Rancho Santa Fe woman denies Guggenheim impersonation - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Rancho Santa Fe woman denies Guggenheim impersonation

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Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei, left, and her attorney, Gretchen Von Helms, arrive at the federal courthouse in San Diego, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. Toumei, an alleged countess, has been charged in New York for wire fraud. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi) Lady Catarina Pietra Toumei, left, and her attorney, Gretchen Von Helms, arrive at the federal courthouse in San Diego, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. Toumei, an alleged countess, has been charged in New York for wire fraud. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A woman accused in New York of pretending to be part of a failed scheme to profit from the Guggenheim family name called the allegations false and said she is eager to tell a judge her side.

Catarina Pietra Toumei spoke outside a San Diego federal court Thursday, a day after surrendering to federal authorities.

The Rancho Santa Fe resident, who appeared in court to finalize her bond, claimed the plaintiffs in a civil suit against her have managed to get U.S. prosecutors to turn it into a criminal matter.

"I am anxious for the truth to come out," she said. "That's why I self-surrendered."

The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan has accused Toumei of pretending to be a countess and working with two men, David Birnbaum and Vladimir Zuravel, to profit from the name 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 defendants are alleged to have used the prominent name to promote phony investment opportunities including the sale of $1 billion in diamonds and a vodka distribution venture.

Toumei hasn't entered a plea but told reporters she is being falsely accused. She was released on a $200,000 bond secured by property owned by her parents.

Birnbaum and 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.

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

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

Outside court in New York, Zuravel insisted that Birnbaum was a legitimate billionaire heir of the Guggenheim family. He said Birnbaum 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 mix-up."

 

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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