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Column: RIP Dana Giacchetto, one-time scammer to the stars

Who was that masked man? Dana Giacchetto, center, reports to federal offices in New York to face fraud charges in April 2000.
(AP)

Word reaches us Monday via the New York Daily News of the death of Dana Giacchetto, 53, a smooth scammer whose stable of credulous marks once included Michael Ovitz, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Giacchetto, whose exploits we helped chronicle for The Times, was sentenced in 2001 to 57 months in state prison in New York for looting $10 million from the accounts of clients who thought he was a “hip, savvy investor,” as my former colleague Jim Bates reported. He was out within about two years, but not everyone thought that would be the end of the story. Giacchetto was the very picture of someone destined to come to a bad end. The News reports that his body was found in his Manhattan apartment Sunday, following a weekend of hard partying climaxing with a bout of “scuffling with security guards” outside a lower Manhattan nightclub.

Leo DiCaprio is like my little brother.

Dana Giacchetto, circa 2014

The Medford, Mass.-born Giacchetto was a Madoff type before Madoff made his name. His meager-sounding take of $10 million signifies how much the price of confidence games has risen since his heyday in the 1990s. But his method was a familiar one in the entertainment and sports worlds. He ingratiated himself with a clientele that was being showered with unimaginable sums of money without any clue to how to husband the bounty.

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As he preached conservative, safe investments in blue-chip stocks and corporate bonds, he also put clients into speculative, money-losing ventures with PR gloss but dubious futures. These included Iridium, which planned to put up to 66 satellites in geosynchronous orbit to provide global phone service. The firm filed for bankruptcy in 1999 after attracting only 10,000 mostly unhappy subscribers.

But the real problem was that Giacchetto was raiding his clients’ accounts to fuel a high-octane lifestyle that included $80,000 in bills for 10 suites at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood booked during a single visit to Los Angeles. Giacchetto also spent $100,000 on airline tickets, $55,000 in restaurant tabs and $8,000 in helicopter flights, prosecutors said. Prosecutors alleged that Giacchetto stole much more by replacing money drained by some client accounts with money invested by other clients, the essence of a Ponzi scheme.

Giacchetto, now unmasked, leaves the courthouse after pleading to the charges.
Giacchetto, now unmasked, leaves the courthouse after pleading to the charges.
(AP )

As is often the case, the essence of Giacchetto’s charm was elusive. He built on a few personal connections in Hollywood and some successful ventures to wedge his way into a pack of young up-and-coming stars, and reinforced his reputations by bringing such respected figures as Ovitz into his orbit.

“Leo DiCaprio is like my little brother,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2014, talking of the pre-”Titanic” actor who for a time, reportedly, bunked at Giacchetto’s SoHo loft. Uncritical PR didn’t hurt: An April article in GQ dubbed him the “rock-and-roll broker.” Another anonymous source called him “Hollywood’s Gen-X money manager.”

By 1999 it was all coming apart. His savvier clients, including Ovitz and other agents, began quietly withdrawing their money from his management. The Times reported the departures that December, and the torrent picked up. Indictment and prison followed.

Then, in 2014, he turned up like a bad penny, this time in a federal indictment for allegedly using someone else’s credit card to “pay for food, liquor, travel, moving and dentistry.” He was sentenced to two years’ probation.

He reportedly tried to live a more normal life, but he continued to do so on his own terms. The Daily News reported that Giachetto’s “estranged girlfriend, with whom he had two children,” notified a friend after she couldn’t reach him Saturday night. His roommate “found him face up in bed and foaming at the mouth late Sunday morning and called 911.”

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Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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