Washington lawyer Lewis Rivlin, a former Justice Department official, was sued yesterday by government prosecutors for allegedly defrauding investors of $6.2 million through a series of fictitious get-rich-quick schemes.
The charges, filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, stem from Rivlin's leading role in four so-called prime-bank offerings. Investors in these types of schemes are instructed to sink their money into exotic and supposedly profitable bank notes, transactions that the dealmakers falsely claim are top secret and overseen by Treasury Department officials. Typically, investors never see their money again.
In one of the arrangements, Rivlin is alleged to have bilked a charity in Ecuador of its $1 million endowment, promising that a highly placed bishop in Cyprus could multiply the money through connections to U.S. bureaucrats. The deal was the subject of a Washington Post report and was recently labeled one of the "swindles of the year" by Forbes magazine.
"What this demonstrates is that people should focus on the quality of the investment, not on the connections of the broker," said SEC lawyer Elizabeth Gray. "In this case, both were corrupt."
In a lengthy statement issued yesterday, Rivlin denied any wrongdoing, accused the government of tapping his phone and repeated his long-held contention that the charity's money was stolen by an unscrupulous Greek financier.
"I hoped I would never be one of the arbitrary targets of ill-informed law enforcement, but I did not go into this activity without knowing with certainty that any such fight would be one I would win," he wrote.
Yesterday, prosecutors alleged that Rivlin, 70, defrauded the charity and others with prime-bank schemes starting in 1997. The commission has filed a civil suit against Rivlin seeking the disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, penalties that could reach well into the millions of dollars, and an injunction to prevent him from selling securities.
Rivlin has maintained that prime-bank offerings truly exist and that he is merely helping groups partake in the bounty. He described himself as "Job-like and innocent of wrongdoing of any kind" in a recent filing with the Office of Bar Counsel, the group that disciplines Washington lawyers and has charged Rivlin with misconduct in a separate matter.
For years, the SEC has denounced prime-bank offerings as pure fabrications. In 1993 it issued an official warning about them. But the notion that Uncle Sam bestows riches on a select group of insiders has proven remarkably resilient, and to hopeful investors the government's warnings are only proof that the programs are real. Prosecutors' efforts to litigate these deals out of existence have been futile.
"Unfortunately, despite all the attention focused on so-called prime-bank offerings, people still fall prey to these schemes," Richard Walker, the SEC's enforcement chief, said in a statement yesterday. He added that the offerings are a "total scam" and urged those solicited to contact the commission.
Two of Rivlin's former colleagues, Alfred Velarde and Edwin Huling III, were also charged yesterday with fraud. Velarde has settled the charges, without admitting wrongdoing, by paying a $20,000 civil penalty. According to the SEC, Rivlin and Huling will fight the allegations.
For Rivlin, the lawsuit is one of several pending and part of a long decline from prestigious beginnings. The Harvard-educated lawyer served in the Justice Department before starting his own law firm, which in the 1970s attracted blue-chip clients and some well-regarded lawyers, including both of Vice President Gore's parents. Rivlin married and later divorced Alice M. Rivlin, who recently announced plans to leave the Federal Reserve Board as vice chairman.
But former colleagues say Lewis Rivlin's career faltered in the late 1970s after his law firm folded and he wandered into an unsuccessful stint as a venture capitalist. More recently, Rivlin started a new firm, but partners have slowly been departing. Today he is a sole practitioner working without a paralegal.
A lawyer for the Fundacion Perez Pallares, an Ecuadorean charity that operates a school for poor children and lost $1 million, said yesterday that the SEC's action could force Rivlin to disclose the whereabouts of his assets, which could shed light on the fate of the charity's endowment. A judgment entered against Rivlin recently ordered him to pay the charity $16 million, the maximum he had said it would earn on its investment.
"This is going to help those of us trying get money back from Mr. Rivlin," said Larry Sharp, a partner at McGuire Woods Battle & Boothe.
CAPTION: LEWIS RIVLIN