a professor at age eighteen. He was a flower of the Cuban community. He was so talented the French made him a dignitary. Now those Mexican investors have stolen five years of his life and destroyed his name. My own life has been threatened. They don't want me in the street telling the truth!" She shook a fist for emphasis, shooed the wisps of white hair from her face, and turned to a TV cameraman who had begun filming the rally. "I say, 'Freedom for Roberto Polo! Freedom for Roberto Polo!'"
Like all effective rhetoric, the outburst played to several sentiments at once: ethnic pride, mistrust of authority, mistrust of foreigners, personal sacrifice, maternal devotion.
Nearby a dapper man in sunglasses stood nodding. Efrain Veiga had met Polo twenty years earlier in Washington and befriended him upon his return to Miami. Co-owner of Yuca, the chic Coral Gables eatery, Veiga had hung one of Polo's silkscreen works in his restaurant and even named an appetizer in his honor: the Polo Croquette. Now Veiga served as chairman of Citizens Against the Extradition of Roberto Polo, the organization that sprang into action after Bandstra's ruling.
"Roberto cannot fight from prison alone," Veiga explained. "He will be railroaded to Switzerland. That's why we have taken to the streets. We need to reach the people. The politicians. The media."
In the five months since Bandstra's ruling, Veiga and Maria Polo have proven adept at all three. Their relentless networking has made Roberto Polo the cause celäbre of the Cuban exile community. Mayors and magnates attend his court hearings. Congressmen and commissioners write letters on his behalf. Aides to Bill Clinton, perhaps even Hillary herself, are said to be bending the presidential ear over the Polo injustice.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
The allegations, a sharp contrast to the careful arguments of Polo's own lawyer, go on and on.
For instance, he maintains that the New York judge entered a default judgment against him solely because he was imprisoned in Italy at the time. But he never mentions the letter written to him by his former lawyer, Alvin Hellerstein, who advised: "If you defend the civil lawsuits, you will be called upon to answer allegations [and] to testify in depositions and produce documents which...may tend to incriminate you. On the basis of the information you gave me, it is not likely that your position will prevail."
Addressing his luxurious lifestyle, Polo concedes: "I was managing $120 million and making a lot of money and I think I'm allowed to have a good time."
Last comes Polo's claim that he has been maligned in the press. "For five years I didn't talk. It was only the Mexicans talking," he says, even though he not only dispersed press releases from his Italian prison cell, but granted interviews while an international fugitive. He allows that the media have been more on-target recently, but he is still pushing for the Herald to publish a "serious" investigation of his case. "It hasn't been for lack of materials," he proclaims. "I mean, I've talked to half of the Herald.
I've spent weeks and weeks and weeks, sometimes hours on the phone with staff at the Herald. I interviewed with Ram centsn Maestre many, many times and sent him tons of material."
This assertion is punctuated by a rap at the door. Ever the polished host, Polo excuses himself and steps outside to greet his unexpected guests, a television crew from Telemundo. After conferring for a few moments, a producer is dispatched to fetch sodas, the reporter seats herself in the inmate visiting hall, and Polo reappears. His thin lips working faster now, he hammers at the larger implications. "Basically, this could happen to anybody," he declares. "Here I am, an American, I've done so much for my country, done so much for France and Italy. Even at the time I was busiest, I gave to charity. Even if I would take a Concorde from Europe in the morning, I would still find time to go to Casita Maria and the other Hispanic charities and take twenty, thirty kids to a movie or museum. That's the kind of person I am."
He peers out the window at the neatly kept grounds. Beyond these lie the moonscape of South Dade, hurricane wreckage still lining the roads, water tanks crushed like fallen souffles. Farther off, his friends and family. And beyond that, an impossible distance, the past he once lived. Perfect. "You know what many of us here say? We say, 'What's the difference between this and Cuba? What's the difference between this and Nazi Germany?'"
The TV producer taps on the door. Polo leaps up, whispers a few mollifying words. Time for one more question. If Roberto Polo is so obviously innocent, why doesn't he return to Switzerland, rebuff his accusers, and make his way in the world as a free man?
"The problem is falling into the hands of the Swiss magistrate who lied to obtain the extradition," he explains gravely. "He wants me trapped over there, out of the way."
Another knock. Polo must go. Of course, he will be available to answer all additional questions. But for the time being, Telemundo beckoned. The Spanish-language network is preparing to beam a special report about the Polo tragedy to affiliates around the Americas, to be followed by a network editorial denouncing his persecution.
Polo opens the door and scans the visiting room for his reporter. A portly man in a navy blue suit bumbles up. "Excuse me," says the man, who was obviously an attorney. "I've got to meet with my client." He gestures toward the room Polo is guarding, a room intended for attorney/client meetings.
"Oh, no, you don't understand," Polo explains. "I have another meeting." He smooths over the faux pas with a wave of his legal folder, ushers the reporter past the interloper, and shuts the door.
The true believers were gathered in the hallway, dress shoes clicking on buffed linoleum. At a few minutes before nine this past Wednesday, they began jostling into the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who was presiding over the appeal of Magistrate Bandstra's extradition order.
Polo stood at the defendant's table, in a blue sweater and jeans. With winks and winsome smiles he gave what thanks he could to his supporters, who packed seven rows and overflowed into the foyer.
As Moreno settled on his wooden perch, defense attorney Ed Shohat rose to argue that the case be returned to Bandstra, who had disregarded evidence of the Swiss magistrate's fallibility. The employees from whom he never took depositions. The absence of bank records. The powers of attorney. Shohat threw his words like skipping rocks, each leaving a ripple of doubt even as the next landed. He wooed the judge with blown-up copies of his best exhibits.
Prosecutor William Hoyt answered tersely. A man of Ross Perot-like stature and inflection, he noted the account statements sent to Polo's clients, and the sworn statements of Alfredo Ortiz-Murias and Ramona Col centsn. Moreno rubbed his eyes. These were the same arguments he'd heard five days ago, at an initial hearing that had been cut short after the William Lozano verdict was announced. Moreno moved on to the issue of bail.
Hoyt immediately protested. Polo had already jumped a huge bail in Italy. Here in the States, U.S. marshals had searched for nearly two months before locating and arresting him. Besides, Hoyt pled, Polo was an "international citizen" who had been given his chance to argue for bail at a hearing last year and been denied.
Shohat's argument was uncharacteristically succinct. He merely read a list of the people willing to sign a personal surety bond on Polo's behalf: Steve Clark, Alex Penelas, Armando Valladares, Pedro Reboredo. Then he spun around and asked the gallery who else would sign. The gallery rose, as one.
"If this man has no ties to this community, why are all these people with ties to the community ready to put their John Hancocks next to his name?" Moreno wondered.
Hoyt marched back and forth, a look of frustration reddening his face. He cited case law suggesting that bail was only granted in extradition matters under special circumstances. "The entire record in this case is a special circumstance," Moreno shot back. Without further ado, the judge set a bond of $200,000. In addition, he required that Polo live at his parents' dwelling, under house arrest, and that ten of his supporters sign personal surety bonds of $10,000 apiece, the sum they would have to pay should Polo flee. Finally, he vowed to rule on the extradition request within 30 days.
Outside in the hallway, the Polo forces reconvened. For half an hour the entourage reveled in the victory before descending the marble steps to the cameras and microphones waiting below. Maria Polo walked into the noon light stoically, her exit recorded by a bank of television cameras. The white collar draped over her black dress lent her the solemnity of a nun. To her it was all quite clear: the judge had finally seen past the lies. The tall, balding man called Shohat, along with her son's noble advocates, had shown him the way. All around her reporters scurried to secure sound bites from the assembled personages. Hialeah Mayor Julio Martinez bragged that he himself would help pay for Polo's bond. Armando Valladares lashed out at Polo's Mexican accusers. Even the taciturn Roberto Polo, Sr., spoke a few cautious words.
The wrangling over bail might delay matters, but the legal resurrection had begun. Soon enough Roberto Polo would be free to make the world a more beautiful place.