Former Vail Valley arts patron Alberto Vilar trying to enjoy what’s left of his life after 10-year prison stint | VailDaily.com

Former Vail Valley arts patron Alberto Vilar trying to enjoy what’s left of his life after 10-year prison stint

NEW YORK — Alberto Vilar says he appreciates the irony: He earned a fortune in tech stocks, yet, like the rest of us, he struggles with his smartphone. He mistakenly pushed some oddball combination of buttons and everything switched from English to Vietnamese.

Life and liberty

Vilar, 78, is free after serving a 10-year prison sentence at the Fort Dix Correctional facility in New Jersey for securities fraud. Last week, for the first time since he began breathing free air, he combined two of his great loves: liberty and opera — "Samson and Dalila" at New York's Metropolitan Opera. Elina Garanca is Dalila and Roberto Alagna is Samson. The performance was riveting and the performers were brilliant, he said. And …

"The Met is the Met. The production is spectacular," Vilar said in a phone interview from New York City, where he lives.

He's more or less OK, he said. He's not in prison.

"Anyone who has not been through prison does not know how bad it is," Vilar said.

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"There's no liberty, privacy. … It's prison. Without liberty, you have nothing."

He went to prison for a crime from which no one lost anything, he said.

"Look at the bull markets I missed. Look at the operas I missed," he said.

Tech boom and bust

Vilar's firm, Amerindo Advisors, was founded in 1980 and soared along with the tech boom. When the tech bubble burst, Amerindo's portfolio hemorrhaged about 80 percent of its value.

Vilar was indicted on 12 counts of investor fraud, based largely on charges made by Lily Cates, an Amerindo client. Prosecutors said Vilar used $5 million of Cates' money for personal use and business expenses and transferred part of the money to a foreign account. He was convicted in 2008. His 10-year sentence ended with a "supervised release," said his attorney, Vivian Shevitz.

Vilar said everyone was repaid 100 percent and made massive interest on their investments.

"They were paid back in full, and they made huge returns," he said. "That's the 'Catch 22' of the whole case."

Vilar said there is now a huge surplus that the government is trying to keep. Federal prosecutors claimed the fraud was around $22 million. Amerindo stocks have earned roughly three times that, Vilar said, but that surplus remains frozen by the federal government. The court fight continues.

"We think it belongs to us. They disagree," Vilar said.

Still bullish, after all these years

Vilar doesn't work with clients or investors, but old habits die hard and he still follows the markets closely. He's bullish on tech, saying the current bull market is led by technology, and that very well could continue.

"Every obituary written about the tech markets was wrong," Vilar said. "Look at what Google, Facebook, Netflix have done."

There is a finite life to any bull market cycle, and we're eight years into this one, he said. But while the market may get tired, tech still has a long way to go.

"I don't think it would be an understatement for it to be an explosion in new tech," he said. "In this bull market led by tech stocks, I think my firm would have led the nation," Vilar said. "We got the tech thing right."

Supporting the classics

At its peak, Amerindo was worth an estimated $9 billion. Vilar was worth approximately $1 billion, according to Forbes.

Vilar gave away huge chunks of his money, funding the arts, college scholarships and a number of other causes.

"What are you going to do with your money?" he asked.

He came to love opera as a child in his native Cuba. Sure, he played some sports with other kids, but he was around 7 years old when he started listening to live radio broadcasts of classical music from the Metropolitan Opera.

"If you do not have the predilection, as I did, if your parents do not have that passion as mine did, you'll grow up without classical music," Vilar said.

When Vilar was young, his father was sent by his business from Cuba to Puerto Rico. The Cuban revolution erupted when Vilar was a freshmen at Washington and Jefferson College, leaving the family with nothing, he said.

"This is the second time in my life a government has made a negative, game-changing impact on my life," Vilar said, referring to his prison sentence.

Vilar donated an estimated $250 million to opera houses and other arts institutions around the world, as well as hospitals and other causes. He used to spend much of his time in Beaver Creek and donated $7 million toward the venue that bears his name, the Vilar Performing Arts Center. He also donated $2 million for the $10 million renovation of Vail's Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.

His reversal of fortunes caused problems for some of the organizations to which Vilar had made pledges.

The Vail Valley Foundation had to borrow $1.5 million when Vilar's pledge for the Ford Amphitheater renovation fell short.

In New York, 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 in Austria stripped his picture from its programs.

Vilar also lost three Beaver Creek properties to foreclosure by local banks. He subsequently paid what was owed and then sold the properties.

These days, he's catching up with people. He had to have some surgery and spends lots of time seeing doctors.

"Just saying hello to people. Just taking care of myself. I'm getting back on track with what's left of my life," he said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.