Mr. Big Shot

The charismatic lawyer and power broker took one last lap in a New River mansion during his run from the law

But Hirschfeld, acting on his own, was setting Marcos up -- he'd secretly taped the discussions by placing a briefcase with a hidden voice-activated recorder on the table in front of him. He turned over the tape to the FBI and the Aquino government. After it was presented to the House Subcommittee on Asian Affairs, the Reagan administration prevented Marcos from making any aggressive moves against his ex-homeland. Marcos accused Hirschfeld of doctoring the recordings and inventing the entire story, citing the problems with the Securities and Exchange Commission as the lawyer's motive. By then, the SEC had banned Hirschfeld for life from practicing before it because of his bogus stock offerings.

It wouldn't be the last time Hirschfeld tried to convince the government to let a good deed atone for a bad one. In 1987, he hatched a plot to capture an Iranian criminal by offering him millions to murder the divorce lawyer representing al-Fassi's wife. The lawyer, Marvin Mitchelson, would be the cheese in the trap. Incredibly, Hirschfeld managed to get this idea through to the Justice Department, but the plan was never implemented, says a 1989 Washington Post story quoting "high justice department officials and other knowledgeable sources."

"In our business, we meet a lot of charlatans," says Dale Cooter, a long-time Hirschfeld friend and prominent Washington-area attorney. "And my bullshit antenna works. Richard would talk about Ali and Ferdinand Marcos, and I'd shake my head and say, 'What kind of crap is this?' But everything he said turned out to be true."

Attorney Alvin Entin did his best to help after Hirschfeld's arrest.
Colby Katz
Attorney Alvin Entin did his best to help after Hirschfeld's arrest.
Richard Hirschfeld
The Virginian-Pilot
Richard Hirschfeld

Frank Quayle, an old classmate from the University of Virginia, remembers being "mesmerized" when he'd hear tales about his old friend. "Fascinating stuff. I remember some comment about how, if you needed [to borrow] 5 or 10 million dollars, he wasn't the right guy. But if you needed 50 to 100 million, he was your man."

One of the first $500-an-hour attorneys to conduct most of his business via cell phone (usually while piloting his white Rolls-Royce), Hirschfeld's inscrutability led many to believe he worked as a spy, maybe a CIA agent. Hirschfeld would laugh off any such notion, saying, "Who ever heard of a Jewish James Bond?" Virginia newspapers starting talking about Hirschfeld's high-rolling ways in gossip pages, calling his parties "Gatsbyesque" and attributing his career rise to his "brilliant, creative, ruthless" demeanor.

But by 1990, the IRS, the FBI, and a federal grand jury in Norfolk were investigating every aspect of Hirschfeld's finances, including his tax returns. Since the early 1980s, the family traditionally spent Thanksgiving at a time-share on Marco Island on Florida's southwest coast, Loretta explained. When they returned to Virginia, Richard had been indicted on four counts of federal tax and conspiracy violations.

The original indictment alleged he had conspired to defraud the IRS and the SEC by filing a false 1984 income tax return. The charges centered on a $2.1 million lawsuit settlement that Hirschfeld used as a deduction. Hirschfeld claimed throughout that the charges were bogus. In a 1993 prison interview in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he claimed: ''I didn't willfully violate any statutes. I arranged my financial affairs in such a fashion as to negate my tax liabilities. It's permissible to avoid taxes as long as you don't evade taxes." He could have faced $700,000 in fines and 16 years behind bars.

In 1991, the same judge who had heard Hirschfeld's bank-demise case in 1976 fined him $460,000 and gave him six years in the federal prison at Petersburg, Virginia. His family and friends say the luxury-loving Hirschfeld hated it there and vowed to never see the inside of a cell again. After his release in 1995, it was revealed he'd obtained work furloughs -- and an early release -- by volunteering to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Following Hurricane Andrew's devastation in August of 1992, Hirschfeld's friend Joseph Seriani lobbied government officials on his behalf so Hirschfeld could travel to South Florida and help in reconstruction efforts in exchange for an early release. But Coral Springs-based Seriani turned out to be a convicted felon not authorized to use Habitat for Humanity stationery.

Additional charges were filed against Hirschfeld, and he was ordered to appear in front of the judge again on November 21, 1996. He'd been trying to clear his name, even seeking to have his conviction overturned -- saying that the charges were trumped-up and that the judge, a U.S. attorney general, and prosecutors had plotted his demise because of personal vendettas. In particular, Hirschfeld maintained that U.S. Attorney Henry Hudson turned against him after he reneged on a promise to support -- with help from Ali and Hatch -- Hudson's judgeship. In the press, Hudson has repeatedly denied those claims.

Hirschfeld didn't show up for the November 21 hearing. Two weeks later, he walked into the office of the Associated Press in Madrid with the announcement that he was seeking asylum from the Spanish Interior Ministry. He was frustrated, he said, at not being able to get a fair trial in Virginia. Seriani, charged in connection with the same scam, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Hirschfeld was reportedly looking at as many as 35 years and more than a million dollars in fines. That, he made clear to his family, was never, ever going to happen. And he was right.

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