Isaac Feldman raises a glass of champagne and sneers at the camera. The Russian émigré, a pudgy 49-year-old with pockmarked skin and thinning brown hair, wears a black suit as he hams through a monologue in a conference room shaded by heavy red curtains.
"I do eet for the money," he says, his thick accent stretching short i's into long e's. "You shouldn't be surprised. I loooove money. I love money more than the things eet can buy."
He stares for a moment at the fizzing drink in his right hand and then continues with a sinister grin: "There is only one thing I love more: other people's money."
Feldman uploaded the video to YouTube in March 2010, but his words — dialogue taken from the Danny DeVito film Other People's Money — seem prophetic today.
Federal prosecutors indicted Feldman and 14 other Eastern Europeans last Friday with engineering one of the most spectacular frauds in the Magic City's long history of strange crimes. They allegedly set up six Potemkin nightclubs in South Beach and employed a squad of young Estonian and Latvian beauties to lure well-off male tourists inside. Bartenders then pillaged their credit cards for up to $43,000, including $5,000 for cheap bottles of champagne.
Feldman was, in a way, the star of the show — the most public figure involved in the scam, which made headlines from Vancouver to Moscow. A former Russian-language radio show host, wealthy real estate agent, and aspiring actor who had appeared on Burn Notice and America's Most Wanted, he had raised thousands of dollars last fall in a bid for the City of Sunny Isles Beach Commission. Feldman also spoke four languages, flew planes, and studied karate.
So how in the name of Putin did he end up in a Russian gang scamming tourists in SoBe?
"He didn't seem like the conniving criminal type," says Paul Yavis, his campaign manager. "He's a fun-loving guy that's really plugged into the Russian community here."
Feldman left the motherland for Israel, where he studied electronics and Hebrew at a military school, and then landed in South Florida in the mid-'80s. His timing was great. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Moscow's new oligarchs began looking for warmer, safer places to invest. Sunny Isles Beach became Little Moscow.
He founded a firm, ERA Nations Realty, that by the mid-'90s had eight agents who spoke fluent Russian. Soon he was selling millions in condos every year. He apparently didn't ask much about the source of his clients' wealth. "Things are fast and loose over there," Feldman told the Miami Herald in 1996, referring to the new Russia. "That some people operate by not paying taxes and duties and paying some bribes, yes, that could be."
Feldman also ran a Russian-American cultural center and hosted a Russian-language radio show on 1080 AM. After Sunny Isles incorporated in 1997, Feldman won an appointment to advise Mayor Norman Edelcup about community activities.
He also joined the Screen Actors Guild. This side career started with TV spots for his realty company and moved into Russian-language infomercials and gigs in low-budget films. He eventually even earned bit parts on two episodes of Burn Notice, once playing a befuddled bank manager taken hostage.
Feldman and his wife Inna divorced in 2000, splitting custody of their two daughters, Diana and Michelle. He remarried five years later to a pretty Israeli named Raisa Jakobov. Later that year, the couple bought a 4,344-square-foot, $1.2 million, six-bedroom house in Sunny Isles.
When Feldman decided last summer to join a three-way race for an open commission seat, no one seemed shocked. He raised $8,100, tapping some big names including RK Management, a realty company owned by Miami Heat limited partner Raanan Katz. He printed ads in Russian and plastered red-white-and-blue signs around town. In the November vote, he nabbed 26 percent but fell short of a runoff. "We will win the next elections!" he promised on his Facebook page.
But behind the scenes — far from the campaign trail, the acting gigs, and the enthusiastic smile — Feldman's life was falling apart. In 2007, Raisa filed for divorce. In a mediated settlement, Feldman agreed to give his second ex-wife a 2005 Lexus, a stash of paintings, and $190,000.
His business, meanwhile, seems to have tanked in the global recession. Shady rubles were no longer falling from the sky. The condo market crashed.
Feldman stopped paying the mortgage on his mansion — which was $400,000 underwater anyway. In January 2009, a bank moved to foreclose. Wachovia sued him for more than $160,000 after he stopped paying on another loan. Raisa, too, filed suit when he didn't fork over the divorce settlement. In September 2009, he filed for bankruptcy.
By the following February, Feldman was desperate. In court papers, he said Raisa's settlement should be voided because he had "suffered severe financial reversals." His realty company was shuttered, he said, and he'd soon lose his home.
Feldman, by all accounts, was a proud man. He had bragged to Yavis about turning $6 million in commissions. "He thought extremely highly of himself," says Julia Rossina, marketing director of Florida Russian Magazine, based in Aventura.
And through his work, he might have known Russians with less savory connections. Could he have been looking for a quick way out of his troubles? "I wouldn't be surprised if these guys came to him and said, 'Hey, help us out and we can get you out of this mess,'" Yavis says.
Whatever the motive, Feldman's secret underworld life apparently began unraveling last September.
That's when a local cop — posing undercover as a corrupt officer working as a bouncer — spotted Feldman inside an anonymous-looking club near Washington Avenue and Sixth Street called Stars Lounge. The place, the cop had found, wasn't really a bar at all. Sure, it was stocked with bottles of liquor, but many were purchased for five or six bucks at a local CVS. It had lights, tables, and bartenders, but the man running the joint, a 29-year-old from Aventura named Albert Takhalov, had very specific instructions for his bouncer.
Only one kind of customer was allowed in: single men accompanied by glamorous women, whom a federal indictment calls Takhalov's "B-girls." They were a team of hot Eastern European women sent out to prowl nearby hotels and bars. They'd been carefully trained at clubs in Estonia to spot their marks: single tourists wearing nice watches or expensive shoes.
One such sucker was a traveler from Texas whom prosecutors call "K.W." On October 12, he was hanging out at the Delano Hotel when two girls who said they were from Finland started drinking with him. They persuaded him to accompany them to Stars Lounge, where he soon felt strangely drunk. The next morning, he woke up at the Delano with a splitting headache and no memory of how he'd gotten back to the hotel. He checked his account and found Stars had charged him more than $3,000.
Dozens of tourists were similarly scammed by the B-girls and the men who set up the fake clubs where they worked, prosecutors say.
Feldman's precise role isn't spelled out in the 41-page indictment filed April 15, but the undercover cop had no doubt the realtor was helping the schemers. He repeatedly saw Feldman with Takhalov at Stars Lounge, and on September 16, he listened as the two men talked about credit card machines. The credit companies recently had canceled their accounts because of fraud complaints.
A woman named Svetlana Coughlan told the cop that Feldman had recruited her to cook the bar's books, and Takhalov said he'd brought in Feldman as co-owner of Stars. Feldman even asked the undercover agent to run background checks on the B-girls — emphasizing he shouldn't use official Miami Beach channels.
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On April 5, FBI agents swarmed Feldman's small condo in a three-story building in Bal Harbour. He, along with the 14 others, is charged with felony fraud. Through his attorney, Myles Malman, Feldman declined to comment. "He has pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence," Malman says.
In Sunny Isles, his friends and family are still trying to figure out what happened.
"He is a good friend, a good father, and a very good person," Raisa Feldman says in an email from Haifa, Israel, where she lives now. "I guess he was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Yavis, though, wonders if he should have seen something else. "Not many people can make $6 million in a year and be totally legit," he says. "Who really knows what's in someone else's heart?"