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U.S. Says Trio of Phony Guggenheims Tried to Swindle Investors

Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Federal prosecutors charged three people with posing as members of the Guggenheim family, known for its wealth and philanthropy, in an attempt to swindle investors and gain access to two former U.S. presidents.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan yesterday unsealed a criminal complaint against Catarina Pietra Toumei, David Birnbaum and Vladimir Zuravel, charging the three with a scheme to use the Guggenheim name to lure investors into phony business deals. The defendants also allegedly tried to use the Guggenheim name to enter business relationships with former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, the Iraqi Ministry of Oil and Coca-Cola Co.

“In reality, however, the defendants are not known to be descendants of, or have any relationship to, the famous Guggenheim family,” U.S. Postal Inspector Gregory T. Botti said in the complaint.

Toumei, Birnbaum and Zuravel offered phony investments in oil, bank guarantees, diamonds and gold, to investors, according to the complaint. Birnbaum and Zuravel, who went by the names “David B. Guggenheim” and “Vladimir Z. Guggenheim,” were arrested yesterday, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

‘Real Guggenheim’

“He is real Guggenheim,” Zuravel said of Birnbaum in a hearing in Manhattan federal court. “This is person who control billion, trillion dollars.”

Zuravel, who said he’s an immigrant from Moldova and is Birnbaum’s adopted son, told the court the criminal charges are the result of “just a simple mixup.”

Birnbaum, who lives in Brooklyn, was released on $100,000 bail. Zuravel was released on $75,000 bail.

Prosecutors said Toumei used the name “Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei,” claimed to be a countess and told one alleged victim she was the wife of John Ratzenberger, the actor who played Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all postman on the television comedy “Cheers.” She hasn’t been apprehended.

“Mr. Ratzenberger had a short-lived relationship with Ms. Toumei, almost two years prior this complaint,” his publicist, Diane McNamara, said in a statement. “He is unaware of this alleged criminal activity and is saddened that her life has taken this turn.”

Prosecutors claim the three defendants told potential investors that they were representatives of the “Guggenheim Fund” and “Guggenheim Bank,” organizations that don’t exist, according to the complaint.

Victim 1, Victim 2

The intended victims of the fraud included the unidentified chief executive of a commodities trading firm who once worked for former president George H.W. Bush, according to the complaint.

Toumei contacted “Victim 1” in October, offering to let him participate in the sale of more than $1 billion in rough diamonds from the Guggenheim family’s private collection. Victim 1 introduced her to “Victim 2,” his friend and business associate, according to the complaint. Victim 2 is a commodities trader and general partner in a private equity firm, according to prosecutors.

Toumei allegedly wrote in an Oct. 10 letter to Victim 1: “Mr. David B. Guggenheim and Mr. Vladimir Z. Guggenheim would be very pleased in having a private and confidential meeting with President George H.W. Bush and/or President George W. Bush, as well as other members of the Bush family.”

Gold Sale

The defendants also offered a billion-dollar bank guarantee transaction and a deal involving the sale of gold.

Victim 1 and Victim 2 didn’t go forward with the any of the deals, after learning from Guggenheim Capital’s general counsel that none of the defendants were affiliated with the Guggenheim family, according to the complaint.

The defendants tried to get a third victim, the chief executive officer of “an international project management, executive consulting and business development firm” to participate in a $4 billion oil deal, according to the complaint.

The phony Guggenheims also tried to get Coca-Cola to be a partner in a venture to sell vodka under the Guggenheim name, according to the complaint.

The Guggenheims are descendants of Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss immigrant who made a fortune in mining and smelting in the 19th century. They are known for charitable giving, including the establishment of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

The case is U.S. v. Toumei, 11-Mag.-207, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

To contact the reporter on this story: Bob Van Voris in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David E. Rovella at

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