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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

No one knew exactly where Carlos Gomez’s money came from -- certainly not from his Citibank job -- but he seemed to have plenty of it. He and his wife, Alison Spear, lived lavishly on the East Side and in the Hamptons and spent their way into uptown society. But when he was arrested for embezzlement last month, even his wife began to wonder just who it was she’d married.

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Published March 9, 1998

"I’m the dummy in this,” insists Alison Spear in her disarmingly sweet tones. Just over a month ago, her husband, Carlos Gomez, was arrested for embezzling $10 million from his employers at Citibank. Last week, while Gomez was biding his time in their Park Avenue apartment awaiting legal proceedings, the architect and interior designer sat in her office on East 70th Street and told New York she was more startled than anyone about the charges. “I assumed the money was from investments, just like everyone else. What was I supposed to do, check up on my husband?”

Since then, talk of Gomez’s arrest has dominated the arty dinner parties and Junior League circles in which the charismatic Cuban banker and his pretty blonde wife had traveled since their marriage in 1994. Photogenic, likable, and ambitious, the couple successfully mounted an assault on Upper East Side society, acquiring in short order a stunning apartment on Park Avenue, a million-dollar house in Sagaponack, and positions on the boards of some of the city’s most prominent cultural institutions. In 1996, Spear chaired a gala benefit for the New York City Ballet, and they serve on junior committees for the New York Public Library and the Museum of the City of New York. Late last year, Gomez was named to the board of trustees of the New Museum.

Their two homes were showcased in a glossy photo feature in Harper’s Bazaar in 1996, in which Alison was described as an “elegant Park Avenue diva” and Gomez as the owner of a “sizable collection of brightly hued modern Latin American art.”

Fond of grand flourishes, Gomez draped his wife in expensive couture and lavish estate jewelry. At Christmas, he confided in friends about the latest gift he hoped to present to Alison -- a $20,000 Asprey ring. To celebrate his 40th birthday last month, he invited a group of close friends on a trip to Mexico -- all expenses paid. The plans were later dropped.

In January, the elaborate façade came crashing down. A month after leaving Citibank to start his own investment firm, Gomez was arrested and charged with setting up a series of fraudulent accounts and fake identities that investigators are still trying to unravel. He surrendered to the FBI through his lawyer and was released on a $1 million personal-recognizance bond, signed by his wife and parents as well as by friends including floral designer Helena Lehane and Michael Giordano, a celebrated aids doctor at New York Hospital.

Currently restricted to the immediate area, Gomez may face up to 30 years in prison. In addition, Citibank has filed a civil suit against him seeking to retrieve at least $13 million, and a judge has ordered all his assets frozen. Lawyers from Citibank have begun to close the net, deposing Gomez’s business associates and gathering evidence of the couple’s spending, including Alison’s credit-card statements.

In an era of bull-market fortunes and outlandish bonuses, Gomez’s lavish lifestyle didn’t seem all that unusual. But in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been hard to figure out that he was living beyond his means. As a private banker at Citibank, earned a salary estimated at $200,000; the annual maintenance payments on their apartment alone came to about $50,000. “I’m sort of amazed on the one hand, and not so amazed on the other,” says Jay McInerney, an old client of Alison’s. “It seemed like they were living large for a while there.”

Friends and acquaintances repeatedly claim that the charming, genial Gomez was not the kind of person they would ever associate with such a crime. Most of their acquaintances assumed the couple was spending a generous inheritance. Alison claims she never asked where her husband’s money came from.

“I never quizzed Carlos about any financial sources. I don’t think any lady would have,” she told New York. “I feel like Carlos is someone who couldn’t have done something like this. Right now, today, I’m standing behind him, and I’m working and living moment to moment.”

Nonetheless, on the advice of her lawyer, she recently made an attempt to get veto power over any settlement with Citibank, and to have Gomez turn over any remaining assets to her and her children. If he didn’t, Alison warned, she would remove her name from the recognizance bond keeping him out of jail. Gomez’s attorney, the high-powered Stanley Arkin, scoffed at the demand, and she backed down. “If the charges turn out to be true, I can’t say what I would do,” Alison says now, although she has already hired another lawyer. “I try not to talk about it, and Carlos is not at liberty to discuss details with me. I can’t really plan anything for the future, but I have a great job, two wonderful children and a supportive family.”

Since his arrest, friends have portrayed Carlos Gomez as a modern-day Jay Gatsby, and like Fitzgerald’s love-struck parvenu, he has always been elusive about his background. Some claim Gomez grew up in a shack near the Havana airport. Others say he was the heir to an immense sugarcane fortune. The truth is more conventionally middle-class. Born in Havana, Gomez moved with his family in the sixties to Miami, where his father worked as a manufacturing consultant.

By the time he got to Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in 1976, he already had a certain mannered air about him. “When he first came on the scene, there were a lot of people who didn’t believe his act of being Cuban aristocracy, especially the Cuban expatriates who lived in the area,” recalls a Georgetown contemporary. “For someone who claimed to have had so much, he had a limited wardrobe and no private transportation.” After graduating in 1980, Gomez did a stint as a newscaster at a Spanish-language cable station. He began his banking career at Chase in New York and moved to Citibank a few years later. He decamped to England in 1989 to get a certificate in drama and literature from Oxford University. But in May 1991, he returned to his old post in Citibank’s private-banking division, where he served as a personal liaison to the bank’s wealthy Latin American clientele, a task that his employers say he performed with skill and charm.

Back in New York, Gomez became involved in a long-term romantic relationship with Eric Javits, a successful hat designer and the grandnephew of the late senator Jacob Javits. The well-connected milliner gave him entrée into a world of conspicuous consumption that contrasted sharply with his own rather modest life. At the same time that Gomez was sharing canapés at Doubles, the private eating club in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, with socialites like Averell Mortimer and James Fairchild, he was living in a humble rental on East 36th Street and struggling to pay his taxes -- in 1992, he had an outstanding bill of $9,633 from the New York State Tax Commission.

According to court documents, in 1991, three months after his return to Citibank, Gomez began to set up the embezzlement scheme that would finance his new life. He also decided that it might be time to settle down with a wife. “He wanted to lead a charmed, straight life,” says a friend.


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