From Posh to Pokey: The Downward Spiral Of Raffaello Follieri

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

NEW YORK -- Last week, Raffaello Follieri was living la dolce vita in a $37,500-a-month rental apartment on Fifth Avenue with his girlfriend, the actress and professional ingenue Anne Hathaway. Today, he lives in a 7 1/2 -by-8-foot room with a sink, a desk, a toilet -- and a cellmate.

From the white-glove Trump Tower to the aromatic Metropolitan Correctional Center, in the span of a single day. Follieri's alleged crimes are hardly the most financially ambitious in recent memory, but say this for the 30-year-old Italian smoothie with wavy black hair: He might have set a new world record in the category of vertical drop.

Oh, and Hathaway ditched him.

This might turn out to be a run of really bad luck, rather than karmic payback, but Follieri, who moved to New York five years ago, is accused of some memorably skeevy crimes. Here's how the authorities describe the caper: With his father he ran the Follieri Group, which convinced some deep-pocketed investors that it had insider connections to the Vatican and promised to use those connections to land sweetheart deals on church property up for sale in the United States. The Follieris would buy it for a discount, promising church-friendly developments, like senior citizen and community centers.

A very special brand of chutzpah is required to name-drop the Holy See in a scam. It didn't seem to matter that the Vatican frequently said it had no relationship, business or otherwise, with the Follieris. Raffaello said he often visited with the pope, and everyone seemed to believe him.

Including Ron Burkle, the supermarket heavyweight and friend of Bill Clinton's whose Yucaipa investments fund would sink at least $55 million into the Follieri Group. Raffaello was very skilled at spending money, as it turned out, but not on Catholic fixer-uppers. Instead, he spent millions on himself and Hathaway -- for chartered jets, for a $30,000 house call from a doctor, for dog-walking services, according to the prosecutors' complaint last week.

Well, he did buy some properties, specifically in Pittsburgh, where the archdiocese sold him two unused churches. But the Follieris' "empire" started to crumble before they had a chance to actually turn those parcels into anything. When questions were raised by a local TV station in November of last year, Raffaello wrote this memorable retort: "Neither development companies nor Rome were ever built in a day or with a linear budget."

Uh-huh. Federal prosecutors have charged Follieri with 11 counts of fraud and money laundering. And last week, a judge set bail at $21 million, a sum that the defendant has so far been unable to raise. His attorney, Flora Edwards, did not return a call yesterday, but a spokesman at the MCC confirmed that Follieri is still there.

So what does this catastrophic plunge in living conditions look like from the inside? Getting a precise picture of Follieri's life now as compared with last week is trickier than you'd think. As different as the thin air of Manhattan's priciest real estate is from the city's grimiest holding pen, the two realms have one notable similarity: landlords who are incredibly tight-lipped.

Michael Cohen, a spokesman for Donald Trump, would say almost nothing about Follieri's apartment, other than that it, like all of Trump's properties, is in "A-plus condition." And $37,500 -- it isn't really that much.

"A price like that is not uncommon at all," says Cohen. "You might be aware that Mr. Trump's apartment is for sale at $45 million, or $200,000 a month in rent. So when you say $37,500, while that's a significant number, it's nowhere near the height of Trump rental properties."

Cohen wouldn't even describe the drapery chez Follieri. Fortunately, Charlie Homet, a broker at Halstead Property, would. He hasn't seen Follieri's apartment, but he knows the building and the price range well enough to hazard some guesses.

"It would be between 3,000 and 3,500 square feet," Homet says. "It's small compared to what you'd get for that money downtown, but the location is amazing." It's a few blocks from Central Park.

The apartment would be three or four bedrooms, four or 4 1/2 baths. Lots of marble and maple floors. Great views, from at least two exposures. As Homet put it, "It's basically hotel living without the room service."

As for his current abode, a spokesman at the MCC was only marginally more forthcoming. He wanted all questions in writing. While he'd give the dimensions of Follieri's cell, he would not describe, for instance, what was served at the MCC yesterday for lunch. The spokesman, Scott Sussman, did write in an e-mail that breakfast is served at 6:30 a.m. and lunch is at 11. Inmates are counted in their cells at 4 p.m., dinner is at 5, then everyone is locked in their cells at 10.

Lawyers who've been to the MCC were chattier.

"It's really terrible," says Marc Fernich, a criminal defense attorney. "It's not as bad as, say, a supermax facility, but in terms of a pretrial facility, it's hard, hard time."

"The food is god-awful," says Gerry Shargel, who conferred with John Gotti and a few hundred other clients at the MCC over the years. "It's on a tray that they bring up on an elevator and heat up in a microwave. A protein, a vegetable and a starch. Completely devoid of taste. They can buy junk food, too, at a commissary, which is why a lot of my clients actually get fat while they're there."

How Follieri is holding up isn't known. But last Friday, attorney Jeffrey Lichtman was visiting one of his clients and spotted the man of the hour. It seemed as if he was holding up pretty well, considering.

"I mean, he still had a savage tan," says Lichtman, "and even in one of those orange traffic cone-colored jumpsuits, and handcuffs, I remember thinking, 'That's a pretty good-looking guy.' "

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