Tag Archives: Melanie Bonvicino

Greed, Power and Sex: Con-Artist with “Vatican” Connections Indicted for Scamming the Rich and Famous

Here’s a story about greed, power and sex that’s a mixture of The Da Vinci Code, Bonfire of the Vanities, Moliere’s Tartuffe and Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man

It is about a scam and a scammer.

We’ve written about scams and how to avoid them

We don’t like scammers, especially those who prey on the desperate and the vulnerable, such as people facing foreclosure. 

But sometimes a scammer is so outrageous, so inventive, so over-the-top, and his victims so well-heeled and incredulous, that we have to admit at least an ambivalent admiration.

One such scammer is Raffaello Follieri, one of the very few scammers we’ve seen who deserves the name con-artist.

Follieri’s story reads more like a novel than a crime report.

For months, Americans who were in-the-know knew Follieri as a suave and sophisticated Italian businessman, real estate mogul, socialite, philanthropist, and Vatican representative.

He was none of these, except Italian.

Using charm, good looks, unbelievable gall, and a network of gullible and greedy New York socialites, Washington insiders and Hollywood A-list connections, Follieri moved easily in exclusive circles of money, power, and glamor. He lived in a $40,000 a month Fifth Avenue apartment and travelled the world, going to parties, conferring with the Pope (he said), and receiving awards for his generosity. 

Among those who fell under Follieri’s spell was actress Anne Hathaway.

Another was billionaire entrepreneur Ron Burkle, Burkle’s investment business Yucaipa Companies LLC, as well as Burkle’s friend, former President Bill Clinton.

Then the scam collapsed.

According to the New York Times,  “Raffaello Follieri, from San Giovanni Rotondo on the spur of Italy’s boot, is alive and kicking in his $40,000-a-month duplex on Fifth Avenue. Age 29, he used empty claims of church ties to befriend Douglas Band, a top aide to Bill Clinton. Band then smoothed the way to Clinton’s moneyed entourage, including the California billionaire Ronald Burkle.”

“Mr. Follieri received an onstage thanks from Mr. Clinton after pledging $50 million to the Clinton Global Initiative. The money has not been paid.”

“Mr. Follieri’s business cachet — his link to the Catholic Church — was contrived, the government said. It consisted of an administrative employee at the Vatican whom he paid.”

“Mr. Follieri also hired a relative of a former Vatican official as well as his own father, claiming that his father had a special relationship with the Vatican. In an apparent effort to build ostensible ties to the church, Mr. Follieri also met with clergy and traveled with a monsignor.”

In another story, the Times further explains that “Attractive and charming, [Follieri] rapidly moved into the world of billionaires and political figures. His entree was helped when he met and befriended Douglas Band, a top aide to Bill Clinton who brought Mr. Follieri into contact with the former president and Mr. Burkle.”

“That relationship birthed the unhappy union of Burkle’s Yucaipa investment operation, of which Clinton is a senior adviser, and the Follieri Group in a venture to acquire Catholic Church property Follieri said he’d get on the cheap.”

“From mid-2005, Burkle plowed $55.6 million into this enterprise, only to conclude Follieri was devoting a chunk of it to good living. A suit filed by Yucaipa in Delaware in May contends Follieri has been ‘systematically misappropriating the assets’ to indulge in ‘massive charges for five-star lodging’, ‘dog care’ and ‘inappropriate jet travel’ for himself and ‘his actress girlfriend’.  That’s Anne Hathaway, of The Devil Wears Prada.”

Burkle’s lawsuit against Follieri was dismissed after Follieri agreed to pay back more than $1.3 million.

Then, last week, Follieri was arrested in New York and charged with 12 counts of fraud and money laundering.  He could get life in prison.

The charges against Follieri include:

  • Six counts of wire fraud and each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
  • Five counts of money laundering with each count  carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail.
  • One count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 5 years behind bars.

According to the press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, “From June 2005 through June 2007, FOLLIERI ran a fraudulent real estate investment scheme, falsely claiming that he had close connections with the Vatican that enabled him to purchase Catholic Church properties in the United States at a substantial discount. FOLLIERI claimed that the Vatican formally appointed him to manage its financial affairs and that he met with the Pope in person when he visited Rome, Italy.”

“In reality, FOLLIERI’s connections consisted of an administrative employee at the Vatican who was paid by FOLLIERI; FOLLIERI’s hiring of a relative of a former Vatican official; meetings with clergy, FOLLIERI’s travels with monsignors; and a reporter for a news publication in Italy. None of these connections entitled FOLLIERI to purchase Church real estate at below-market rates.”

“Based on his fraudulent representations about his ties to the Vatican, FOLLIERI was able to access and misappropriate hundreds of thousands of dollars in investor money to live a luxurious lifestyle, including expensive restaurants and clothes;dog walking services; an opulent apartment in Manhattan that leased for approximately $37,000 per month, overlooked Rockefeller Center, and had views of Central Park; medical expenses for his girlfriend at the time and his parents,including a “house call” by FOLLIERI’s physician which cost privately chartered airplanes to various locations around the world.”

“In addition, FOLLIERI stole money from an investor by falsely claiming, among other things, that FOLLIERI needed money for an office in Italy that did not exist, and claimed that he spent over $800,000 for “engineering reports” relating to real estate that did not reflect engineering work and were almost worthless. FOLLIERI caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulently obtained proceeds to be wired to a bank account in Monaco that he controlled in order to hide and conceal the source and control of the funds. From late 2006 through early 2007,FOLLIERI’s scheme started to unravel, and FOLLIERI’s principal investor cut its ties to FOLLIERI and fired him.”

The Times reports that “Judge Henry B. Pitman set bail at $21 million, to be secured by $16 million in cash and property and guaranteed by five financially responsible persons. Mr. Follieri had to surrender all travel documents and was ordered confined to his home in Manhattan with the exception of legal, religious and medical needs. Any trips must be made with an electronic-monitoring device.”

And Anne Hathaway has gotten smart and is no longer taking his phone calls.