Before Robert Mueller got him thrown in jail, before he ran Donald Trump’s campaign, before he helped make Viktor Yanukovych the president of Ukraine, Paul Manafort angled to make a ton of money off of the Vatican.
A federal judge in D.C. will finalize Manafort’s prison sentence on Wednesday, adding up to 10 years to the four-year sentence he already faces. Since he took over Trump’s campaign on June 20, 2016, his decades of lobbying work have drawn unparalleled scrutiny from federal and congressional investigators. But one dalliance has remained unreported— until now.
According to two people with knowledge of the conversations, Manafort and then-business partner Rick Davis said numerous times that they planned to go into business with a handsome Italian businessman named Raffaello Follieri, and that they expected to use his purported access to the Vatican to get a sweetheart deal on the Catholic Church’s real estate.
In 2008, Follieri pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering, as well as one conspiracy count. He was sentenced to more than four years in prison. The access he claimed to have to the Vatican was part of an elaborate, intercontinental scam that made international news and generated a tabloid feeding frenzy. Federal prosecutors said the Italian businessman, who dated actress Anne Hathaway for four years before his arrest, claimed to investors that he was the CFO of the Vatican and that he would use his connections in Rome to arrange lucrative real estate deals. He claimed the Vatican was eager to sell off unused properties to raise quick cash to help offset the costs related to its ballooning child sex abuse scandals, as New York magazine noted.
A host of political power-brokers got roped into Follieri’s scheme. The Wall Street Journal reported that he became close with Clinton ally Doug Band, and offered to help Hillary Clinton court Catholic voters in the lead-up to her 2008 presidential bid. Bill Clinton even invited him on stage at a Clinton Foundation event, per New York, to thank him for a donation commitment on which he never delivered. The Italian newspaper L’Immediato reported that American super-lobbyist Tony Podesta called him “un visionario.” And Sen. John McCain drew considerable heat after celebrating his 70th birthday aboard a yacht Follieri had rented, as The Nation reported. Hathaway was on hand for the festivities.
And according to New York, Follieri was staying at his parents’ apartment in Trump Tower when he got arrested.
Now, people with knowledge of Manafort’s businesses say he and Davis also looked to get in on Follieri’s purported Vatican real-estate fire sale.
John Weaver, a longtime Republican political operative who worked on the late Sen. McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast he heard Davis and Manafort discuss a relationship with Follieri multiple times in the years before the senator announced that bid. At the time, Weaver said, he worked on a PAC that rented office space from Manafort and Davis’s lobbying firm.
“At the time, Paul Manafort and his partner Rick Davis bragged about having an in with the Vatican through Raffaello to facilitate the sale of Vatican assets to pay off sexual abuse scandal litigation,” Weaver said. “Of course, that didn’t last long when Raffaello fell from grace, so to speak.”
“I don’t know that they knew he was a fraudster, but peas of a pod travel together so none of that surprised me,” Weaver added. “They traveled in low circles with other authoritarian or fraudster-types.”
Without going into detail, a spokesperson for Davis disagreed with Weaver’s characterization of events. “Mr. Davis never engaged in business with Mr. Follieri, nor did he solicit business from him,” the spokesperson said.
Follieri spokesperson Melanie A. Bonvicino, meanwhile, did not dispute this reporting.
“There were discussions between Mssrs. Follieri and Davis in the latter part of 2007 related to Mr. Follieri’s then real estate fund, though subsequently nothing ever materialized between the parties,” she said.
A spokesperson for Manafort declined to comment for this story.
Weaver said Davis and Manafort openly discussed their relationship with Follieri, and that he repeatedly heard them chatting about it in the halls of the building where their offices were located.
“They had high hopes,” Weaver said.
For Manafort, hope has always sprung eternal. He spent his business career chasing down far-fetched schemes, including an unsuccessful effort to buy the famed Drake Hotel in Manhattan with Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash for $850 million. He also face-planted on an investment in Ukrainian TV stations—burning through millions he borrowed from Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Instead of becoming the Rupert Murdoch of the former Soviet Union, he became indebted to one of Russia’s most powerful men. He also chased stateside real estate deals with his now-ex-son-in-law, Jeffrey Yohai. Prosecutors later charged Yohai with a number of financial crimes; and they alleged that, like Manafort, he committed even more crimes while out on bail.
A person familiar with Manafort’s lobbying work who spoke anonymously because of client sensitivities told The Daily Beast he also heard numerous conversations between Manafort and Davis about potentially doing business with Follieri.
“It was intended to be an inside, sweetheart deal,” the source said.
Follieri painted a detailed, fanciful picture of his Rome connections to the investors he suckered, according to court filings from federal prosecutors. He claimed to manage the Vatican’s investments, to meet regularly with the pope, and to have a deal in place that would let him buy Vatican properties far below market value. The claims were all lies. That said, he wasn’t a total outsider; the filings say he bribed a Vatican employee to take his would-be investors on tours of its museum and gardens.
And investors coughed up dollars by the million. He plowed through the cash, blowing it on dog-walking services, wine, his father’s dental bills, and yacht-rentals. He also used investor money to pay for a charter flight to the Dominican Republic—his parents and Hathaway in tow—as well as flights to the Bahamas, Las Vegas, and Nice. He persuaded investors to pay $37,000 a month to rent a luxury Manhattan apartment where Vatican officials could crash. They, however, did not crash there; Follieri did.
Follieri and Manafort’s stories followed similar arcs: yacht outings, Eurotrips, eye-popping real estate ventures, and famous friends. And now, the two men have something else in common: felony records.