Two years ago Richard M. Hirschfeld threw himself a homecoming party in a grand Virginia Beach hotel and invited 550 of his closest friends to help him celebrate.
Muhammad Ali was there, in black tie and tails, with his wife and his business manager, Jabir Herbert Muhammad. Sheik Tarek Al-Fassi, a teenage member of the fabulously weathly Saudi Arabian royal family, was there too, with a large entourage, including tuxedoed bodyguards and a television camera crew hired to shoot royal home movies. There were financiers from Europe, magnates from Hollywood and political figures from three continents, not to mention home-grown guests from the Tidewater area. In the center of it all, guests recall, was Hirschfeld himself, balding but dapper, sipping pink champagne under a green-striped tent and having the time of his life.
"That was a great party," Hirschfeld said in a recent telephone interview, chuckling at the memory. Newspaper accounts called it "Gatsby-esque," not least because it signaled the return to social respectability of a local boy wonder whose business problems in the mid-70s precipitated what he described to a New York federal judge as his "fall from grace."
Hirschfeld, now 37, was just 27 and two years out of the University of Virginia's law school when he convinced some of Tidewater's most prominent business and political leaders to invest in a new bank he was naming after himself. Hirschfeld Bank of Commerce, the young lawyer told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star newspapers in 1974, would have an initial capitalization of $72 million, the largest amount ever, he said, for a new bank. The board of directors boasted prominent local businessmen and politicians, including Virginia Beach Congressman G. William Whitehurst, a former neighbor who had served with Hirschfeld's father Gene on the faculty of Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
Investors told newspapers at the time that they were attracted to the venture because of Hirschfeld's track record. He had started his first business while still in prep school and continued his entrepreneurship as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Before the bank deal, he had taken 11 companies public, including Econo-Car.
But late in 1974, the bank's stock offering was halted after the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the bank with securities fraud for soliciting investors by using stockholder lists belonging to 22 companies, including Lockheed, without the companies' authorization, and for implying a relationship between the banks and those companies when none, in fact, existed. Hirschfeld had ties to some of the firms, and he told Norfolk reporters that some of the other stockholder lists -- which generally are very closely protected by companies -- had been obtained from lawyers themselves in trouble with the SEC. "If Jack the Ripper would make Merrill Lynch's customer list available to us," he was quoted as telling a Norfolk newspaper, "we would jump at the opportunity."
After the SEC legal action, Hirschfeld and the bank's directors were sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars by creditors.
A few months after the bank case, Hirschfeld was charged in an SEC complaint in Philadelphia with "looting" a company called Atlantic General Corp. In both the Atlantic General and Hirschfeld Bank cases, Hirschfeld signed consent decrees in which he neither admitted nor denied guilt, but agreed not to violate securities laws in the future.
In 1977, according to records on file in Portsmouth circuit court, Hirschfeld filed for bankruptcy in Nevada, declaring almost $5 million in debts (much of them related to the bank's failure), and assets of less than $2,000. He told a Philadelphia court/ most of the bank-related debts were never repaid.
Hirschfeld prefers not to talk about those days. "That's when I was a little boy," he said in a recent phone interview. "In the last eight years, I feel I didn't make any mistakes. I feel I learned from my mistakes."
He also stresses that "I have never been adjudicated by a U.S. court to have committed any fraud." He said he signed the earlier consent decrees because "I was financially distressed. I was going through a divorce. I felt it was the most expedient way to resolve what otherwise would be a very protracted, expensive litigation."
Hirschfeld says his life turned around when he moved to California, at about the time he filed for bankruptcy. He found new law partners and says he did work for Donald Nixon, the former president's brother, who in turn introduced him to such celebrities as John Wayne. He got involved in hotel and casino deals in Las Vegas, and became friendly with Paul Winn, who runs Summa Corp., Howard Hughes' gambling and hotel operations, and Frank Fitzsimmons, former head of the Teamsters Union. His deals took him to Europe and New York, where, he says, "I would always have lamb chops for breakfast at a New York hotel with Michele Sindona." Sindona, an Italian financier, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison in connection with the failure of New York-based Franklin National Bank -- the biggest bank failure in U.S. history.
Hirschfeld admits many of his former business partners in Virginia refuse to talk to him today. But Commonwealth Magazine called his comeback "the story of riches to rags to riches." The Virginian-Pilot quoted new friends such as Winn and Hollywood promoter Sheldon Saltzman as saying Hirschfeld had become known as the man who could deliver millions of dollars in financing for big projects with a telephone call or two.
It was in London that Hirschfeld met Muhammad Ali, who asked Hirschfeld to be his lawyer. Hirschfeld says Ali hired him because of the mistaken impression that he was John Wayne's attorney.
Ali, in turn, put Hirschfeld in touch with members of the royal family of Saudi Arabia, and Hirschfeld says he became an attorney for Mohammed Al-Fassi -- the prince who gained notoriety for painting the genitalia on statues at his Beverly Hills home -- and Al-Fassi's younger brother Tarek, a student at Florida State University who used a private helicoptor to fly to daily soccer practice.
By 1980, Hirschfeld had returned to Virginia Beach to be near his family, and he brought many of his celebrity friends with him. Ali and Mohammed Al-Fassi both made well-publicized donations to Tidewater groups, and Ali, Herbert Muhammad and Hirschfeld formed Triple Crown Investments and bought a major stake in a $22.5 million luxury hotel overlooking the beach. The publicity and influx of cash "has been good for the area," he told a Norfolk newspaper.
Hirschfeld says he has mellowed in the last decade. Once he gave his first wife a $30,000 Rolls Royce for her 23rd birthday and transported himself in a $22,000 limousine custom-made for Elvis Presley, but he claims he now drives a 2-year-old American car. His current house in Virginia Beach cost him only $91,000, he insists. He does have a Rolls Royce, but that was a gift from a client, and the private plane he keeps is called vital for business. The 47-acre horse farm outside Charlottesville, he says, wasn't that expensive. "The people I associate with have the trappings," he says. "But I don't have the trappings. I'm in the background."
Hirschfeld says the adverse publicity surrounding Champion Sports Management has been painful, particularly because it brings back memories he'd just as soon forget. "No matter what good you do, the bad mistakes are dredged up," he says.
But there has been sweet with the bitter: A Philadelphia judge refused to nullify a contract signed by Larry Holmes giving Hirschfeld first right of refusal for a championship bout with heavyweight Gerrie Coetzee. Holmes has refused to fight as long as Hirschfeld is involved in the promotion, but Hirschfeld says, "If you believe that, then I'll sell you a bridge in Brooklyn. Larry will go to the highest bidder."
Unlike the time eight years ago, Hirschfeld says he has no intention of leaving Virginia after his latest bout with the SEC. "I'm having another party at Christmastime," he said in the phone interview. "The last one was nothing compared to what this one will be."