What’s Wrong With This Picture?

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.

When Gomez met Alison Spear in 1992 at a party at doubles, his future wife was was 33 years old and still reeling from a bitter divorce. Like Gomez, Spear was originally from Miami. The daughter of a respected surgeon, she had had a privileged upbringing. One of three children, Spear lived for most of her childhood in the shadow of her older sister, Laurinda, who would become a founder of the architecture firm Arquitectonica. While Alison was in college, the family moved into a house Laurinda had designed as part of her graduate-school thesis. But driven and energetic, Alison had talents of her own as well as an innate sense of style when it came to clothing and interiors.

“She was always ahead of the curve,” recalls a friend from her youth. “Alison has impeccable taste. She has an inner radar about finding perfect pieces of clothing and mixing styles, and she makes everything look effortless.”

Shortly after college, Spear decided to pursue a career in interior design and enrolled at the Columbia School of Architecture. While there, she fell in love with a fellow student named Campion Platt, a former model who came from a socially prominent Boston family. Their wedding was a weeklong affair for family and friends in Miami. Amid the revelry, Platt’s sister and Spear’s brother met; later they had a child together.

The newlywed couple settled in a loft in the Flatiron district, where they fell in with a fast downtown set made up of well-off artists, models, and club owners. The golden couple were dubbed “Downtown’s New Aristocrats” by Avenue magazine, along with André Balazs, Platt’s partner in the early stages of the Mercer Hotel, and Balazs’s wife, Katie Ford. “It was a very fun and hedonistic time,” recalls a member of the clique who went to Alison’s 30th-birthday party in Miami, where the budding socialites shed their swimsuits for a game of Marco Polo in the family pool. “It was about having a good time, looking good, and getting press.”

Spear and Platt proved particularly adept at the latter – columnists eagerly covered lavish parties they threw with such celebrated eighties revelers as Area owner Eric Goode and his then girlfriend, South African model Josie Borain. Platt drew attention for his work on the Mercer Hotel and the MercBar, and Spear’s design firm began attracting high-profile clients like McInerney, Francis Ford Coppola, and, of course, Katie Ford and André Balazs.

But in 1991, the tight-knit group began to unravel. After a financial dispute, Balazs and Platt bitterly dissolved their partnership, and Spear and Platt were embroiled in a nasty divorce before their son was even a year old. “Alison was always trying to help Campion’s career, and he had invested in a Miami hotel that lost money. She felt financially burned,” says another in the clique. “Alison didn’t think I was making enough for her,” her ex-husband concedes.

Jill Brooke, a CNN correspondent who was a friend of Spear’s at the time, recalls her saying, “If I only had $100 in my bank account, I’d still spend it that day on champagne and caviar.”

The breakup of her marriage didn’t keep Spear from entertaining, usually with a writer or editor around to record the event. To celebrate Jeremy’s 1st birthday, in the middle of her divorce, she hired a downtown party organizer who produced an ornate carnival theme for guests, complete with llamas and ponies. She marked his 2nd birthday with a lavish catered party at Rumplemeyers.

However flush she appeared in public, friends say that in private Spear complained that she was financially strapped. Says one, “I remember her not being able to pay her nanny, but she always had fabulous Manolo Blahniks.” One of her boyfriends from that time, restaurateur Peter Stephan, says, “Her level of energy was near hysteria. Every night, there was a different party or event. It was a relentless ride through the social circle.”

Alison Spear and Carlos Gomez began dating in the spring of 1993, after he hired her to redecorate his new apartment. “There’s no doubt that she was very attracted to Carlos. He was a gracious, classy guy and extremely dedicated to becoming a heterosexual family man,” remembers one friend. His apparent wealth was an added inducement. Eager to get married, Carlos did not disappoint. He showered Spear with gifts – cashmere scarfs and Dolce & Gabbana dresses from Barneys.

Gomez’s affair with Javits was an open secret, and friends cautioned her against falling in love with a bisexual man, no matter how intently he pursued her. “It was a roller coaster, and there were a lot of issues, whether he was straight or not, whether his intentions were genuine,” says one friend of Alison’s. “It was really hard, but it was harder being a single mom, and Carlos would be able to provide for them.” Another acquaintance of Alison’s from that time is less charitable: “She wanted the stuff so badly, it didn’t matter that he was gay.”

But while many of their acquaintances were openly skeptical of the match, others were supportive. “Everyone felt like, Good, she met a really nice guy and he wants to get married and have kids. Their relationship worked,” says one of her old crowd. “I saw them one night at a party at Sotheby’s, and they looked like picture-book newlyweds – the archetypal Upper East Side couple,” recalls another acquaintance. “They were clutching hands and gazing into a glass vitrine with the most enormous diamonds.”

In November 1994, two years after they met, Gomez and Spear were married at an intimate ceremony in Coconut Grove, near Spear’s parents’ home. For their friends in New York, they also hosted a party at the Yale Club, far from the watering holes Spear used to frequent. “A lot of her old friends were there, and they said, ‘This is probably the last time we’ll ever see her,’” says one attendee. “I think Carlos put weight on her to move her circle more uptown.”

Even before his marriage, Citibank charges, Gomez had already started manipulating funds for his own benefit. According to court documents, in January 1993, he instructed that two $5 million loans from Citibank be deposited into accounts under the names of Fernando Calleja and Bernabe Villanueva. (Gomez is alleged to have set up the accounts, with forged signatures, when he first returned to Citibank in 1991.) The Fernando Calleja account was completely fictitious – Gomez allegedly told his superiors that Fernando was the brother of an El Salvadoran Citibank customer named Francisco Calleja. Villanueva was an authentic Citibank customer. The loans were approved, collateralized by the assets of the real Calleja and Villanueva.

Gomez then allegedly opened accounts under the name of an old friend from Georgetown, Jose Ignacio Joaristi. A Cuban émigré, Joaristi had been best man in Gomez’s wedding and lived in New York in the early eighties before moving to Costa Rica. According to Joaristi’s lawyer, Gomez falsely portrayed his client as a wealthy industrialist, set up an account in his name, and then funneled the $10 million through Joaristi’s account and into two offshore investment companies in the Bahamas, where it was used to borrow an additional $9 million from Citibank. Because Gomez routinely carried out such transfers, his activities aroused no suspicion. “There were simply insufficient controls back then, but I’m surprised that he could have kept doing it as long as he did,” says someone who worked with Gomez in the private-banking division. (The same division is currently under investigation on charges of laundering money for the once-powerful Salinas clan of Mexico.)

Although the investigation is still under way, Citibank now believes Gomez started to manipulate accounts before 1993, about the same time he began his shopping spree. Gomez bought a penthouse apartment at 205 East 69th Street for $600,000 in December 1992, spending an additional $400,000 to have Alison remodel it. In November 1993, Gomez bought a Louise Bourgeois sculpture from the Robert Miller Gallery for $157,000, allegedly paying for it with money lent to the fictional Fernando Calleja. To cover his tracks, Gomez sent in a note with the check: “Do not reference me on remitter as this is from my offshore Private Investment Co. Have a good holiday.”

Howard Reed, a former Robert Miller employee who has since started his own gallery, says, “I didn’t think anything about it. I didn’t really know what he did, except that he was at Citibank, but there are a lot of people out there who seem like they make a lot of money, especially these days.” Gomez also had a VIP account at Christie’s, which he used to purchase decorative pieces and jewelry in the $10,000-to-$20,000 range. “He was invited to all the parties, and we thought he was important in his social and business circle,” says the customer-service representative who handled Gomez’s account. “Normally, the department only handles transactions of $1 million, but we thought it would be a good policy to have him included.”

The couple’s spending certainly accelerated after they were married. “Carlos had sold himself as this rich guy,” says one well-connected observer, “and he probably felt that he had to deliver the goods. He was trying to keep her happy, and she didn’t question it. It’s like a romantic disaster.”

In April 1995, the couple bought a ten-room apartment on upper Park Avenue for $1.6 million. The monthly maintenance alone was more than $4,000, and they spent generously on renovations. Since the apartment had just been converted from rental to co-op, they did not have to get board approval, which would have required some kind of scrutiny of their finances. A month later, they closed on a $1 million house in Sagaponack, an old farm on Sagg Road previously owned by George Plimpton. Gomez made the purchase through South Fork Limited, an offshore company incorporated under Joaristi’s name. (Gomez didn’t sell his place on 69th Street until after buying both the Park Avenue co-op and the house in Sagaponack, and he only broke even on the sale.)

Gomez and Spear’s marriage seemed to grow stronger as their joint assets grew. “Their being together seemed to bring out the best in both of them,” says one friend. “It would appear to be an old New York story of a couple trying to unite to conquer society together, but they’re not purely arriviste. It wasn’t just for getting ahead; it was very clear it had more depth to it.” Alison got pregnant in January 1996 and gave birth to a daughter, Carolina. “To me, when she had the baby, that was all I needed to know that she’s happy and that he loved her,” says an old friend of Alison’s. “It was sort of a sign to the naysayers.”

The family of four would go on safari in Africa with a nanny in tow, or to Costa Rica or to Mexico, and all their friends assumed that the bills were being paid by a seemingly endless source of family money. To those who knew better, Gomez floated a different tale. He told his friend Joaristi that he had first made a large commission selling real estate in Mexico to one of his clients and had then increased that amount by trading options.

But by 1997, Citibank officials began to wonder about all his lavish new acquisitions. According to sources at the bank, when Gomez was questioned last year by internal auditors, he told them he had inherited some money. By then, he had already started paying off the interest on the loan – not with his own money, Citibank claims, but with $1.4 million he borrowed from another client’s account – but the entire $10 million principal was still outstanding. In September 1997, he incorporated a company called Reliance Investment Consultants, and in December, he and another banker in the Mexican division left Citibank to set up their own shop. “We believe the other banker was innocently involved,” says Jack Morris, a Citibank spokesman. After he left, Gomez moved to liquidate the Joaristi accounts at Citibank and ordered the assets transferred to his new company.

It was a poorly planned exit strategy. Citibank had not yet acted on his orders when Gomez’s replacement called Francisco Calleja to inquire about the loans. Calleja had never heard of the loans, or of Fernando Calleja. When questioned on January 23 by the vice-president of legal affairs for Citibank, Gomez said he had only been acting on Francisco Calleja’s instructions, and also claimed that the transfers from the two original fraudulent accounts to the Joaristi-controlled accounts was a payment arising from a business transaction. But Joaristi – who is cooperating with Citibank and federal prosecutors – maintains that Gomez forged his name and set up offshore accounts without his knowledge. “The whole situation is very tough on him,” says Joaristi’s lawyer, Mark Schnapp. “This was a very close friend of his, and at the same time that he’s shocked by the transactions, he feels bad that Carlos messed up his life like this.”

Oddly, despite her professed ignorance, few of the couple’s friends perceive Alison as a victim. “Part of the reason people are less than sympathetic to Alison is that she was very smug about her social position and what she had achieved,” adds a Hamptons friend. “It was like, ‘Here I am, back with a vengeance.’ She utterly dominated him. She would say, ‘Let’s buy this; let’s be high-profile.’ She was the leader.”

Though Gomez has kept a low profile since his arrest, the couple has begun to make a few social appearances. Alison and Carlos surfaced at Doubles earlier this month at a benefit for Sagaponack neighbor and artist Robert Dash’s Maddoo Conservancy; they spent Valentine’s Day with another couple at Sagaponack’s Alison on the Beach.

On the advice of his attorneys, Gomez has declined to discuss the case, but reached by New York last week, he admitted that the strain of recent events had begun to affect him. “It’s unfortunate that people gloat at the misfortunes of others and jump to conclusions,” he said. “It’s a time when you find out who your friends really are.” Spear has also been spotted solo, at Palio’s, at the Cooper-Hewitt for a lecture by her sister, Laurinda, and at a cocktail party thrown by Upper East Side fixture Mark Gilbertson. Some of her circle have been shocked by Spear’s insouciance. “She was at that cocktail party last week running around like everything’s fine,” says one. “Surely there’s someone she could have been home comforting, or at least she could have been on the phone with her mother.”

As for Platt, he now lives in New York and Southampton with a Malaysian princess named Zarina. He claims that the only dealings he has with his ex-wife concern their son, who by all accounts is very attached to Gomez. “I know very little about their life. Occasionally, when I glance through magazines, I see pictures of them at parties, and it looks like they are having fun,” says Platt. “Recently, when I went to pick up Jeremy in Sagaponack, Carlos got in the car with me and said he was sorry Jeremy was involved in this, but he couldn’t answer any questions about the situation because legally he wasn’t allowed to discuss it. I only know what I read in the papers because nobody else is telling me anything.” As for Jeremy’s future? “We’ll see what happens with these charges,” says Platt.

For now, the couple’s situation remains grim. Gomez’s legal strategy is still unclear, but his lawyer, Stanley Arkin, says, “He’s a very nice young man, and we’re looking to do the best for him that we can.” Gomez’s former employer has indicated that they are close to some kind of settlement of the civil suit. “We believe that we will recover all the funds that he misappropriated,” says Jack Morris of Citibank. They haven’t paid their taxes on their house in Sagaponack, and at least some if not all of their assets will have to go, but typically, Spear has not let the situation get her down. Two weeks ago, she fired off a letter for the New Museum Gala, which she co-chairs. Pointedly, it was signed not Alison Gomez but Alison Spear.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?