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Mr. Big Shot

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Yet two years later, the paper reported, federal investigators determined that Hirschfeld, not the former boxer, had made the calls, and Ali admitted as much.

Indeed, as Ali's health deteriorated, speculation grew that Hirschfeld was somehow taking advantage of him. In 1999, the two had a falling out over the rights to the champ's life story, with Ali suing his former pal, who was claiming he held creative control over Ali's history. Eventually, with Tweel mediating, the two reached a settlement. Hirschfeld and Ali managed to remain friends, but the champ was startled by his opponent's audacity. (Ali and his wife, Lonnie, declined to be interviewed for this article.) "No one, not even his family, would try to tell you Richard was the pope," Tweel adds. "He was a very aggressive lawyer and businessman who believed in pushing the line."

In 1985, Hirschfeld made international news in his biggest caper yet. Through al-Fassi, he'd made contact with deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. That May, he and associate Robert Chastain visited Marcos' Honolulu mansion. Chastain was to play the role of arms dealer, with Hirschfeld negotiating the sale of some heavy artillery, which Marcos wanted to use (along with 10,000 volunteer troops) in a scheme to retake the Philippines from President Corazon Aquino. Seeking financing from al-Fassi, Marcos promised Hirschfeld he had 1,000 tons of gold stashed in the Philippines and up to a billion dollars hidden abroad in banks. Of course, Hirschfeld later admitted, he stood to gain an enormous profit if the deal went through.

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."

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.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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