Part 4: Richard Hirschfeld uses Muhammad Ali fame to infiltrate high places
Editor’s note: Reporter John Woodard was an arm’s length friend of the notorious Richard Hirschfeld. This is the fourth installment in a series of articles.
In May 1987, Richard Hirschfeld and his business associate Robert Chastain walked up to the hillside mansion in Honolulu, which was occupied by Ferdinand Marcos. There was a Mercedes 500 SEL limousine parked in the garage, which had been specially outfitted with armor plating.
These two men had come to discuss an arrangement with Marcos that would eventually return him to power in the Philippines. They had with them a burgundy briefcase with a built-in tape recorder. Marcos greeted both men and directed them to his study.
In an earlier meeting, Marcos had told Hirschfeld about a plot that he had hatched to retake his homeland by force — paying 10,000 Filipinos $500 each to help him in the uprising. But Marcos needed weapons and lots of them and that is where Chastain came in.
Hirschfeld introduced Chastain as an international arms dealer who could supply the former dictator with tanks, anti-aircraft weapons, M-16s, mortars and grenade launchers in order to mount the invasion by July 10 of that year.
Marcos set up a code system to communicate with visitors. Marcos would be known as Charlie while Chastain would be known as Andrew and Hirschfeld as Joe. But the plot went no further than the study of the Honolulu mansion because Hirschfeld had achieved his goal of getting Marcos, his one-time legal client, to confess on tape – ultimately thwarting a bloody revolt.
After Hirschfeld turned copies of the tape over to authorities, Marcos — who had been granted asylum in the United States after he fled the Philippines — was placed under what amounted to house arrest in Hawaii.
In a June 1987 letter, Ramon Diaz, chairman of the Philippine Commission on Good Government, thanked Hirschfeld and offered to pay him 5 percent of the value of any illicit gold Marcos had stashed in his homeland — if the gold were ever recovered.
Hirschfeld was scheduled to appear before a congressional subcommittee that June, where the tapes would be played, but the hearing was postponed until July for national security reasons. Hirschfeld had spirited the original tapes off to Switzerland for safekeeping. The tapes it turned out contained potentially scandalous information that could have embarrassed the Reagan White House.
If statements made to investigators by Chastain were true, the tapes were a potential political bombshell.
Chastain said that Marcos had spoken of illicit sexual trysts by ranking administration officials, charges of bribery solicitations by senior members of the State Department and illegal conspiracies to conceal the details of Marcos’s stolen wealth.
But the most damning allegation surfaced in 1988 when a memo dealing with the White House cover-up of Marcos was unveiled. In it, an investigator who had written an article for Regardie’s Magazine about the Marcos capers and goal stashes, reported that Chastain had told him that Marcos mentioned on the tapes that he had made illegal campaign contributions totaling $12 million to the Reagan campaign in 1980 and 1984.
In the memo, the reporter wrote that the original tapes, in the White House’s view, could swing the pendulum of the entire country. Therefore Republican operatives were concerned that the charges were so explosive that if they were made public, the revelations would cost the GOP the 1988 presidential election.
When these revelations later surfaced in a public way, there were calls for a full-blown investigation but the mystery of the Marcos contributions was never solved.
The incident apparently took its toll on Chastain. Weeks after his testimony about the tapes before Congress, he was told that the feds were considering bringing tax charges against him and he also received death threats. By 1989, he was beset by demons and was shuffling aimlessly from one country to another with his former wife.
On Dec. 16, 1989, he wrote her in a final letter, placed it in an envelope, and slipped it in the mailbox. Chastain took his own life by swallowing a lethal dose of barbiturates in a hotel room in Vienna, Austria – an act that eerily foreshadowed the fate of Hirschfeld.
Meanwhile, Hirschfeld had refused to speak publicly about the contents of the unplayed portions of the Marcos tapes. Longtime Republican loyalists bristled when Democrats tried to use the tapes to raise questions about Reagan’s integrity.
The Marcos tapes had no impact on the 1988 presidential election in spite of the concerns of ranking Republicans. Among those who attended the party’s national convention at the New Orleans Superdome that year was Hirschfeld, accompanied by Mohammed Ali. They sat behind Barbara Bush, wife of the party nominee George H.W. Bush.
Hirschfeld had been introduced to George W Bush during the Bush campaign. Two years later, Hirschfeld and Ali attended a baseball game in Arlington, Texas at the invitation of the younger Bush who was the owner of the Texas Rangers. In May 1990, Richard and his son Todd, joined by Ali, dined with George and Laura Bush in the stadium restaurant. That night, after the game, at a private event, when meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Bush and some players, Richard removed one of Ali’s championship rings (which he had presented to Richard previously).
Richard offered the ring to Mr. Bush — who initially refused the gift as possibly improper — but he finally did so with the insistence of Ali.
Ten months later in March 1991, Muhammad Ali dazzled a lunchtime audience at Mr. Dog, a hot dog business, originally owned by my father. The business was later sold to real estate agent, Mischa Rafel.
Ali was in the Hampton Roads area to testify on behalf of his friend Richard Hirschfeld.
Across Granby Street in the federal courthouse, Hirschfeld hopes for staying out of prison rested with his lawyer, Albert J Krieger, who listed among his clients the mob boss John Gotti.
On March 5, 1991, a federal jury in Norfolk convicted Hirschfeld of conspiring to defraud the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission in a tax scheme involving his old friend Chastain. The crime was so convoluted it confused some jurors and even left lawyers and accountants scratching their heads.
The charges focused on an alleged phony $2.1 million lawsuit settlement Hirschfeld took as a deduction on his 1984 income tax return. Prosecutors said Hirschfeld made the payments in the form of 75 million shares of penny stock to Chastain, then concocted a complex series of transactions to disguise the fact that the securities were still under his control.
Hirschfeld claimed that the charges were trumped up and he accused the lead prosecutor of using Gestapo tactics against him. The presiding judge was J. Calvin Clark Jr. and he was no stranger to Hirschfeld and his legal woes. Judge Clark had presided over a hearing during a controversy surrounding the bank that Hirschfield and tried to form 15 years earlier. At that time, Hirschfeld had come to regard Clark as an adversary.
Now, Clark was about to send Hirschfeld to prison. Richard later claimed that the judge had exercised cunning use of his federal guidelines to impose a term of six years for crimes Hirschfeld argued would usually be treated as a civil offense and carry no jail time.
When Hirschfeld’s wife Loretta yelled out to the judge ‘Why are you doing this?’ the judge replied, ‘because I can.’
Hirschfeld — who once lived in a 12,000 square foot house and consorted with royalty — was soon sharing a 63 square foot prison cell with another inmate. As a lawyer, he had once commanded $500 an hour for his services; now he was earning $5.96 a month as a clerical assistant.
In 1995, after he was paroled, the feds were on his trail once more. He was indicted again in 1996 on a charge of concocting an illegal scheme to obtain a prison furlough in an early 1990s case and ordered to show up for a November 21 hearing in federal court. He knew that the judge would send him back to prison.
His old friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, had sworn in a 1991affidavit that he believed Hirschfeld posed absolutely no risk of flight. But five years later, Hatch would be proven wrong.
In early November 1996, Hirschfeld met with Hatch in his Washington office seeking the Senator’s help in his legal case. But Hatch said he could not get involved for political reasons. It was the last meeting between the two men and each expressed disappointment with the other. As the meeting broke up, Hirschfeld made a wrenching decision.
He saw his wife off to Florida where the family was gathering for a Thanksgiving tradition going back to 1981. He told her he would join them later. Instead he packed his belongings into his white Rolls-Royce and had it shipped to Cadiz, Spain.
He then drove to Virginia Beach to visit with his parents and when he left, they had no idea if they would ever see him again. He left his parents’ apartment headed for the airport and once again Hirschfeld was on the run. But this time he wasn’t fleeing from angry investors in a failed bank. He was a fugitive from justice.
Up until his departure for Spain, I had maintained periodic contact with Richard by phone. I knew of his exploits, but he was a friend to me and never did anything to hurt me. But I could tell from the sound of his voice that something was very wrong. Little did I know what was going to happen next.