|The Follieri Charade
By Michael Shnayerson
September 5, 2008
Raffaello Follieri had the love of Hollywood princess Anne Hathaway, the illusion of a Vatican imprimatur, an investment partnership with billionaire Ron Burkle, and entree to Bill Clinton’s inner circle. It wasn’t enough for him. Now that the 30-year-old Italian entrepreneur has been jailed on fraud and money-laundering charges, the author separates the facts from the fantasy of Follieri and Hathaway’s high-flying life.
Anne Hathaway had broken up with him—sort of—10 days before. Federal prosecutors were circling, interviewing his associates. And now, on the cusp of 30, Raffaello Follieri was, in a sense, back where he’d started when he moved to Manhattan from Italy five years ago: sleeping on spare beds and scrambling for investors to make his business real.
It was a shocking comedown for the charismatic entrepreneur who’d whisked his actress girlfriend around the world on chartered jets and yachts, who’d stayed in the Dorchester hotel in London, the Ritz in Paris, and the Excelsior in Rome when he wasn’t home in the Olympic Tower duplex overlooking Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. He’d socialized with some of the world’s most powerful people. Yet Follieri was unfazed. Ever confident—a confidence man, federal prosecutors would declare when he was dragged into court the next day—Follieri felt he had only two problems on the evening of June 23, 2008: his sinuses, and arranging his 30th-birthday party for that coming Saturday night at the Villa Verde restaurant on Capri.
The spare bed this time was in the hall of his parents’ Trump Tower apartment. Follieri loved the instant status that Trump Tower conferred: he’d started out with a penthouse apartment there when he could ill afford it. When he bagged his first investors, he turned the apartment over to his parents, who spoke almost no English. But now he was sharing it with them because the lease had run out on his Olympic Tower duplex and none of his past or prospective investors, or Hathaway, were inclined to pay the $37,000-a-month rent.
On this night, because his sinuses were acting up, provoking a bad bloody nose, his mother had let him take the bedroom while she slept on the spare bed. Follieri’s father, Pasquale, was back in Italy. By one report, it was he who had urged his son to parlay his Vatican contacts into a timely business: helping the Catholic Church sell off properties in the U.S. to pay the devastating settlements from lawsuits in the wake of the pedophile-priest scandals. If those properties could be bought at a good insider’s price, and sold or developed for a profit, the sky was the limit. Pasquale is still listed on the Follieri Group’s Web site as its president, and his portly figure had often been seen at Catholic Church events, glad-handing bishops. For a while, at least, none of the bishops seemed to know that Pasquale, a lawyer and sometime journalist, had been convicted in 2005 by an Italian court of embezzling $300,000 from a company whose assets he’d been asked to manage. (The ruling is reportedly on appeal.) Now with both the F.B.I. and the New York State attorney general’s office investigating the Follieris, Pasquale returned to Italy.
Raffaello might have gone back to Europe, too, except that Hathaway had urged him to meet her a week or so before at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel, in between her own far-flung trips to promote her new movie, Get Smart. The breakup, in Paris, had been inconclusive; both Follieri and Hathaway seemed to be having mixed feelings. Later, online gossip columns would publish speculation that she had cooperated with federal agents, luring Follieri back to New York so he could be arrested. Hathaway’s publicity agent, Stephen Huvane of PMK/HBH, responded to the media storm: “There is an investigation going on that does not involve Anne. She is no longer a member of the Follieri Foundation. Other than that, we won’t be commenting.”
That evening, an old friend, Melanie Bonvicino, spent hours listening to Follieri talk. At one point she had worked for the Follieri Group; by this point she was acting as the latest of his publicity agents, trying to burnish an image badly damaged by recent events.
As always when he got ready for bed, Follieri changed into a dark-blue or black Ralph Lauren polo shirt and white shorts. Nearby, as always, was his good-luck charm: a large green plastic frog, about nine inches high and wide. At about midnight, his mobile phone rang: it was Hathaway calling from L.A. Follieri put the call on speaker so that Bonvicino could hear. “Hey, baby,” Follieri said.
From the first, Follieri and Hathaway had had a passionate relationship. He was stubborn, she was a drama queen, claim former Follieri staffers. There were flare-ups and make-ups. In their conversations, it was always “Hey, baby” this and “Hey, baby” that, as Bonvicino put it. But tonight there were evidently fewer “Hey, baby”s from Hathaway, and when Follieri asked if she’d come to the birthday party on Capri, there was silence at the other end—a long, devastating, heartbreaking silence. Finally Hathaway said, “You were the love of my life. I’ll always love you. You know that, baby.” Follieri looked crushed. At last, he must have known it was over. He was still on the phone, talking numbly, when Bonvicino in tears kissed his forehead and left.
Six hours later, federal agents knocked brusquely on the apartment door and took Follieri away in handcuffs, to a downtown federal courtroom, where prosecutors charged him with five counts of money-laundering, six counts of wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Assistant U.S. Attorney Reed Brodsky told Judge Henry B. Pitman that Follieri likely had hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign bank accounts, and that he was a flight risk, the more so because he was an Italian citizen. Judge Pitman set bail at an astronomical $21 million. Unable to pay it, Follieri was soon assigned to a seven-and-a-half-by-eight-foot concrete cell with a sink, toilet, and roommate at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, in Lower Manhattan. There, as of mid-August, he remains.
From the New York Post to The Wall Street Journal, from People to Newsweek, the press reveled in the story, gleefully recycling the details of the federal complaint. Among the charges: Follieri had misspent or embezzled more than $1 million of a “principal investor“?‘s money, including $107,000 for a chartered jet to take him and Hathaway to a New Year’s party also attended by Bill and Hillary Clinton at Oscar de la Renta’s house in the Dominican Republic. He’d spent more than $150,000 on medical expenses for himself, his parents, and Hathaway. He’d even used the investor’s money for an elite dog-walking service for Esmerelda, the couple’s brown Labrador (to whom, though the complaint made no mention of this, they often playfully accorded a seat of honor at their dinner parties). He’d gone so far as to spend $800,000 of the principal investor’s money on “almost worthless” engineering reports for church properties.
There was just one problem with those details. Every one that related to the principal investor had been aired more than a year before in a civil suit brought against Follieri by that investor: Ron Burkle, the 55-year-old supermarket mogul and private-equity billionaire best known for his close personal friendship with former president Clinton. But that suit had been settled. Follieri had repaid the $1.3 million that Burkle’s Yucaipa Companies said he owed it.
Why, more than a year later, were federal prosecutors rehashing these charges in a criminal complaint?
What was left in the l8-page complaint, when the “principal investor” charges were cut away, were two accusations. One was that on several occasions Follieri had wired sums of money totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars to a bank account in Monaco. The prosecutors offered few details about where this money had come from or why the wire transfers were illegal, other than that they had “probable cause” to believe that the money was fraudulently obtained.
The other accusation was that Follieri had used his Vatican connections to defraud investors. But the complete story may be far more nuanced than the one the prosecutors outlined. More may soon be revealed in an indictment—the more formal set of charges offered up by a grand jury—but as of now Follieri languishes in M.C.C. on these allegations, facing a prospective nine-year jail sentence and deportation.
Follieri is no saint: for starters, he leaves a trail of whopping unpaid bills. But rather than some new kind of con man—the “Vati-Con,” as one tabloid called him—he seems, to friends and colleagues, even to some he may have scammed, a more classic type: the young protagonist of a l9th-century English or French social novel, coming to London or Paris from the provinces with humble means and huge ambition. Like Fabrizio del Dongo in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, like Lucien de Rubempre in Balzac’s Lost Illusions, he lucks into that fateful introduction that leads him to circles of money and power. Before long he has the beautiful girl, perhaps even the princess. But then the ambition that pushed him high turns to hubris and leads him astray.
Follieri had the next-best thing to a princess: an actress who played one. And for a long time—four years—her name and rising Hollywood profile helped open doors for him. But in the end, her celebrity may have helped seal his fate.
Young Man from the Provinces
Press reports note that Follieri moved to Manhattan from Italy in 2003, when he was 25. That’s true, but he was 19 when he began making trips to the city he hoped to conquer one day. He had grown up in Foggia, a city in Southern Italy. His parents weren’t the wealthy, third-generation real-estate developers he made them out to be. According to a friend, they did have enough money that when he attended—briefly—the University of Rome he rented a handsome apartment. “It was in a good section near the Excelsior hotel,” recalls New York luxury-brand promoter Susan Shin, who stayed there. And she adds, “It came with a chef.”
Follieri and his gorgeous then girlfriend, the actress Isabella Orsini, had stayed at Shin’s New York apartment, too. He didn’t speak much English, but he was set on building a New York business based on Orsini’s interest in fashion. It would be called Beauty Planet, and it would involve making or distributing cosmetics—the idea was always a bit vague. Shin was then a trademark lawyer and gave him advice. “He was very young, but he had this dream,” she recalls. “He had this shining face, and he was so willing to work so hard.” The three would go out to Nobu or Cipriani, already among Follieri’s favorite Manhattan restaurants. But every Sunday he would go to church. “The whole time I’ve known him,” says Shin, “he’s been a staunch Catholic.”
Later, Follieri would claim Beauty Planet had been a big success, but Italian court documents show that it never made money and Follieri folded it in 2002, after bouncing checks totaling more than $50,000. (Neither Follieri nor his lawyer, Flora Edwards, replied to queries from Vanity Fair.) By then he’d moved on from Orsini and on to a new idea: using his family’s Vatican connections.
The business plan contemplated by Follieri padre and figlio wouldn’t have worked in Rome. The Vatican, one of the largest property owners in the world, handles its own real estate without need of 25-year-old outsiders. But to bishops and monsignors an ocean away, the plan would seem more plausible.
Follieri’s ace was Andrea Sodano, fortysomething nephew of Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Distant as the connection might seem, the relationship was real, and Cardinal Sodano was hardly just another red hat in the flock. Under the ailing John Paul II, he essentially ran the Vatican as secretary of state. Andrea, who started flying over to New York to help Follieri pitch investors, was fond of flipping open his cell phone to show digital pictures of his uncle. Later, prosecutors would dismiss the contacts as insignificant. But what if they worked?
At first they did, as New York lawyer Richard Ortoli soon saw. Ortoli drew up papers of incorporation for the Follieri Group. Like Shin, he found the young man’s enthusiasm infectious. He let Follieri sleep on his spare bed, then agreed to host a party at the University Club, where he was a member, with all guests invited by Follieri. Into the club’s dark-paneled rooms, above Fifth Avenue, strode a covey of Catholic Church officials, including Cardinal Egan of New York—and Cardinal Sodano himself. Impressed, Ortoli became one of Follieri’s first investors, committing, he says, with lawyerly discretion, something less than $100,000.
Follieri found another investor in Vincent Ponte, a downtown restaurateur and Tribeca real-estate developer. A hard-boiled businessman, Ponte was won over the day Follieri walked into his FilliPonte restaurant, on Desbrosses Street. “And then Cardinal Egan comes in!” recounts a Ponte associate. “And Egan greets Follieri like an old friend!”
With $300,000 from Ponte, Follieri was off and running. Another young entrepreneur might have hoarded that money for actually buying church properties and slept on sofas until he sold them at a profit. Not Follieri. His role model, he told more than one friend, was Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who’d started poor but made his first $1 million by the age of 25 and perfected the art of using “O.P.M.”—other people’s money. The trick, it seemed, was to spend a good portion of his investors’ money on himself. The richer he looked, the more investors would want to invest in him. That was when Follieri moved into his Trump Tower penthouse. He started dressing extremely well and wearing Chanel cologne. He even talked Ponte into letting him use Ponte’s white Mercedes as if it were his own. And then he landed the ultimate accessory: a beautiful, increasingly famous girlfriend.
An Opening for a Princess
They met through a friend in the winter or spring of 2004. For their first date, Follieri was an hour late. Hathaway was furious. She kept her distance through the meal, but when he later sent a dozen roses, she began to thaw. That thick Italian accent was rather adorable. And so was he. “It was totally love at first sight,” she later admitted in an interview. “He is sooo good-looking.… He looks like a god.”
At 21, Hathaway was already a star, thanks to her dazzling teenage debut in The Princess Diaries (2001). Now she was a sophomore at Vassar, majoring in English. (Soon after she started dating Follieri, she transferred to New York University.) The Princess Diaries 2 was due out that August. Yet she was also being taken seriously as an actor: director Ang Lee had just cast her in a promising film called Brokeback Mountain. In person she was poised, worldly, opinionated—a woman who could seem much older than her 21 years. But sometimes the sheer force of her character belied the young girl within. No fewer than 23 times, one interviewer noted, she used the adjective “brilliant.” And for all her city sophistication, Follieri was only her second serious boyfriend. (Hathaway’s spokesman, Stephen Huvane, declined to respond to queries from Vanity Fair.)
“It was tempestuous in the beginning,” recalls one friend who saw them soon after they met. “I recall one breakup when he flew from Italy to L.A. to get her back.” Soon Hathaway was enamored, not just of Follieri but, one observer thought, of the Vatican connection. Early on, Follieri took her to Rome for an audience with Pope John Paul II. “I saw a picture of the two of them with the Pope,” one friend recalls. “Was it a private audience? I haven’t a clue.”
As a treat for New Year’s, Follieri took Hathaway down to the Bahamas for five days. When they arrived, he escorted her to a splendid house that he’d rented through a social acquaintance for $3,000 a night. The acquaintance was merely doing a favor for the owner as well as for the happy couple. A local broker helped facilitate the rental but waived his fee. It was just among friends. Follieri could pay his share when they all got back to New York, the acquaintance told him.
A fine time was had by all, especially on New Year’s Eve, when the group had a dinner for eight with free-flowing champagne at the Old Fort Club. Follieri proposed to pay for the dinner with his credit card, but the acquaintance waved off the thought. Follieri could add his half of the tab to the rent.
“For two weeks after he got back to New York, we asked for the money,” the acquaintance recalls. “He would say, ‘The check’s in the mail,’ ‘The wire transfer bounced back.’ Finally I said, Enough’s enough—I’m going to sue him.”
The haggling wore on for months. First, Follieri claimed that his portion of the dinner tab—$1,000—had been inflated. Then he claimed that because the acquaintance wasn’t the owner of the house he couldn’t charge rent for it. Follieri did admit in affidavits that he’d agreed to rent the house for $3,000 a night. Yet a friend recalls Hathaway as quite indignant on Follieri’s behalf. “I think she was supporting his position that they were there as guests, that’s what she said, and that they weren’t going to be charged.”
Months later, Follieri paid most of what he owed with a certified check for $18,200. The acquaintance says he spent $20,000 in legal fees to get that $18,200. By then, Follieri’s prospects had brightened. Miraculously, he had a new, extremely wealthy investor: Ron Burkle.
utwardly, in those first months of 2005, Follieri seemed the picture of success. In his Trump Tower penthouse, he met with the four or five members of his staff, drawing up lists of U.S. Catholic Church officials to contact. Andrea Sodano would fly in from Italy. And, recalls one former staffer, “Anne was always there at the apartment. I could tell they were in love, but … he had a temper. I think she was more in love with him than vice versa.”
Perhaps Follieri was testy because nothing was working out. Various Catholic archdioceses did want to sell churches and other properties, and according to Andrew Walton, spokesman for the Camden diocese, in New Jersey, the young Italian did come recommended by Rome. “We were encouraged by the Vatican to work with the Follieri Group where possible,” he says. “The bishop himself was contacted by an office in the Vatican: ‘They do good work, and you should receive them.’?” However heartfelt, those endorsements weren’t doing the trick.
The problem was that the dioceses were hardly about to sell their properties to the Follieri Group without competitive bidding. One New York real-estate consultant who worked briefly with Follieri explains how the process tended to unfold: “The parishes would present the deals to four or five people; more often than not, one of those guys would get the property—but at the higher price.” As Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the New York archdiocese, later told The Wall Street Journal, the Follieri Group never wanted to pay the higher price.
Soon enough, Follieri wore out his welcome at the New York archdiocese. “He had had words with Egan, burned his bridge there,” the New York consultant recalls. (The New York archdiocese will not comment.) So Follieri moved on to other dioceses, from Philadelphia to Boston and beyond. “I didn’t think he was a con man,” says the consultant, who says his bills went unpaid. “I thought he was delusional.”
Ortoli’s money was soon gone; so was Ponte’s. Follieri was on the brink. “He was bouncing checks left and right,” says one former staffer. Ortoli says he eventually got his money back. Ponte wasn’t as lucky with his $300,000. “Vincent and his partners … basically have been trying to get it back ever since,” says Ponte’s lawyer Gregory Horowitz.
The Clinton Connection
His dreams threatened, Follieri made the most of a modest chance. One of his staffers had a friend named Aldo Civico, a Columbia University anthropologist who had been helping the Clinton Foundation reach donors in Italy. What Follieri did next was both nervy and brilliant. He took Civico to dinner at Cipriani uptown, his favorite haunt, a few blocks from Trump Tower. At some point he intimated he wanted to make a major donation to the Clinton Foundation. No numbers were mentioned, yet somehow Civico left with the impression that Follieri might give as much as half a million dollars.
Civico contacted the Clinton camp. Soon Follieri was talking with Doug Band, right-hand man and gatekeeper to the ex-president who had played a key role in developing the Clinton Foundation. By chance, Band was going to be meeting in New York one day soon with Ron Burkle, the former president’s good friend and, since Clinton’s departure from the White House, his business partner. Maybe the two could grant Follieri a brief audience: that would certainly nudge this young, wealthy Italian into writing a substantial check.
The decision to meet with Follieri wasn’t as casual as it seemed. At least, not quite. Somehow, Follieri had managed to persuade Martin Edelman, a prominent New York lawyer whose clients included Bill Clinton, to represent his company. Edelman, through a spokesperson, declines to say how he met Follieri or came to be his lawyer. (Indeed, Edelman declines to comment at all.)
The meeting took place in Burkle’s suite at the New York Palace Hotel. Later, each of Follieri’s new associates—Civico, Band, and Burkle—would suggest one of the others was responsible for setting it up. At the time, the meeting seemed a great success. Follieri was charming and charismatic, his Italian accent especially winning as he spoke of his humble hopes to serve the church by buying hundreds of millions of dollars of Catholic Church properties. True, the church would insist that the properties be put to some “reverent” use by their buyers: no nightclubs. But with the real-estate market soaring the way it was, how could they lose?
Follieri left his new associates with the impression that he might soon be writing two big checks—one to the Clinton Foundation and another to one of Burkle’s equity funds. But the only check that would ultimately emerge from that meeting came from Burkle’s Yucaipa Companies. “Dear Raffaello.… It has been a pleasure to get to know you over the past month or so,” Burkle wrote to Follieri on May 6, 2005. Five weeks later, Burkle agreed to fund a joint venture called Follieri/Yucaipa Investments L.L.C., and to commit to it the astonishing sum of up to $105 million.
One of the shrewdest real-estate investors in the country did not, Burkle’s spokesman notes, simply give Follieri $105 million to play with. “We structured it in a way where he’d control none of the money,” a Yucaipa spokesman explains. “He brought us properties. If we liked the property, we’d buy it. If not, then not.”
The spokesman also recalls that Follieri/Yucaipa would spend only about half of its commitment money, buying $55 million of Catholic Church properties. Each buying decision was Yucaipa’s, and the whole $55 million portfolio would remain—as it still does—in Yucaipa’s hands. Follieri would share in any profits after the properties were developed and sold. More immediately, he got an operating budget. “That,” says one former Folllieri employee, “was when everything ramped up.”
Follieri took offices on the 10th floor at 350 Park Avenue. The staff would swell to around 20. Follieri took the corner office and stocked it with silver-framed pictures. Most were of Hathaway, or of the happy couple.
From the first, four former staffers agree, Follieri was an imperious boss with a hair-trigger temper. “People were cowering,” says one. “The deference was ridiculous.” His worst rants he directed at his meek, Italian-born secretary, Isa Bernocco, who lived with her mother in Queens. “He would blame her for everything,” says one former staffer. “He would call her into his office, close the door, and yell at her in Italian.” Three years later, after Follieri had been imprisoned and the Follieri Group had all but shut down, a cursory call to the office would be answered, after many rings, by a woman with a small, apologetic voice. It was Bernocco, still sitting outside her boss’s office.
In his office, prosecutors would charge, Follieri kept ecclesiastical garments. And, according to the complaint, on at least one occasion, he persuaded a monsignor to wear them, to appear as a more senior clergyman, apparently to impress prospective investors. One former staffer explains, however, that Follieri kept an altar at the office so that visiting church officials could celebrate Mass. “The cardinal or bishop who was in the office … would put on the vestments to do that.” Perhaps, says the staffer, the confusion arose when the officiator was a lower-ranked monsignor. “There’s a monsignor’s outfit that has a sash on it like a bishop’s does, and a cassock that isn’t red [like a cardinal’s] but violet.”
But if he wasn’t misleading people, Follieri clearly knew which props to use to create the right effects. The altar was one. The Filipino nun in full habit at the receptionist’s desk was another. Then there was that document from the Vatican. One person to whom it was shown says it authorized Follieri to act as the Vatican’s man in America. But … did it? And did Follieri really say that? One former staffer notes that there was a document, which was in Italian. “He was showing it to people who didn’t speak Italian.” The staffer laughs. “He was very good at working with implications and allowing them to take a life of their own.”
So it was with the bodyguards. Almost as soon as Burkle’s money came in, Follieri hired some. “Always a bodyguard, sometimes two,” sighs one public-relations man who worked briefly for him. “I’ve walked down streets in Manhattan with lots of people more important than Raffaello—and no bodyguards. It felt so stupid! I think it was part of the shtick.” Or … was it? One staffer recalls that Follieri had received telephone threats. And didn’t the Vatican have its share of skulduggery? “He would talk all the time about how they hung that ‘Vatican banker’ [Roberto Calvi] from the bridge in the 1980s,” recalls one former associate. At the same time, the bodyguards made Follieri look a little menacing, too. “Raffaello was very good at putting into your head that he was a powerful person who could do harm to you,” says one former employee. In restaurants, the bodyguards would stand off to the side. “Why don’t we have the security sit at another table and have lunch,” said one lunch guest. They looked pretty hungry. “No,” Follieri said sternly. “No, no.”
If Follieri had charmed only Ron Burkle at that fateful New York Palace Hotel meeting, that would have been, as Hathaway might say, brilliant. But he had impressed Doug Band too. And Follieri, in turn, was salivating at the thought of all the other prospective investors to whom the keeper of Bill Clinton’s Rolodex might introduce him. Almost every day, it seemed, Band would get excited e-mail suggestions from his new friend. “They were BlackBerrying each other,” says one former employee, “all the time.”
Usually it was Follieri who initiated the exchanges, and Band who replied. Often, Band politely deflected the younger man’s queries. Still, Follieri was relentless. He took Band to dinner half a dozen times, at restaurants like Nobu Fifty Seven, often as a foursome with Hathaway and Band’s then girlfriend and now wife, Lily Rafii. Band told friends he found Follieri charming but arrogant, and obnoxious with waiters. Every other word out of his mouth was “Vatican.” More than once, in fact, Follieri declared to Band that he was the chief financial officer of the Vatican.
Band at the time saw no reason to question Follieri’s claims. One of the Church’s most prominent officials in the U.S., His Excellency Archbishop Celestino Migliore, had called Band twice to vouch for Follieri, Band later told a friend. Migliore is the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations—basically the Pope’s man at the U.N. (Migliore’s office has denied that the archbishop ever vouched for Follieri to the Clinton camp.) Band told friends that Marty Edelman had vouched for him, too. (Edelman declines to comment.) And now Burkle was on board, too. Why not make introductions for Follieri? If they led to joint ventures, Follieri assured him, Band would get a cut of the deal. There was nothing illegal about that: Band was no longer a government employee, as he’d been in working for Clinton at the White House. Why shouldn’t he profit from his connections as any investment banker would?
That summer, Band helped set up a meeting between Follieri and Carlos Slim, one of the world’s richest men, on Slim’s yacht off Mexico. The meeting led nowhere. He also helped facilitate a trip by Follieri to Bahrain to meet with high-ranking economic ministers. That, too, led nowhere. But Follieri kept BlackBerrying Band, and Band, if only out of politeness, kept BlackBerrying back.
Remarkably, Pope John Paul II died just as Follieri met Burkle and Band.
If either Burkle or Band wondered how useful Cardinal Sodano’s nephew might now be, though, Follieri had a ready response. Change meant opportunity! What better time to ramp up, and, while they were at it, rent a duplex in the Olympic Tower for $37,000 a month where visiting Vatican dignitaries could stay? “There was transition in the church,” a source close to the deal recalls as Follieri’s reasoning: “It would be nice to be able to host cardinals coming to the city. Did they think it was a little expensive? Sure, absolutely, but not totally out of line. Now, were they O.K. with him staying there as his own private residence? No.”
But stay there Follieri eventually did—and at times with Hathaway, though she preferred Greenwich Village.
“A butler opened the door,” recalls a visitor. “There were incredible floor-to-ceiling views of Saint Patrick’s … white marble floors, contemporary modern furniture—very sterile. He said it was Ari Onassis’s apartment, but I don’t know that that’s true.”
“Then a beautiful dining room with a round table,” recalls another, “and a kitchen, and a screening room.… The screening room was the office. It had electric shades, lots of pictures of him and Anne and his family, and a photo of a boat he says he owns, but I don’t know if he does.”
Actually, he didn’t, though more than one friend was left with that impression. That August, Follieri rented the 113-foot Celine Ashley—a gorgeous yacht with six in crew—and took Hathaway spinning around the Mediterranean. “He said ‘the boat,’ so maybe I just assumed it was his,” one guest recalls.
That was the New Year’s that Follieri spent $107,000 of Yucaipa’s money to charter a jet for Hathaway and himself to the Dominican Republic, to attend a dinner party at the home of Oscar de la Renta with Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as former chairman of the Democratic National Committee Terry McAuliffe and ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The trips were dazzling, but Hathaway was apparently more impressed by Follieri’s desire to start a foundation to help poor children in developing countries. He created the Follieri Foundation and started organizing a campaign to inoculate Latin-American children against hepatitis A. “My boyfriend is incredible in a lot of ways,” Hathaway told Harper’s Bazaar, “but when it comes to his charity … One of the most untouted aphrodisiacs in the world is charity work. Seriously, you want a girl to be impressed, vaccinate some kids, build a house.”
As a fillip, Follieri declared that he was making a $50 million philanthropic pledge through the Clinton Global Initiative. At the New York office of Il Sole 24 Ore, an Italian national newspaper, correspondent Claudio Gatti saw the press release and wondered who this glamorous young Italian was. Why hadn’t he heard of him?
After months of BlackBerrying, Doug Band finally delivered: his catch, through a Clinton-camp contact named Keith Stein, was a Canadian real-estate entrepreneur named Michael Cooper, C.E.O. of Dundee REIT. Cooper was impressed by Follieri’s pitch, even more so by Burkle’s involvement. Burkle was a real-estate god. Cooper was so impressed that he agreed to advance Follieri roughly $6 million in start-up capital for a Canadian version of Follieri’s U.S. joint venture with Burkle.
According to one person involved in the deal, both Follieri and Cooper wanted Band and Stein to be paid for putting the partners together. So when Cooper sent the $6 million to Follieri, the understanding was that $200,000 would go to Band, and $200,000 to Stein.
On March 22, 2006, Band sent an invoice for $400,000 for consulting services to Auspice Holdings, an account maintained by Follieri on one of the Channel Islands, off England—the plan was for him to pass half of that on to Stein. When no response was forthcoming six days later, he sent a second notice. Payment was finally made to a bank account in Florida set up by Band and one of his brothers. The account was held by the SGRD L.L.C.: the first letters stood for Steven, Greg, Roger, and Doug Band, brothers all.
Later, Band would tell authorities that he had duly sent on the $200,000 to Stein within 24 hours of receiving the full $400,000, and kept his own $200,000 payment for roughly l5 months. There was nothing illegal about the payment or the SGRD account, he would note.
That was about when Claudio Gatti, of Il Sole 24 Ore, says he called Band at home in Manhattan—mid-June, 2007. (Band’s phone number was listed at the time.) In the brief conversation, Gatti asked about the invoices. (Gatti will not say how he discovered them.) Band said he would have to talk to Clinton spokesperson Jay Carson. Over the next days, Gatti says he called and e-mailed Carson numerous times and never heard back. Finally, in late June, Gatti called Wall Street Journal reporter John Emshwiller to see if the Journal would use its clout to help.
Three months later, in September 2007, when The Wall Street Journal broke the story in conjunction with Gatti’s own expose, in Il Sole 24 Ore, Band declared he’d returned his $200,000 months before. He’d returned it, he said, because he felt he was not going to be part of a business deal that hadn’t worked out. He’d first tried to return it in April or May by wiring it to Cooper, but Cooper had waved him off and refused to relay his wire-transfer numbers, so in the end, Band had had to dispatch a check for that amount to Dundee—in the last week of June or the first days of July. He vaguely remembers receiving calls from an Italian journalist, but says it played no part in his decision to return the money. “If I lived my life responding to what media people said,” he told one friend, “I’d be insane.”
Band was certainly right about the Canadian venture: it was a bust. Donald Onyschuk, an adviser to the bishop of the Eastern Canadian Diocese called the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy, remembers meeting Pasquale Follieri and Andrea Sodano in May 2006. Sodano was acting as the older Follieri’s interpreter, introducing him to all the bishops. Both men were very nice, though, as Onyschuk later noted, neither appeared to have been invited.
Soon after, Onyschuk recalls with a chuckle, he was invited to the joint venture’s new offices. “I was taken up to a penthouse suite. Did I want wine? I was treated royally.” Sodano explained the whole business plan to buy church properties and develop them in a sensitive way. “They said they’d do schools, hospitals, senior-citizen centers,” says Onyschuk. “We presented three properties that we currently had for sale. They were all excited and wanted to buy them immediately.” Then Dundee, Michael Cooper’s Canadian company, looked at them. “They didn’t want these. They didn’t want churches on a quarter-acre. They wanted large land developments We did have a 300-acre parcel that had been a monastery … They completely lowballed us. We said no thanks.”
Other Canadian dioceses had similar experiences. Dundee’s deal with Follieri stated that if Cooper didn’t purchase any church property in the first 18 months, his $6 million would be returned. He didn’t, but now Follieri said he’d held up his end of the bargain by showing Dundee numerous properties. More than a year later, says a spokesman for Dundee, Cooper is still trying to get his $6 million back.
In the U.S., at least, Follieri’s venture with Ron Burkle was leading to acquisitions. Some were small church parcels, but others, like the 175-acre Holy Cross Abbey, in Colorado, bought by Yucaipa/Follieri for $11.75 million, were more promising. And so Follieri spun ever larger stories and loftier plans, and then, more and more, seemed to believe his own hype. “One day he turned to me,” recalls one person who did business with Follieri at this time, “and said, perfectly seriously, ‘I’m a visionary.’?”
His biggest stretchers were about the foundation. Like the yacht, and the fancy trips, and the five-star hotels, it may have been done, at least in part, to impress Hathaway. “Looking back,” says one former staffer, “I think it was all done to impress Anne.” With her, he went to Nicaragua in July 2006 to launch the five-year program to inoculate children in Latin America against hepatitis A. Some 1,000 children were inoculated in connection with a press event, but that was as far as the campaign went. How could it go further? The foundation had no money. It had been set up as an offshoot of the Follieri Group, with the idea that some share of profits from reselling church properties would be allocated to it. But there were no profits yet.
To fund even such fledgling programs, Follieri spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from his Yucaipa operating budget, according to the civil suit Yucaipa later filed against the Follieri Group, in which it accused Follieri of misappropriating funds. Follieri would tell The Wall Street Journal that it was all a misunderstanding about “a little money that needs to go back into the right pot.”
Hathaway wasn’t the only one dazzled by Follieri’s foundation. On September 21, 2006, President Clinton called Follieri to the stage of his latest Global Initiative gathering and thanked him for all his good works, among them the $50 million pledge through the Global Initiative. “Why anyone would allow him to get close to Clinton and be on a stage saying he’s going to give $50 million away—it’s absolutely nuts,” muses one person close to the Clinton camp. The pledge, of course, remains unfulfilled.
Along with the hepatitis-A program, Follieri was praised that night for a new prescription-drug discount card that the foundation planned to distribute to all American Catholics. The card was being produced in partnership with a company called Comprehensive HealthCare Solutions. Gatti, the Italian correspondent, traced C.H.S. to the sixth floor of a building in Yonkers. The company was a penny stock that had insufficient funds and would require a minimum of $750,000 to $l.5 million to produce the card.
It was a rinky-dink company at best. And yet the card has done some good. Hundreds of thousands of cards did get distributed by the Follieri Foundation to Catholic charities around the U.S. People who are either uninsured or underinsured do use it to get a 10 to 20 percent discount on their prescription drugs. The only catch is that they have to pay with cash or debit cards; the pharmacy gives the discount in return for getting paid up front rather than waiting for reimbursement from the health-insurance companies.
It was the same with all of the foundation’s initiatives: Follieri exaggerated what he did—dramatically—but he did do something. That fall, he was honored with a “special achievement” award at a gala dinner of the National Italian American Foundation in Washington, D.C., for his philanthropic efforts. “We are obviously disappointed as we now view what has transpired with this particular past honoree,” harrumphs niaf’s John Salamone, underlining “past” in his e-mail. Yet one niaf board member says that Follieri gave $100,000 to the group. Salamone denies that. He says Follieri merely purchased two tables at the event, one for $25,000, the other for $10,000. But still! And how could one not marvel at the picture of the 28-year-old Follieri, coolly accepting the applause of a glittering, black-tied crowd that included actor Alan Alda, Chrysler Group president and C.E.O. Tom LaSorda, and U.S. Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito and his wife.
Fall of the Roman’s Empire
Perhaps the socializing with such august figures as the Alitos and the Clintons—and John McCain, who visited Follieri aboard a rented yacht in 2006, while the boat was docked off the coast of Montenegro—was going to Follieri’s head. Perhaps he realized the Vatican angle was played out: the same month Follieri shared the stage with Clinton, Cardinal Sodano was nudged into retirement by Pope Benedict XVI. Whatever the reason, Follieri began wildly spending Yucaipa’s money.
In December 2006, he blew $16,070.49 in a few days at the Excelsior in Rome. He spent $86,581 that same month on Direct Airway, a charter-jet service. The next month he spent $53,875 on charter flights with Direct Airway. He flew from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in February, ostensibly on Yucaipa business to visit a Catholic Church official, but also to entertain designer Roberto Cavalli and a bevy of models. He stayed in Vegas at the MGM Grand; before the month was out he was back in Rome, dropping $11,293.49 at the Hotel de Russie. All these charges and many more surfaced in late 2007, when American Express sued Follieri for failing to pay $162,795.17 on one business platinum card, and $336,305.04 on another. Direct Airway sued him, too, for $458,852 in unpaid-for charter flights.
As the expenses skyrocketed, Follieri decided to hire a strong chief of staff. He offered the job to Carmela Santucci, 37, a veteran of several hedge funds, who, according to one staffer, accepted after Marty Edelman vouched personally for Follieri. “He’s never not come through,” Edelman allegedly told Santucci. Within about 72 hours, Santucci told a P.R. executive hired at about the same time, she believed she was working for someone who was delusional, running a dysfunctional enterprise.
After two weeks, Santucci had enough. “I quit!” she announced one day, and left—though not without sending a long, angry e-mail to Ron Burkle and Marty Edelman to report how mismanaged she felt the company was. She expected their thanks, she told the P.R. executive. Instead, she was told that both men thought she was crazy. Santucci allegedly threatened legal action and received a settlement of $250,000, though Santucci’s lawyer, Adrienne Baranoff, will neither confirm nor deny this.
Santucci’s warning, welcome or not, deepened Yucaipa’s concerns. As relations chilled between Follieri and Burkle, Follieri called in a P.R. consultant. “All he wanted to talk about was how he could place a negative story about Burkle in the press,” the consultant recalls. “If he gave me info, could I get a story published without Follieri’s fingerprints? I kept saying I don’t do that. He wasn’t listening. He wanted to get out from the Yucaipa deal, so he thought if he hurt Burkle he could improve his position.”
The Yucaipa suit crippled the joint venture. It also killed the foundation: a program announced in June 2007 by Follieri and Hathaway to inoculate more children against hepatitis A in Honduras was put off, and any hopes that the foundation’s president, Chris Singleton, had had of raising outside money were dashed. And it left Follieri scrambling for new investors before the whole house of cards collapsed.
Now, in search of a white knight, Follieri turned to Joe Tacopina, a well-known criminal-defense lawyer who counted ex–New York police commissioner Bernie Kerik among his clients. (This was in the halcyon days before Tacopina chose to testify about Kerik to prosecutors.) Tacopina mentioned to Kerik that he had a new client, Follieri, who was in need of an investment partner with $100 million to spare. Kerik found one: Plainfield Asset Management, a hedge-fund sponsor in Greenwich, Connecticut.
The initial plan was for the two men—Kerik and Tacopina—to share a finder’s fee of $1.5 million from Follieri, and perhaps split an additional fee from Plainfield. But those plans soon went awry. On October 5, 2007, Tacopina signed an agreement with the Follieri Group to receive $2.5 million as a finder’s fee for himself alone. Correspondence provided to Vanity Fair shows Kerik was in the dark about the terms of the deal for weeks afterward, asking Tacopina—his lawyer, after all—not to let Follieri double-cross him by denying him his half of the finder’s fee.
Like a lot of successful criminal-defense lawyers, Tacopina has a tough-guy charm that works on nearly everyone—particularly tabloid reporters. One of the reasons he was hired was to help spin the story of the Burkle lawsuit so it didn’t splatter too much mud on Follieri. The two Italians formed an instant bond, and soon Follieri was sending him business ideas, just as he’d done with Doug Band. One was to buy the AS Roma soccer team, in Italy. According to one former Follieri Group insider, someone in Follieri’s family knew the family that owned the team, and hoped Tacopina could find investors. But, says the insider, Follieri soon felt that Tacopina was going behind his back to deal with the owners himself. Tacopina’s version is that he had the contacts to do the deal and that Follieri was working against him. Either way, the two men soon had a falling-out.
For Follieri, such fallings-out had consequences. His arrogance as a boss had alienated a number of staffers. Now three of them decamped—to rent office space from Tacopina and start a competing real-estate firm to buy Catholic Church properties.
How much of this turbulence Hathaway was aware of remains unclear. She had to know about the Yucaipa lawsuit, which dragged on until last spring, when Follieri managed to pay Yucaipa the $1.3 million that Yucaipa said he’d misspent. She ought to have known that the foundation was a bust, because she’d joined its board. Yet she proclaimed herself passionate in mid-2007 about the foundation—and her beau. The only reason they weren’t married, she told one interviewer, was that Follieri hadn’t asked her yet. “But I couldn’t love him any more if we were married I’m very happy.” In January 2008, they were spotted apartment-hunting in SoHo, looking at a rental for $30,000 a month. (Follieri brought his bodyguard along.) A friend saw the write-up and texted Hathaway to ask when she was getting married. “You’ll be one of the first to know,” came the cheery reply.
Those hopes seem to have died on April 3, 2008, when Follieri took a short trip to the Midtown North police station, in Manhattan, to face a misdemeanor charge for bouncing a $215,000 check. The check was for money owed to John Morrongiello, an early investor who, like Vincent Ponte, had never been paid. Pressed to pay at last, Follieri had issued him a check from an account that held exactly $39.08. Yet that same week, after Follieri managed to find the funds to make good on the check, according to Bonvicino, Hathaway insisted he go with her to an awards ceremony in L.A.
Hathaway was still in love with Follieri—enough that, according to Bonvicino, she was now paying the rent on the Olympic Tower duplex. But she was under enormous pressure. Bonvicino says that after the April arrest, Follieri became convinced that Hathaway’s managers were working in concert to break up the relationship, planting negative stories in the press. According to Bonvicino, Hathaway confessed to Follieri that her father had hired a private investigator. In fact, Jerry Hathaway acknowledged having asked a friend who was by profession a P.I. to look into Follieri in 2005. Jerry Hathaway, when asked for comment by Vanity Fair, e-mailed back, “I regard my involvement in this situation, regardless of its dimensions and level of interest, as fundamentally a private matter between a daughter and her father.”
The pressure mounted in mid-May when, says Bonvicino, agents from New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo’s office came to the Follieri Group to say they were opening a broad-scale investigation prompted by the foundation’s failure to file a disclosure form. Bonvicino says Follieri relayed the news to Hathaway. By one report, that was when she resigned from the foundation’s board. When he became aware of a separate investigation by the U.S. attorney remains unclear. But along with rumors came a disquieting omen: on three occasions that spring when he flew in from Europe to New York, Follieri was detained at U.S. Customs by Homeland Security—for an hour or more.Purgatorio
Hathaway was still with Follieri on June 10 in Paris, when she glittered at the Lancome ceremony at the Grand Palais introducing her as the new face of Magnifique. But news of the New York attorney general’s investigation had just hit the press and the two were reportedly fighting. She’d insisted that he attend, says Bonvicino—with his parents. It was a trip Follieri could ill afford, especially staying at the Ritz, but he did go, taking two suites from June 7 to 11. Days after his departure, the Ritz contacted him to note that it hadn’t yet received authorization to debit his credit card for 4,551.70 euros. The bill remains outstanding.
After Paris, Follieri went to Rome while Hathaway embarked on her promotional tour for Get Smart. Soon after his arrival, Bonvicino got a call: Follieri’s sinuses were acting up, and she should fly to Rome with his medicines. It wasn’t the first time that week she’d been called to the rescue. Follieri’s lease on the Olympic Tower had run out on June 9, and Hathaway, after allegedly paying four months’ rent, had decided to pay no more, Bonvicino says. So while the couple was bickering in Europe, Bonvicino packed up their collective stuff and schlepped it to the TLC Moving & Storage facility in the Bronx.
Next, Bonvicino flew to Rome, Follieri’s medicines in tow. She says that while there, she and Follieri met with dubious characters who said they could make the U.S. attorney’s investigation go away—for $1 million. There were talks, she says, but eventually Follieri felt he—he—was being scammed, and declined the characters’ kind offer. That weekend, the two drove to Capri to check out arrangements for Follieri’s upcoming 30th birthday. While there, bizarrely, they ran into supermodel Naomi Campbell on the street. Bonvicino says Campbell recognized Follieri in passing and shouted, “You’re a beast! You’re a beast!”
Back in Rome, Follieri told Bonvicino he needed to pay $9,000 to Monsignor Giovanni Carru, undersecretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy. Ever since the check-bouncing incident with Morrongiello, says Bonvicino, one of her jobs had been to write Follieri’s checks for him, and then get repaid. Obligingly, Bonvicino wrote the $9,000 check to Carru from her personal checking account. She says Follieri told her the money was payment to Carru for doing various favors. “Don’t say what it’s for,” she recalls Follieri telling her. Instead, she wrote “donation” on the check, which was cashed by Carru at the Vatican City Bank on June 16 and returned to Bonvicino’s account. “Rispondo: Per opere di bene e carita,” Carru explains by e-mail. “My reply: for good works and charity.”
Follieri’s days were getting stranger, the omens more disturbing. And yet on June l6, when he and Bonvicino flew to London, he thought he might yet solve his problems. Incredibly, he had a big new investor lined up: Helios Properties. E-mails obtained by Vanity Fair show that Follieri and Helios’s Mike Hughes had basically agreed on terms. Helios would help to raise 100 million euros to create a joint venture with Follieri to buy Catholic Church properties in Europe, initially targeting properties in the U.K. and Ireland. In a matter of days or weeks, Follieri would be back on top—and perhaps, living in England. Bonvicino says she urged Follieri to stay in England. But Follieri, she says, wanted to go back to New York to meet with Hathaway, who would be there for just a short time on her Get Smart promotional tour. Bonvicino says Hathaway was texting Follieri frequently while he was in England. It was Hathaway, says Bonvicino, who wanted the meeting in New York, to straighten things out.
Follieri did meet Hathaway on June 17 or 18 at the Gramercy Park Hotel, Bonvicino says, but it failed to get the relationship back on track. On June 19, Hathaway seemed dispirited as a guest on The View. “My personality is very kind of … bubbly,” she said, “[but] I’m kind of somber today.” Soon after, she boarded a plane to Australia for the next leg of her tour. She wouldn’t see Follieri again.
Seemingly without a care in the world, Follieri attended a long, festive lunch in the Bronx that Saturday, June 21, to celebrate the long-gestating, nearly complete Plainfield deal. The initial hopes that Plainfield would kick in $100 million were ancient history. But in one way the deal was more interesting. Yucaipa, despite its very public lawsuit against Follieri, was still in the game, according to one former Follieri staffer. Plainfield, the staffer suggests, had paid Yucaipa the $1.3 million at stake in the lawsuit. Now it was paying Follieri’s other debts—more than $1 million so far, the staffer says. In return, Plainfield might get to help develop a roster of former church properties. Those properties had been bought by the Yucaipa/Follieri joint venture, but they were still owned by Yucaipa. So the new venture now seemed likely to be a partnership of three: Plainfield, Follieri, and Yucaipa.
The lunch went on and on. At about three p.m., Follieri looked at his watch and guessed that Hathaway would be landing in Australia right about then. “Sure enough,” says one participant at the lunch, “his mobile phone rang at three and it was ‘Baby this’ and ‘Baby that.’?” By the time the boisterous group finally left the restaurant, at seven p.m., Hathaway had called half a dozen times.
On his last two days of freedom, Follieri talked to Marty Edelman, still his lawyer and confidant. He tried to address several of his debt problems. The Follieri Group owed the foundation hundreds of thousands of dollars. It also owed several of its employees hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay. There was talk, says one former staffer, of either Plainfield or Yucaipa ponying up the back pay. But neither party had done so—and still hasn’t, he says. Bonvicino says Follieri was expecting a large sum of money to be wired to him from Europe, but that it never arrived. “Where’s the money?” Follieri kept shouting, she recalls. “Where’s the money?”
That Monday, June 23, less than 24 hours before Follieri’s arrest, an intriguing conversation occurred between Tacopina and a lawyer named Alan Friedman, hired by Plainfield to help settle Follieri’s debts so the new Plainfield-Follieri joint venture could get underway. For months, Tacopina had been pushing for his finder’s fee. Friedman had already pointed out to him that because Plainfield had committed only a small fraction of the $100 million, the finder’s fee—if Tacopina was owed one at all—should be a lot smaller than the one he had in mind. In this latest conversation, Friedman proposed $500,000 up front, and $500,000 in six months, according to a source close to the negotiations. Tacopina, says Friedman, rejected the deal. Tacopina’s version is that he told Friedman to forget it—forget the whole thing. “I’m legally entitled to it,” Tacopina allegedly said. “But forget it.”
That’s not Friedman’s recollection: he recalls that Tacopina wanted the whole finder’s fee upfront. After all, Tacopina told Friedman, “How do we know he’s even going to be around in a few months?”
As Follieri languishes at M.C.C., enduring so far two postponements by the prosecutors of a formal indictment, he has plenty of time to wonder who cooperated with the F.B.I. against him. Perhaps it was an embittered ex-staffer? One of his lawyers? Perhaps Ron Burkle, less sanguine than he seems? Someone in the Clinton camp? Or was it, perhaps, someone in Anne Hathaway’s orbit, sensing in Follieri a growing threat to her stardom? One thing seems sure. “If Raffaello wasn’t dating Anne Hathaway,” says one person close to the situation, “this wouldn’t have happened.” Exaggerating Vatican contacts? Running up high expenses with a business partner? “The U.S. attorney doesn’t get out of bed for this sort of stuff,” the source scoffs.
Perhaps Assistant U.S. Attorney Reed Brodsky, a veteran of the Enron scandal, simply abhors fraud and saw, in the Follieri story, a chance to do good. But it seems inescapable that he wouldn’t also have seen a chance to do well—to generate enormous publicity, as the arrest went on to do. That wouldn’t have happened without Hathaway.
Three weeks after his arrest, Follieri agrees to an hour-long interview with Vanity Fair. The warden of M.C.C. agrees to it, too, on the condition that the interview be by phone, not face-to-face.
At the appointed hour, a prison manageress places the call, and hands the phone over to Follieri.
For a man who has been confined to a small prison cell for three weeks, he sounds pretty good—almost ebullient. He’s happy to talk, he says. He has just one request: he wants to do the interview face-to-face.
He listens as it’s explained to him that the warden sanctioned only an interview by phone.
“Call my lawyer, then,” he says. “She’ll take care of it.”
It’s explained to Follieri that his lawyer has no authority over the warden.
“No, no, you just call her—she’ll set it up,” he says. “And listen,” he adds, “when you come, bring Graydon Carter. I like him very much.”
With additional reporting by John Connolly.
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.