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Crime & Courts

Whirlpool of lies swallows Mezvinsky

Register Staff Writer

Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. - Ed Mezvinsky was a whiz at taking people's money.

A quarter-million here, a half-million there - 8,000 transactions in five years. When shady African businessmen opened a suitcase of money, he was there to inspect it. When wealthy American investors were looking for a good return, he was there to offer one.

He was "Fast Talkin" Eddie." That's what political reporters privately called him in the 1970s.

He was also the golden boy from Ames, the former all-state football end and member of the Ames High School state championship basketball and track teams of 1955. He ran political campaigns equally as all-American - on principles of good government, accountability, protecting the weak.

After his 1972 election to Congress, the Democrat was barely unpacked before he was named to the Judiciary Committee's Nixon impeachment investigation. He wrote a book in 1977 about how he was appalled at President Nixon's lies and schemes, how he choked up when Nixon resigned, "a spectacle of a man brought to a wretched end."

Mezvinsky knows about wretched endings.

He is 66 and serving the beginning of an 80-month sentence in federal prison for numerous charges, including bank, wire and mail fraud. He took people's money - more than $10 million - in elaborate lies and schemes.


"Fast Talkin" Eddie" wants to talk publicly for the first time since the day three years ago when 10 FBI agents stormed his mansion in a Philadelphia suburb and hauled out more than 80 boxes of incriminating documents.

Sitting in a 10-foot-by-10-foot visitors room with bare white walls at the Eglin Air Force Base prison camp near Pensacola, Fla., Mezvinsky unfolds a five-hour narrative of a life that family members call a "tragedy."

Near the end, he's tired from talk, and the tears spill over a long life of accomplishment, fame and high living down the tubes. Mezvinsky looks out the window to the Florida rain.

"You can break down about it," he says. "To have a whole life - personally, professionally - trivialized. In a brush, it's trivialized."

He'll accept it. He did it, ripped off all those people. But there is a reason, he asserts: mental illness.

"Crazy Eddie" is the new nickname, the new headline in Philadelphia.

The judge didn't buy it. But Mezvinsky is certain his mental illness is real and wonders how to survive it.

"Is it possible to create meaning in a world of loss?" he asks. "That's my test now. I can't fall into that abyss. I can't let myself fall down. I've got to emotionally prepare myself. I've got to be strong."

In the beginning, he battles crime

Wearing crisp prison khakis, Mezvinsky tentatively walks his thin, 6-foot-2-inch frame to the soda machine outside the visitors room. He slips in a debit card. He earns money for the account by working in food service for 12 cents an hour. He waits tables.

"Just like when I was in college," he says.

Mezvinsky doesn't hide the sad irony when describing each segment of his life.

In 1965, he worked for former Rep. Neal Smith in Washington on lobbyist disclosure and ethics bills.

"Here I was, leading the brigade," Mezvinsky says. "And here I am, sitting here."

He won a seat in the Iowa Legislature in 1968 and made headlines by demanding forthright business practices to protect consumers. During the legislative session, he held up a sausage that he said had rat claws in it.

He earned his first nickname: "Rat Claw" Mezvinsky. Fellow legislators smelled an attention-seeker.

"Somebody said it was probably just cartilage. But it did get him on the front page of the Register," said Jerry Kelly, the Indianola mayor who worked for Mezvinsky's failed 1970 campaign for the U.S. House from Iowa's 1st District.

Mezvinsky ran again in 1972, attacking the influence of money in campaigns and the political process, and he won. He led the Judiciary investigation of Nixon's taxes and finances.

After his 1976 campaign defeat in Iowa, he ran for Pennsylvania attorney general in 1988 by alleging corruption by his opponent. "Again," he says of the irony, "classic."

Or is it hypocrisy?

Prosecutors later would call Mezvinsky a one-man "crime wave" and said they uncovered elements of fraud in nearly every business deal of his dating to 1980.

"We didn't even bother to look back farther," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer.

As federal agents hauled away boxes of documents on Jan. 27, 2000, Mezvinsky began to wonder what had happened to him:

"Why was I doing these crazy things?"

Life turns frantic after several missteps

"Just thinking about it now, I don't know how I did it," Mezvinsky says. "You can do amazing things when you are in this state of mind. I couldn't contain it. The fire was out of control."

Mezvinsky not only was an expert at taking money, he also was an expert at losing it.

He says the irrational decisions started not long after he moved in 1979 to Pennsylvania, the home state of his second wife, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky.

Mezvinsky's first wife, Myra Shulman of Waterloo, divorced him not long after he was elected to Congress. Within a couple of years, he was married to Margolies, a beautiful and bright TV reporter, a Washington celebrity who won Emmys for NBC.

After a stint as a U.N. ambassador for human rights under President Carter, Mezvinsky began a series of bad moves in Pennsylvania.

He ran for Congress in 1980, although he was new to the state, and lost.

He began setting up businesses, among them grain export and medical instrument companies. Both failed. He was sued after a shipping company he contracted with didn't have grain to ship.

"I had these great ideas, but I didn't follow through with them," he says.

He moved on to other ventures, dabbling in schemes with African businessmen to get rich quick.

"In Mezvinsky, they had a perfect man," said Zauzmer, the assistant U.S. attorney. "His whole life, he wanted the home run. He didn't want to operate a business. He wanted to make millions in one home run."

Mezvinsky's stories sound fantastic. At one point, he says, he found himself in Africa gazing on an open suitcase filled with paper shaped like money, although the bills were black.

"That's the way they would hide it," he says. "The man later came out with a chemical, threw it on the money, and it all turned to $100 bills. He gave me 10 to have them tested back home. And they were real."

Some of the African schemes were not far removed from the classic, laughable Nigerian scams often run through the Internet - seeking victims with financial backing to extract millions out of bogus accounts. Others were sophisticated oil prospects.

Mezvinsky poured money into these ventures and sought other investors, promising big returns.

"Yes, the stories were strange and out of the intellectual box, but they were believable," says Margolies-Mezvinsky, who was elected to Congress in 1992 and served one term.

She now lives in a rented home in the Philadelphia area after filing for bankruptcy. "We're not talking deals that would come over the fax," she says. "They were very complex deals."

Mezvinsky continued to lose money while financing fanciful political campaigns. After he served as chairman of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee from 1981 to 1986, he ran for state attorney general and lost. The campaign cost him more than $1 million.

Meanwhile, his home life was frantic. At times as many as 15 people lived in the 8,200-square-foot mansion. The home had six bedrooms, five bathrooms, a ballroom and greenhouse, and the complex included a carriage house with four bedrooms, an in-ground pool and pool house with a kitchen and three bathrooms.

The home was filled with four daughters from his first marriage, two daughters Margolies adopted before their marriage, two sons they had together, and three foreign children they raised as guardians.

They threw parties with well-connected people. They were friends with the Clintons; their son Marc even dated Chelsea Clinton.

"He had a lot of friends in the community of all walks of life," Jerome Shestack, a longtime friend and past president of the American Bar Association, said of Mezvinsky. "He was very well-regarded."

Mezvinsky's brother, Norton Mezvinsky of New York City, would often talk to one of their two sisters and inquire about Ed.

"What did he tell you he was doing?" they would ask each other - and none of them had an answer.

"For some time, I wondered how he was able to live the way he lived," Norton Mezvinsky said. "He was obviously living high."

But something lurked in the home, a tension no one could describe. Friends and family said they had no indication of illegal dealings or mental illness. But they knew there was something wrong.

His wife said he was a terror to travel with, his knuckles white on the steering wheel, fighting road rage. One day, he lost it in an airport and screamed.

"That's why we traveled apart," she says.

During the day, when he wasn't traveling to or from Africa, he was either holed up in his home office or talking constantly on the telephone.

"At night I could hear him pace the hallways," said Holly Werth, 35, his daughter from Sun Valley, Idaho. "I knew something was wrong.

"It was all or nothing, always. The temper would fly. In the last several years, we would always walk on eggshells."

There was no physical abuse, she said, but the littlest thing, such as someone not putting away the bread in the kitchen, would send him into a screaming fit.

They had no idea that his telephone conversations were a series of pressure-packed, desperate deals.

"The hole got so deep I couldn't do it by myself," Mezvinsky says. "I believed in (the investments). I believed they would hit. So I went to people to give me money. Let's be open. They expected great returns. They thought this was a bonanza I could give them."

Complaint snaps chain of deception

Mezvinsky's most common fraud was telling victims that he needed money to deposit in a trust account that would not be moved. He needed the money, he told them, to show he had the financial wherewithal to make an investment. He promised a hefty return.

He then spent the money on African schemes, used it to cover debts, or paid off those who complained the loudest about not being paid back from previous bogus deals.

He spent considerable time moving money around. Investigators found 165 examples between 1995 and 2000 in which Mezvinsky executed bank transactions just under $10,000. Anything over $10,000 requires banks to file a report. Avoiding the reporting is called structuring.

"Mezvinsky was a poster child for structuring," said Zauzmer, the assistant U.S. attorney. "He would go to three banks and get $9,900 on the same day."

He often convinced investors that he had great wealth by showing his companies' net worth in the millions when they actually had no value at all.

Mezvinsky's victims were friends, friends of friends, even his mother-in-law. He was a public figure, so victims trusted him, sure he wouldn't jeopardize his and his wife's political ambitions.

He also extracted money from clients he had promised to represent as an attorney. Mezvinsky got his law degree from the University of California-Berkeley in 1965 but spent little time practicing law.

One scam involved Iowans Merle and Teresa Miller, whose address on government documents is Iowa City. Mezvinsky told Joe Klieber, a financial consultant in Florida and a friend of the Millers, that he needed financial backing to represent a client who was suing the Internal Revenue Service. Klieber would get a chunk of the recovery. Mezvinsky needed $150,000 to demonstrate staying power and credibility.

Mezvinsky, promising the money wouldn't be touched, withdrew it all upon receiving it. Klieber also arranged for a deposit from the Millers, who sent $150,000 to Mezvinsky to be held in trust. Mezvinsky withdrew the Millers' money in cash, and $75,000 went to pay off other clients whose money he had used.

It was a chain of deception that involved great detail and cunning, prosecutors said.

The Millers were eventually repaid most of the money because they screamed louder than others, according to Klieber's comments in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Millers couldn't be reached for comment.

Other victims spent years trying to get their money back.

Jason Theodosakis is no dummy. He's written two best-selling books; the first, in 1997, was called "The Arthritis Cure." He met Mezvinsky at a health spa in Tucson, Ariz., and found him to be upbeat, friendly and smart.

Theodosakis hired Mezvinsky as an attorney to negotiate with his publisher, Affinity Press. Mezvinsky set up an escrow account for the author's payments for the book, then spent all of it himself - nearly $350,000. He also spent as much as $600,000 of the author's proceeds from consulting work done for Rexall Sundown Inc., a vitamin and nutritional supplement company.

Mezvinsky's stories "weren't matching up," Theodosakis said. "Probably the most apparent to me was when he said his mother died - for the second time."

Theodosakis sued, but "the wheels of justice turn slower when dealing with a white-collar criminal. He wasted a couple years of my life going after him."

Theodosakis figures he lost more than $1 million to Mezvinsky's lies.

"People should not feel sorry for him," Theodosakis said. "He is a simple, common criminal."

All the while, the FBI and the U.S. attorney were investigating Mezvinsky because of a worthless check for $255,000 he wrote in 1997 on an account holding $99.82 at Iowa State Bank and Trust Co. in Iowa City.

But it was a victim who finally collapsed the house of cards.

Mezvinsky told David Sonders, a semiretired entrepreneur from Virginia, that he stood to recover $59 million from a bank in Ivory Coast but needed funds to pay the taxes on it. He told Sonders he'd earned the $59 million on investments in the Ivory Coast.

In 1999, they entered into an escrow agreement. Sonders would get a $247,000 return on his $500,000 investment if the transaction was a success. The initial money was to stay in the trust. Mezvinsky spent the money, some on African scams.

Sonders was livid and sued.

"It started the downfall because it was visible," Mezvinsky says. "I realized I had a major financial problem beyond my control."

Margolies-Mezvinsky suddenly dropped out of her U.S. Senate race in January 2000 and, days later, Ed Mezvinsky filed for bankruptcy protection.

The chain of robbing one investor to pay another ended, and unpaid victims started screaming. On Jan. 27, 2000, federal agents, armed with a search warrant, came knocking.

"I looked out my door, and there was a whole lineup," Mezvinsky says. "I had no question they would find out what was going on. It's all there in the boxes. Wouldn't I have shredded those documents if I had criminal intent?

"That's when I started to get professional medical help."

More than a year later, the government handed down a 66-count indictment. The next day, Mezvinsky sued an anti-malaria drug manufacturer, setting up his mental health defense.

His early promise gives way to errors

Mezvinsky looks you in the eye and with his long, bony fingers shakes your hand very tightly and hard. His hair is gray, and his face is angular and thin.

Before him is an address book with a rubber band around it and a book on past U.S. presidents. He wears a cheap watch he bought at the prison commissary.

He listens when you speak. He has probing but pleasant eyes. As he walks outside in a courtyard with palm trees and picnic benches, he inquires about your family, life in Iowa and the local beaches.

The federal prison here is a half-hour drive off the Emerald Coast in Florida's Panhandle. The 684 prisoners live in dormitories that are not locked.

There are no fences, and inmates can travel the tree-lined and carefully landscaped grounds unbothered between work assignments, the library, the fitness facility and the chapel, as long as they are at their assigned posts during security checks.

Mezvinsky's days are spent praying, reading, writing, working out and working in the food service operation.

"It's like when you went to camp as a kid," he says, although he adds that one dormitory is known as the "Watergate dorm" because convicted Nixon aide Chuck Colson lived there.

Mezvinsky is saddened by other prisoners who come to him to tell them their stories, many of white-collar crimes or drug offenses. It's no surprise they seek his ear.

He knows how to talk to people.

"He really knew how to have a conversation without damaging, which is a real art," said Margolies-Mezvinsky. "He knew how to put people together in a room who were at each other's throats."

People saw it early on in Iowa.

"Everybody thought he was an up-and-coming, smart young man," said Neal Smith, who hired Mezvinsky as a legislative assistant in 1965.

Smith remembered a visit to Drake University with Mezvinsky, where they were addressing researchers who thought the government was meddling needlessly with research grants.

"They were so mad," Smith said. "But he explained it patiently. He was very good with people."

Years before, as a popular Ames High School student who made three key second-half steals in the 1955 state basketball championship game against Iowa City High, Mezvinsky oozed a pleasant, confident drive.

After all, he was the son of Abe Mezvinsky, who peddled fruit off railroad cars and rose from a Ukrainian immigrant with $5 in his pocket to the head of a small supermarket chain in central Iowa.

Mezvinsky remembers how his Jewish father's store sat smack in the middle of a Catholic neighborhood in Ames. One day, the Catholic priest gave a sermon about one of the best examples of Christianity around: Abe Mezvinsky, the Jewish store owner who took in hobos and gave them food.

But the elder Mezvinsky also instilled a drive for financial success in his son. When Ed Mezvinsky returned from college to help run the store and decided to run for the state Legislature, his father asked him, "Can you make any money in politics?"

"Not if you're honest," Mezvinsky remembers telling him.

"Then why are you doing it?"

Mezvinsky took to the political game anyway. After his two years in the Iowa Legislature, he went hard after the congressional seat held by longtime incumbent Fred Schwengel, endlessly knocking on doors.

"I went to places with him that I've never been since," said Kelly, the Indianola mayor, who worked for his "70 campaign. "He would go anywhere to talk to people. He did not look through people, he looked at them to talk."

He lost that election but won against Schwengel in 1972.

"He was good at figuring out which counties he needed to win, and he made a good first impression on people," said Dan Boyle of Iowa City, co-chairman of Mezvinsky's campaign.

But political observers saw him make irrational mistakes, and he lost in 1976 to Jim Leach, who still holds the seat.

"It was a huge blunder to drag (Margolies) back and show off that he had this shiny new wife and had ditched his old wife," said John Hyde, who was a Washington reporter for the Register then. "Ed thought it was great, but it didn't go over well with Iowans."

At local parades, people would shout, "Where's your wife?"

Putting his wife on display wasn't his first irrational decision. The Pennsylvania attorney general's race was costly.

"I basically bet the farm on that race," he says. "But I felt like I could do anything."

Looking back, Mezvinsky sees these flights of fancy as manic episodes, a hidden, "insidious" disorder that would ruin his life.

Werth, his daughter, said mental illness ran in her father's family - one sister was in and out of mental institutions most of her life - as did an affinity for "high-risk behavior."

"The losses just snowballed so quickly, he didn't know what to do," Werth said. "The intentions came from a good place.

"I don't think he was a scam artist. He really believed he was helping these people make money."

Others see the insanity claim as just another con.

Was he mentally ill? Opinions differ

Shortly after Mezvinsky's indictment, psychiatrists diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Mezvinsky sued the drug manufacturer and his physician and friend, Dr. Brad Fenton, who prescribed the anti-malaria drug Lariam for his travels to Africa. Some reports suggest the drug might cause psychiatric side effects.

Mezvinsky claimed the drug exacerbated his bipolar disorder. The lawsuit has been dropped.

He says his mental health problems started long ago. He rolled his car during his first year at the University of Wisconsin, where he went to play basketball on a scholarship, and suffered a concussion.

Soon afterward, he says, he couldn't accomplish anything. He dropped out of school after one semester and returned to Ames. It was his first "down episode."

Mezvinsky says that after his political losses through the years, he felt "like a shadow" of himself. And after his divorce, he felt like "my whole life was falling apart."

But he was soon off to other ventures.

"He was just always trying to figure out why he was such a gambler with life," said Margolies-Mezvinsky.

Few family members thought he was ill. Mezvinsky didn't think he was sick, either.

"I was brought up stoic. You had to tough things out. You didn't talk about it, let alone if you were in public life," he says. "But here I was in these train wrecks. Then I start asking, "What happened to me? Why did I do those things?" "

Claudia Baldassano thought the signs were clear when she examined him. The professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania later testified in a hearing that would decide whether the jury could hear Mezvinsky's mental illness defense.

"He had pressured speech, fast speech, his thoughts were racing as he jumped from one topic to the next," she said. "And he was still grandiose. He couldn't understand why a lot of things he got involved with didn't work. Anybody with two brain cells could realize they were schemes."

Bipolar disorder, Baldassano said, can cause people to lose judgment.

"When he was on a manic high, he was smarter than anyone. He thought he was going to make millions for everyone. He was going to make everyone happy," she said. "If he was a sociopath trying to steal money, why would he risk his own money and his mother-in-law's?"

Simple, prosecutors claimed. The mental health issue was just another con. Even Baldassano conceded that a man of Mezvinsky's intelligence could fake mental illness. Victims were sure of it.

"Perhaps he became depressed later, when he knew he would lose his license, shame his family for generations and end up in jail," said Theodosakis, the author who was one of Mezvinsky's victims.

Many have fallen for financial schemes, added prosecutor Zauzmer, "but they are not mentally ill. They are just gullible and greedy."

He contended that Mezvinsky couldn't make such complex transactions if he were truly mentally ill.

But it's possible that a mentally ill person, especially one with bipolar disorder, could orchestrate such complex dealings, according to Dr. Robert Sadoff, a Philadelphia psychiatrist.

Sadoff testified that Mezvinsky had a mild case of bipolar disorder that shouldn't have rendered him unable to see that what he was doing was wrong.

"To make a defense under federal law, the illness would have to deprive him from knowing right from wrong," Zauzmer said.

The legal defense was tightened in 1984 after John Hinckley used a mental illness defense when he shot President Reagan. Now, defendants can't contend that, although they knew right from wrong, an "irresistible impulse" caused by the illness made them do commit a crime.

U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell ruled against allowing the mental illness defense in Mezvinsky's trial.

"If you want to see an example of a court being hostile toward issues of mental health, this is a very shocking example of it," said Bryant Welch, Mezvinsky's Washington attorney and a clinical psychologist. "The judgment is just wacko. It's incredible that a man of his intelligence would go after Nigerian schemes."

Last fall, Mezvinsky pleaded guilty to 31 of the 66 counts against him. In January, when he was sentenced to 80 months, he broke down in court.

"I'm sorry for the victims, because they were misled," he told the court. "It's hard to believe that I did these things."

'People like myself. . . do dingy things'

In the second week of February, Ed Mezvinsky said goodbye to his assembled family. In Mezvinsky fashion, the farewells weren't dramatic.

"I'll see you later," daughter Holly Werth told him.

Privately, she wondered about his poor "emotional logic," thinking that his fraudulent acts could be compensated for and that somehow they weren't all his fault.

"But the rest of us learned from this," she said. "All the siblings are all low risk-takers. There are positives that will trickle from this for a long time, to his children and grandchildren."

Werth is due to have a baby at the end of the month and will visit the prison then.

Margolies-Mezvinsky, her political run for the Senate in 2000 thwarted by the scandal, said she and her husband took a long drive before he went to prison. They visited a Korean immigrant family that Mezvinsky helped bring to the United States. He helped clear legislation that would allow the Korean offspring of lepers to settle here.

It was meaningful because Margolies-Mezvinsky met her future husband when she was working on the story as a reporter.

"As we drove there, our lives came into perspective," she said.

She will stick with him, although some family members think it will be a challenge.

Mezvinsky entered the west gate of the federal prison Feb. 10 and surrendered his freedom. His clothes were placed in a box. The rest of his life was before him, nearly six years in prison, even after taking off time for good behavior.

His family worries. Norton Mezvinsky said he's concerned about how his brother will get through the next six years. He's worried that Ed hasn't shed his obsessions.

"Even after the trouble broke, he would tell me on the phone he was unlucky, that he thought those things could work," Norton Mezvinsky said. "I told him it was foolishness."


At the prison camp, Mezvinsky has tried to settle into a routine. He has medication to control his illness, he says, and wants to learn Spanish and study his Jewish faith.

"You have to stay strong," he says, his voice cracking. "If you're stoic, you just keep it inside. . . ."

He cries openly.

"One of the reasons I did this interview is because I think the story has to be told that people like myself . . . that, yes, as my doctor said, do dingy things."

He sobs in great heaves between words.

"But why do they do them? How do you deal with the challenge, especially when the diagnosis was late in your life and you're in a very brutal period and the prosecutors make you out to be this terrible human being?

"Then you come out of the closet and are told it's not real?"

He stops crying and clears his throat and says he wants to pay back the people he wronged.

"I hope to make atonement for what has gone wrong with my life," he says. "I hope to come out of the ashes."

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