Law hunts for lawyer on the lam

Over the years, Mr. Wolas is alleged to have assumed three different identities, including that of an old school chum and a Washington librarian, to bilk millions of dollars out of a wide range of unsuspecting investors. Those allegedly defrauded include his usually skeptical legal associates, a dear old aunt, a girlfriend, and even members of the Gambino Mob family.

National Post
February 3, 2001

Law hunts for lawyer on the lam
119-count indictment: Fugitive suspected of $20M scam; victims included his aunt and the Mob
Anne Marie Owens

Scott Wolas, an aggressive lawyer with a taste for long business lunches and frequent trips to the tropical island of St. Maarten, could spin out details of a get-rich-quick scheme that made it difficult for even the most discerning investor to resist.

With his family background in the liquor importing business, Mr. Wolas's legal colleagues and his relatives bought into a plan to ship caseloads of Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal to Japan at markup prices he promised would bring a 60% return on their investments.

The liquor shipments never materialized, nor did the profits.

Mr. Wolas, who has been described as a greying John Candy with a penchant for antique toy soldiers, disappeared five years ago with what prosecutors believe is in excess of US$20-million.

This week, in a desperate effort to finally track down the fugitive, who has been living in Florida and allegedly pulling off other multi-million-dollar scams under assumed names, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office unsealed a 119-count indictment against Mr. Wolas.

Over the years, Mr. Wolas is alleged to have assumed three different identities, including that of an old school chum and a Washington librarian, to bilk millions of dollars out of a wide range of unsuspecting investors. Those allegedly defrauded include his usually skeptical legal associates, a dear old aunt, a girlfriend, and even members of the Gambino Mob family.

"Most of the fugitives we're looking for don't have the necessary means to stay underground for very long," said Daniel Castleman, chief of the investigations division with the district attorney's office.

"It's a big country … At this point, we figure we're better off enlisting the public's support."

Investigators have had a few close calls closing in on Mr. Wolas, now 51. The most recent occurred in Orlando, Fla., at the end of December.

He is believed to have been in Florida for most of the time since fleeing authorities and "seems to prefer warmer climes," said Mr. Castleman.

Born to the New York family behind Great Eastern Liquors, a Long Island liquor distribution business, Mr. Wolas went to Georgetown University and then attended Fordham University's law school.

After graduation in 1976, he worked for a succession of New York City law firms until he was hired in 1989 as a partner in the New York office of Hunton & Williams, a prestigious practice that prided itself on its Southern roots as a gentleman's firm.

It was there that Mr. Wolas became known in New York legal circles as a fierce litigator and was hailed as someone who would bring in new banking industry clients.

It was also there that he began to spend more of his time consumed with a firm he incorporated as Crystal Distributors, through which prosecutors say he operated his bold investment scam.

Mr. Wolas allegedly used his family background in the liquor business and his legal position to entice colleagues, friends and family members to invest in a scheme to buy large quantities of whisky for cheap prices, mark it up for the Asian market and ship it to Japan.

"No whisky was ever purchased. He simply pocketed the money," said Mr. Castleman.

While some people who got out of the scheme early actually made some money on their investment, most of the investors lost out.

According to the indictment released this week, some of the 200 investors lost more than US$1-million, with one of the highest losers out US$4.2-million. Mr. Wolas's own aunt Eva, aged 84, lost her life savings of about US$200,000.

The scheme came to light in 1996, when investors complained to authorities after their repeated requests to get their money back were continually put off by Mr. Wolas.

By the time a warrant was issued for his arrest in 1997, Mr. Wolas had disappeared and, unbeknown to investigators, allegedly resurfaced in Florida under the name of Robert Francis McDowell, an old school friend.

Under that name, he emerged as a savvy securities broker with Biltmore Securities in Fort Lauderdale, a firm that had repeatedly run afoul of regulators and was investigated for improper trading and pressure tactics.

Investigators have not uncovered any evidence linking Mr. Wolas to the questionable trading practices that led to the company's demise.

Mr. Wolas's latest incarnation was as Allen Lee Hengst, a Washington librarian whose Pennsylvania driver's licence was somehow obtained.

Under that name, he became a securities broker with Chatfield Dean and Securities America, both in Orlando, where he was known as a savvy investment advisor and a good producer.

Last month, however, Securities America began fielding complaints from some of Mr. Wolas's former clients. They say they were betrayed and bilked out of a total of more than US$2-million under a scheme that promised returns of 40% for investments in so-called London gold certificates required to trade in metal markets.

Among those also trying to reclaim lost money from Mr. Wolas is Phyllis Robertson, a former girlfriend who bought a vacation home with him on Florida's Anna Maria Island and is now trying to recoup a mortgage of US$300,000.

In their three years of dating, she never discovered his real identity or learned of his two divorces.

"I don't want to talk to anyone about that man right now," Ms. Robertson said.


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