NEW YORK - As the finances of investment adviser Alberto Vilar soared in the 1990s, making him worth nearly a billion dollars, so did his interest and benevolence toward a great love - the opera. A fall worthy of the theater climaxes this week with the start of a trial on charges he defrauded investors.
The 67-year-old Vilar was best known for giving away millions of dollars to cultural institutions and opera houses before he was arrested in May 2005 on charges including conspiracy to commit securities, mail, wire and investment adviser fraud.
A jury was expected to be seated later this week to begin hearing a case in which Vilar is accused of defrauding investors out of millions of dollars over two decades. Opening statements were scheduled for Thursday.
Vilar has been largely isolated since he was arrested and then freed under heavy restrictions on $10 million bail.
He has said he looks forward to his trial to redeem his reputation and defeat charges that could send him to prison for the rest of his life.
He told The New York Times for a story published Monday that the high profile he achieved through philanthropy might be responsible for the charges and that none of the money he is accused of stealing is missing.
"The government is saying, `None of your clients lost a penny, and you've got to go to jail for the rest of your life,'" he said.
The Times said he has already been punished in the arts world after failing to keep up with financial pledges: 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 stripped his picture from its programs.
More than 100 prospective jurors in U.S. District Court in Manhattan were given questionnaires to fill out Monday, which happened to mark the start of a new season for the Metropolitan Opera. Some of them quickly balked at the estimated two-month length of the trial.
Vilar earned hundreds of millions of dollars on investments in the 1990s as the stock market rose in double digits almost annually. He spent some of the money making donations of as much as $225 million to opera houses.
Forbes magazine once said he was worth $950 million. That was before the collapse in value of technology stocks.
The federal government has accused Vilar of trying to rip off other investors through his company, Amerindo Investment Advisors Inc., and various related entities.
It says he misappropriated some of the investor funds for personal use, including donations to his alma mater, Washington & Jefferson College.