Michael Bienes, the fabulously wealthy Fort Lauderdale benefactor, abruptly resigned from the Performing Arts Center Authority board Wednesday with a one-sentence letter, according to a center spokeswoman.
"We received the letter yesterday which said he was resigning, effective immediately," said Broward Center of The Arts spokeswoman Jan Goodheart.
There's very clearly trouble in paradise -- and rumors are swirling among the county's elite that Bienes, who has poured more than $30 million into various Broward County causes and has his name emblazoned on the Broward County Library and Holy Cross Hospital, is dropping out of public life altogether. His leaving the PACA board -- where he served with big wigs like Austin Forman and Marti Huizenga -- is a pretty signifcant move, after all.
Other rumors, which I can't go into yet, indicate that worse things might be happening to one of Fort Lauderdale's great "philanthropists," a tall and friendly fellow who told people when asked where he made his millions that he got "lucky on Wall Street."
Lucky -- and illegal, it turns out. As I reported here recently, he was once tied to the hip of Bernie Madoff and for years unlawfully collected nearly half a billion dollars in investments for the now infamous $50 billion Ponzi schemer. Bienes got in trouble for that in 1992 when the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the firm he ran with partner Frank Avellino, fined them, and shut it down for selling unregistered securities.
But Bienes remained partners with Avellino, who himself is apparently coming down with what some call the "Madoff virus." In addition to his $4 million home in Palm Beach, Avellino also owns a $10 million winter pad in Nantucket. In an indication of how low Avellino will go, his own housekeeper in Nantucket sued him recently, claiming that Avellino enticed her to sink her life savings of $124,000 into a fictitious entity called Kenn Jordan Associates. She claims he told her on December 1 that all her money was lost. Read about that sordid little affair here.
Bienes and his wife, Dianne, split time between Fort Lauderdale and London -- which happens to also be a favorite place for Madoff. Bienes and Avellino now run a company called Mayfair, which shares the name with the English neighborhood where Madoff has a headquarters.
If Bienes is imploding -- and the hasty resignation from the PACA board certainly indicates he may very well be -- then the impact to Broward County could be fairly dramatic. For one thing, is, say, St. Thomas Aquinas High School going to keep his name on its recently christened Bienes Center for the Arts on campus?
Ironically, the Sun-Sentinel just reported today about Bienes' $2.5 million contribution to St. Thomas (and another $2 million worth of paintings to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale) -- with no mention of his ties to Madoff. "The completion of this [Bienes Center] facility shall bear witness to what we value," according to the St. Thomas website,
Monsignor Vincent Kelly was more than happy to talk about the Bienes Center with the Sentinel, but when I called St. John The Baptist Parrish today and mentioned Bienes, the woman who answered the phone got snippy and told me to go find answers elsewhere.
"Why don't you call Holy Cross, his name is on there too," she said before hanging up.
Indeed. The Michael and Dianne Bienes Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of Holy Cross Hospital's proudest additions.
Will Holy Cross keep the Bienes name (and its connotations to the most accomplished rip-off artist in world history) on its cancer ward? For that matter, will the Broward County Library keep his name on the "Bienes Museum of the Modern Book" at the downtown branch?
Time will tell.