For four years a besotted Anne Hathaway would tell just about anyone who listened that her charismatic boyfriend Raffaello Follieri was ‘a god’.
Not only was he, she gushed, ‘sooooo good looking’, but the dashing Italian property developer treated her much like her fictional character in The Princess Diaries, the film that launched her glittering career as a teenager.
He whisked her around the world on jets and yachts, spending £87,000 for a private plane to a New Year’s Eve party at fashion designer Oscar De La Renta’s house in the Dominican Republic, where Bill and Hillary Clinton were also guests.
There were suites at the Ritz in Paris, the Excelsior in Rome, the Dorchester in London and goodness knows how many other swanky hotels, when they weren’t at his opulent £30,000-a-month Manhattan apartment.
For four years a besotted Anne Hathaway would tell just about anyone who listened that her charismatic boyfriend Raffaello Follieri was ‘a god’
Here, Follieri, who claimed close links to the Vatican, entertained some of the world’s wealthiest people as he sought investors to buy property belonging to the Catholic Church. Hathaway was, more often than not, by his side.
It was, he says, a ‘fiery’ relationship with passionate flare-ups, passionate make-ups, and many gifts including stunning sapphire and diamond earrings, an emerald and pearl Cartier necklace, and a topaz diamond cuff bracelet.
Hathaway, in turn, gave him ‘a cute’ plastic sculptured green frog, the sort that in fairy tales turns into a handsome prince when kissed by a princess.
‘I was 25 years old when we met [in 2004]. We had a lot of happy, happy times. I thought nothing was the limit for me,’ says Follieri, today, in this exclusive interview.
‘I remember one evening when Annie (his name for Hathaway) was filming in another country, I was in the apartment [on the 47th floor of the Olympic Tower with views of Central Park] looking out of this amazing window and feeling I could do anything I wanted.’
Then, on June 24, 2008, Follieri was arrested for fraud.
‘That night Annie phoned me from Los Angeles where she was doing Press [for the movie Get Smart],’ he says. ‘We were on the phone for ten minutes talking about when she might come home.
‘If I remember, Annie’s last words were “I love you for ever” and we ended the call. That was 2am on June 24, 2008. At 6am I was arrested. I never spoke to Annie again.’
Follieri insists he harbours no bitterness towards Hathaway, but the hurt is writ on his face. Since his arrest, he has had zero communication from the woman he loved, not even a note of support as he ‘broke into a thousand pieces’ in jail.
‘Never, never, never,’ he says. ‘I think she made a business decision. She decided saving her career was most important. I am not bitter. You can look in my eyes. I don’t have anger but I’ve been hurt.’
This is the first time Follieri has spoken openly about what was to become known as the Vati-Con scandal. Following his arrest, court papers show prosecutors claimed Follieri lied about his links to the Vatican. They said he claimed that top church officials had authorised him to represent the Catholic Church in the U.S. while buying churches and monasteries.
Money from investors — most prominent of them Ron Burkle, the private equity billionaire best known for his close personal friendship with former president Clinton — was then used, said prosecutors, to fund the lavish lifestyle Follieri led with his celebrity girlfriend.
For as well as the jets and yachts, his company’s expense account paid for expensive meals, flowers, medical expenses for him, his parents and Hathaway, and an elite dog-walking service for Esmerelda, the couple’s brown Labrador.
Follieri would later admit to 14 counts of wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy in a New York court as part of a deal struck with prosecutors. He didn’t really have a choice. If the case had gone to trial, he faced a possible 160-year sentence.
Instead, he was jailed for four-and-a-half years. On his release, he was deported to Italy, and remains banned from entering the U.S.
Follieri, who claimed close links to the Vatican, entertained some of the world’s wealthiest people as he sought investors to buy property belonging to the Catholic Church. Hathaway was, more often than not, by his side
‘One day I was in the Olympic Tower and the next in solitary confinement in a cell in New York,’ says Follieri. ‘You can absolutely say I flew too close to the sun.
‘When you’re young, you try to do things quickly. I was in my 20s. I was superficial. I made mistakes.
‘For instance, the first part of the trip to the Dominican Republic when we went to Oscar de la Renta’s New Year party was business. I was meeting the Cardinal of Santo Domingo. I was wrong because I mixed business with pleasure and invited some friends.
‘It should have been detected when the budgets were signed off, not years later when the money was already spent.
‘But, as you know, I pleaded guilty to my crime and I paid greatly for my mistakes.’
Now 43, Follieri has, as he says, ‘more white hair and a few more kilos’ than the dark-haired ‘god’ who was photographed at endless parties with Hathaway.
He is now happily married to Konstantina, a friend from New York who stood by him throughout his years in prison. They have homes in Milan and Athens, a four-year-old son, Pasquale, and are expecting a daughter any day.
‘If there’s one positive that has come out of this, it’s understanding you need to have the right person next to you — someone you trust. I trusted the wrong people.
‘Konstantina came to see me throughout the four years. My wife is a heart person. She really cares for me, not for what I have or what I can afford. If tomorrow I decided to go and live a simple life, she would be OK with it.
‘But now I keep my business and private assets very separate. If I charter a jet for personal use, I pay for it myself. I live the life my private resources allow me to live. I charter boats. I love sailing — there is something magical about it. You want to condemn me for that?’
Today, Follieri could actually afford to write cheque for a flotilla of luxury yachts if he chose. He has built a new business empire that eclipses his ambitions in those heady Hathaway days.
His company, Follieri Energy, has assets including 162 petrol stations, worth more than £150 million. Its parent company, FHolding UAE, with its other subsidiaries, is worth goodness knows how much.
‘Rebuilding wasn’t easy. I stayed in contact with people I’d known in the States. We had a meeting in London where we discussed business. I was introduced to contacts in Saudi Arabia. They knew what had happened and trusted me.’
Follieri never spoke to Hathaway again after he was arrested for fraud on June 24, 2008. They were on the phone for ten minutes before she said ‘I love you for ever’, as Follieri recalls
Right now, Follieri is looking at investing £200 million of venture capital in the UK to develop a chain of green petrol stations.
‘They will be a percentage of traditional carbon fuel and 50 per cent green energy, like hydrogen and electric charging. Each one will be self-sustaining, with solar panels on the roof,’ he says, his eyes glowing with the passion that gained this once staunch Catholic boy from Foggia, in southern Italy, the love of Hathaway and an entrée to Bill Clinton’s inner circle.
Follieri lost his faith in prison, but many of the powerful men he once socialised with remain friends — such as Tony Podesta, brother of Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff John Podesta, who is chairman of FHolding UAE. He describes Follieri as ‘a true visionary’.
Follieri — an only child whose father was a lawyer with contacts in industry, banking and the Vatican — was 23 and jogging near his apartment in Rome when the idea of buying church real estate took root. The Church was selling property to compensate victims after the paedophile priest scandal.
Follieri had connections in the church: his friend Andrea Sodano was a nephew of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who, under the ailing Pope John Paul II, essentially ran the Vatican as secretary of state.
‘Local developers were buying properties in Manhattan and Los Angeles, but the majority of the [Church’s] property was in the middle of nowhere with little real estate value. The Follieri Group was the first real estate fund to buy church property on a global level.
‘Andrea was my partner and vice president, so I had direct access to the Vatican.’
Within a few months of moving to Manhattan, Follieri began to secure lucrative investment.
He was introduced to Hathaway in 2004. ‘I was having dinner with friends,’ he says. ‘A Swedish friend asked, “Can I invite this girlfriend of mine?” I didn’t know about Annie’s movies, I wasn’t watching the sort she was in — The Princess Diaries. She was just a nice girl who made a very nice impression.
‘We were young. I was 25. She was 21. I invited her to lunch but I was late. I sent her roses to apologise — that evening I believe.’ He laughs a soft laugh. ‘It was a relationship that worked right away.’
As Follieri’s fund grew, and Hathaway’s career went from strength to strength, their love flourished.
So did Follieri’s excessive spending: offices at 350 Park Avenue, the five-bedroom apartment in Olympic Tower, the private jet to the Michael Jordan Golf Tournament in the Bahamas where, again, Bill Clinton was a guest, a superyacht in the Mediterranean, another in the Adriatic . . .
On and on he spent. Indeed, the week before 15 FBI agents arrived at his parents’ Trump Tower apartment, where he happened to be staying that night, Follieri was in Capri, playground of the rich and famous, finalising arrangements for his 30th birthday at the island’s exclusive Da Paolino restaurant.
Today, Follieri could actually afford to write cheque for a flotilla of luxury yachts if he chose. He has built a new business empire that eclipses his ambitions in those heady Hathaway days
‘When they rang the bell, my mother answered. That is the one thing I regret the most — that she was in the house when I was arrested. My mum has been to hell and back for me.’
Follieri was handcuffed and taken to a New York federal courtroom, where the charges against him were read out. Bail was set at an astronomical £17 million. Follieri collapsed.
‘I couldn’t breathe. I felt really unwell. I was taken to hospital and, around midnight, they took me to prison — to solitary confinement [at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, in Lower Manhattan].
‘That’s when it hit me hard. I was trying to get my head around what was happening to me — somebody who never had a parking ticket in his life.’
Raffaello’s inability to comprehend his arrest stems from the fact that the charges of misspending investors’ money had been aired more than a year before, in a civil suit brought against Follieri by his billionaire investor, Ron Burkle.
That suit had been settled, with Follieri repaying £1 million. However, two accusations remained: that Follieri had wired sums of money totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars to a bank account in Monaco, and that he’d lied about his Vatican connections, with some alleging he claimed to be the chief financial officer.
Follieri doesn’t claim to be a saint. He acknowledges he was slapdash, arrogant and fiery. But some scratched their heads as to why the authorities came down so heavily on him. Follieri cannot discuss the charges as part of his plea bargain, but says: ‘I am not a criminal. Real estate is competitive and lucrative. My business was very successful. We had acquired big pieces of property all over the U.S.
‘I accomplished a lot at a young age. Most get to that when they’re 50 or 60. I think lots of people didn’t like that.
‘I was too big. I had too much, too soon and, because Annie and I were dating, I attracted attention. I think the publicity generated the [FBI’s] interest in me.’
The reality was that Hathaway’s ‘god’ had no chance of raising his £17 million bail, so was transported from the New York court in chains.
‘Like some sort of animal I was left in under 10 degrees in the cold with one T-shirt and one pair of plastic pants,’ he says. ‘I stopped eating, probably for eight days. It was a dark time.
‘If she [Hathaway] had wanted to contact me, she knew how to reach me through my family and my friends.’ She didn’t. ‘We’d been fighting a lot, as lots of couples do, but we were still in a relationship. I was broken in a thousand pieces.
‘I was at the bottom but, at one point, I thought: “This is not fair on my parents. I’m going to overcome this.” My mum carried me through. Every month for four years she flew from Italy to New York and took a train to wherever I was to see me.’
Now 43, Follieri has, as he says, ‘more white hair and a few more kilos’ than the dark-haired ‘god’ who was photographed at endless parties with Hathaway
Raffaello was moved to four different prisons during his incarceration. ‘The detention centre in Brooklyn was the toughest,’ he says. ‘There were 120 people in one room with two toilets. Excrement in the showers. It was terrible, terrible, with rats under the beds. The food they gave us was so rotten I fell ill.
‘That’s where my religion left me a bit. Some say it’s what God puts us through to test us but I don’t see it like that. I still believe in God, but I stay out of church.’
When Follieri walked out of prison with nothing but a sweatshirt and the jogging pants he stood in, he was more than two stone lighter than when he went in. He has since needed surgery to remove his gall bladder and suffers with insomnia.
‘I didn’t sleep [in prison] because you’re always alert for something to happen, for somebody to come after you, so you need to be ready. That stays with me. I sleep very little — three or four hours max.
‘You know how people say, “Oh everything passes in life”?’ He shakes his head. ‘Everything that happened will stick with me for ever. It doesn’t matter how much business I do, how many boats I buy or how many planes, those years in prison are always there. You just have to learn to live with it — and learn from it.
‘And you do learn. Being on the plane on the way back to Italy was the best feeling in my life, better than the being in Olympic Tower on the 47th floor, because it was freedom. My parents met me at the airport. We drove for three hours to Rome, where my mother had organised a big lunch. I’d had a long time with no food.
‘A few weeks later Konstantina came to spend some time with me and never left. Then, that’s it, my life started again.’