July 27 (Bloomberg) -- Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei, one of three people charged in an alleged scheme to use the Guggenheim name to swindle investors through phony billion-dollar deals, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to two years of probation.
Toumei, 46, admitted today to helping her two codefendants violate a judge’s order, which was issued in a civil trademark suit filed by Guggenheim Partners LLC and Guggenheim Capital LLC, barring them from using the Guggenheim name. Toumei was sentenced by U.S. Magistrate Judge James Cott in Manhattan.
Prosecutors from the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan charged Toumei, Vladimir Zuravel and David Birnbaum in January 2011 with a scheme to use the Guggenheim name to lure investors into fake investments in oil, bank guarantees, diamonds and gold. Prosecutors withdrew a felony charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and allowed Toumei to plead guilty to contempt, a misdemeanor punishable by as much as six months in jail.
“Ms. Toumei appears to have been used by others, in a subordinate position,” Cott said from the bench.
After the hearing, Toumei’s lawyer, Jan Ronis, said he was surprised criminal charges had ever been filed in the case. Ronis said he thinks Bharara’s office was influenced to prosecute his client by the Guggenheim firms.
“I always thought it was civil in nature,” Ronis said of the dispute. “The Guggenheim name carries a lot of weight and power in this town.”
Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman for Bharara’s office, declined to comment on the case. Tripp Kyle, a spokesman for Guggenheim Partners, which has headquarters in New York and Chicago, didn’t immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Charges against Birnbaum, who allegedly used the name “David B. Guggenheim,” were dropped in September. Zuravel, who prosecutors said used the name “Vladimir Z. Guggenheim,” pleaded guilty to contempt for violating the judge’s order in the trademark case. He was sentenced to probation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Frey told Cott today that his office wasn’t seeking restitution from Toumei because no one lost any money in the alleged scheme.
Ronis said Toumei, who lives in the San Diego area, met Zuravel and Birnbaum on the Internet and had never seen them in person.
“At all times she truly thought they were Guggenheims,” Ronis said.
When prosecutors filed the original charges, they claimed the three defendants 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.
Zuravel, who said he was Birnbaum’s adopted son, told the court at the time that the criminal charges were the result of “just a simple mix-up.”
The Guggenheim family is descended from 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).
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