3 Charged In NYC In Guggenheim Impersonation Scam

NEW YORK (AP) - A woman pretending to be a countess and two con men sought to cheat investors by hyping fictional deals - involving diamonds, crude oil and vodka - they claimed were backed by the Guggenheim family, prosecutors said Monday.

Federal agents arrested the men charged in the failed scheme in New York early Monday but were still searching for Catarina Pietra Toumei, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

As part of her pitch, authorities say, Toumei, falsely told one potential investor that she was married to actor John Ratzenberger, who played know-it-all postman Cliff Clavin in the classic sitcom "Cheers" and has a role in "Toy Story 3."

Ratzenberger indeed had "a short-lived relationship with Ms. Toumei," his publicist said in a statement, but he was "unaware of this alleged criminal activity and is saddened that her life has taken this turn."

David Birnbaum and Vladimir Zuravel, accused of trying to pass themselves off as Guggenheim descendants, were released on bond following a brief appearance Monday in federal court in Manhattan.

Outside court, Zuravel, 45, insisted that Birnbaum was a legitimate billionaire heir of the Guggenheim family, which is famous for making a fortune in mining and smelting and for its philanthropic contributions to aviation and art, including several museums around the world. The former cab driver from Russia told reporters that Birnbaum, 67, considered him a son, taught him about finance and allowed him to use the Guggenheim name for business.

Birnbaum "is an extremely honest person," he said. "It's just a simple mixup."

The criminal complaint accuses the three of claiming they were selling $1 billion in diamonds of up to 20 carats from "the private collection of the Guggenheim family." They also pitched one deal to distribute vodka and another purportedly brokering $4 billion in Iraqi crude oil for a Guggenheim-owned refinery in China, the complaint says.

The alleged grifters "used the Guggenheim surname and falsely claimed membership in the famous philanthropic family to gain access to highly regarded and/or wealthy individuals," the complaint says. "In reality, however, the defendants are not known descendants of, or have any relationship to, the famous Guggenheim family."

In telephone conferences with potential investors, the men identified themselves as "David B. Guggenheim" and "Vladimir Z. Guggenheim," the court papers say. Toumei, 45, called herself "Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei" and used stationery bearing "Guggenheim Fund," they add.

Federal authorities brought the criminal case after Guggenheim Capital, an investment firm with rooted with the family, sued the three defendants, accusing them of using the name without permission.

If convicted of conspiracy, the three each could face up to 20 years in prison.

On her LinkedIn page, Toumei describes herself as being "involved in philanthropic and humanitarian efforts" and says that she was "bestowed" the title of "Lady" by European royalty for her charity work. She lists previous jobs as broadcast reporter, publicist and best-selling writer.

One Internet posting features a photograph of Toumei chatting with Prince Albert of Monaco at a charity event.

Asked about Toumei, Zuravel described her as a "secretary" who "did a lot of stupid mistakes. ... She's like a hyper girl."

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Associated Press writer Cristian Salazar and researcher Barbara Sambriski contributed to this report.