John McCain has been hammering rival Barack Obama for being little more than a vapid "celebrity" and "elitist." But The Nation has obtained a photo revealing just how star-struck a straight-talking maverick can become when offered the chance to celebrate his birthday aboard a yacht filled with celebrities–even if one of those celebrity types turns out to be an A-list con man.
The photograph substantiates reports that in late August, 2006, McCain celebrated his 70th birthday aboard a yacht, the Celine Ashley, rented by A-list con man Raffaello Follieri and his then-movie star girlfriend Anne Hathaway. In the current edition of Vanity Fair, Michael Schnayerson reported that Follieri rented the Celine Ashley for the month of August 2006. Montenegro’s leading daily
newspaper, Vijesti, earlier reported that during McCain’s visit in 2006 he celebrated with birthday cocktails and sweets aboard the Celine Ashley yacht. In the photograph, taken in Montenegro at the end of August, McCain is shown boarding the yacht ramp towards the smiling Follieri and Hathaway. Just ahead of McCain and shaking hands with Follieri appears to be Rick Davis–McCain’s top aide and now co-manager of his campaign, who accompanied him on the trip and advised the government of Montenegro. A few months after McCain’s yacht party, Follieri strengthened his ties to McCain’s orbit by retaining Rick Davis’s well-connected Washington lobbying firm, Davis Manafort, and offering Davis both an investment deal and help in securing the Catholic vote for McCain’s presidential bid.
Follieri, who posed as Vatican chief financial officer in order to win friends and investments, pleaded guilty Wednesday in a Manhattan district court to conspiracy to commit wire fraud, eight counts of wire fraud and five counts of money laundering. As part of the plea, Follieri admitted to misappropriating at least $2.4 million of investor money and redirecting it to foreign personal bank accounts that were disguised as business accounts.
At the time he met McCain, Follieri was adept at collecting friends in powerful places and using those connections to attract investments in projects which later turned out to be bogus. His ties to Bill Clinton and his entourage have been well-documented; the charismatic Follieri, whom Vanity Fair has likened to an ambitious nineteenth-century protagonist from a Balzac novel, ingratiated himself to President Clinton and aides by posing as a mega-donor to the Clinton Global Initiative. He also formed an investment partnership with California business mogul and Clinton donor Ron Burkle to develop surplus real estate properties owned by the Catholic Church, which Follieri claimed to represent. Burkle later sued Follieri for $1.3 million in misappropriated funds.
Yet Follieri’s ties to McCain’s orbit have been largely overlooked by the media. Follieri first met McCain when the Arizona Senator visited Montenegro from August 29-31 as part of a Congressional delegation that included Republican senators Lindsay Graham, Richard Burr, Saxby Chambliss, Mel Martinez and John Sununu. [We’ll have more on what else McCain was doing in Montenegro in a forthcoming article in the print edition of The Nation.]
What, exactly, was McCain doing aboard Follieri’s yacht? Or put another way, was this McCain’s 70th birthday wish–to spend an evening floating on the Adriatic with one of Hollywood’s top actresses and her smooth-talking Italian beau?
An even bigger mystery is how Follieri’s boat came to be docked in Montenegro on McCain’s birthday. According to a journalist in Montenegro, the yacht had been anchored there for several days before McCain’s arrival, and only sailed away after McCain boarded. According to Vijesti, locals were told that McCain was meeting "friends from Florida" on the yacht.
McCain aides later confirmed the encounter with Follieri, but said it was "entirely social and nothing came of it." Follieri, they told the New York Daily News, was just a "passing acquaintance." (Though the McCain campaign promise to comment on the encounter, it did not respond to The Nation‘s request by the time this article was published.)
It must not have seemed that way to Follieri. According to the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, in January 2007 Follieri sent Rick Davis a packet of information on his companies Follieri Capital and Follieri Media, apparently hoping to get financing from Pegasus Capital Advisors, a hedge fund in Connecticut that Davis represented. "Follieri’s proposal to Davis had two dimensions to it–first, as an investment opportunity for Davis’s fund; but secondly, there was the political dimension, in which Follieri offered to help deliver Catholic votes to McCain," said Claudio Gatti, a reporter for Il Sole 24 Ore, who investigated Follieri for eighteen months.
In February 2007, according to a recent article in the New York Daily News, Follieri retained Davis’s lobbying firm, Davis Manafort. According to the paper, "on Feb. 27, 2007, Davis Manafort partner Rick Gates signed a confidentiality agreement drafted by the Follieri Group. In the contract…Gates agreed not to disclose any information about Follieri’s deal to get Clinton pal Ron Burkle to buy Catholic Church properties." (Gates did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Two months later, Burkle sued Follieri, who later repaid the $1.3 million owed to Burkle’s Yucaipa Funds. That fall, the Wall Street Journal exposed Follieri’s life as a high-society con man. In June of this year, Follieri was finally arrested and charged. Following his guilty plea this week, Follieri now faces up to five years and three months in jail.