Opera philanthropist’s fraud conviction upheld in U.S. court

NEW YORK — A federal appeals court upheld the conviction of an opera-loving philanthropist convicted of a multimillion-dollar fraud but ordered him resentenced.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan on Friday left unclear whether Alberto Vilar, 72, will remain free on bail.

His lawyer, Vivian Shevitz, said she was disappointed.

“But to the extent that the court has pointed the way to further litigation we will pursue it,” she said.

In upholding the conviction of Vilar and his co-defendant, Gary Alan Tanaka, a three-judge appeals panel dismissed claims they were tried unfairly.

It said a resentencing was warranted because a recent Supreme Court ruling raised questions as to whether a loss estimated by a lower-court judge at between $20 million and $50 million should include investments purchased overseas. A lower calculation could result in a lower sentence.

Convicted in 2008, Vilar was sentenced to nine years and Tanaka to five years in prison.

The court said Vilar and Tanaka promised investors their money would be invested in high-quality, short-term deposits including U.S. Treasury bills but then put their money in technology and biotechnology stocks that collapsed in value when the dot-com bubble burst in fall 2000.

Before the collapse, Vilar, born in New Jersey and of Cuban descent, was described by Forbes magazine as worth about $950 million. He had earned hundreds of millions of dollars on investments in the stock boom of the 1990s. He spent some of the money making donations of as much as $225 million to opera houses.

Before his arrest, he helped to manage up to $9 billion in investments. He gave generously to music companies, and they reciprocated with various honors. His rich and powerful friends largely vanished after his arrest. The Metropolitan Opera took his name off its grand tier, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London removed his surname from its Floral Hall and the Salzburg Festival in Austria stripped his picture from its programs.

At trial, witnesses against Vilar included Lily Cates, the mother of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” actress Phoebe Cates, who said he improperly spent $5 million of her money.

The court discounted arguments that Vilar and Tanaka should be shielded from criminal blame because investments were carefully structured to occur overseas.

“In other words, Vilar and Tanaka argue that their very intention to evade U.S. law is evidence of their innocence. We see no reason to rescue fraudsters when they complain that their perfect scheme to avoid getting caught has failed,” it wrote.

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