Recounting one of "the great events of my life," Richard T. Silberman described the night that he and California Gov. Jerry Brown dined at Buckingham Palace: "We're just about to get out of this place and Prince Charles put his hand on my shoulder and says, 'Wouldn't it be bloody nice if he was President and I was king?' "
Silberman, speaking at a 1987 college program about successful entrepreneurs, went on, "I think of all the things I've ever heard, this sort of just shook you up. There's no question in my mind who was going to be king."
Until two weeks ago, there was no question in anybody's mind that Silberman was a man who hobnobbed at the level of presidents and kings. But then the man who had dined at Buckingham Palace was arrested by the FBI on charges that he had hatched a plan to launder drug money in meetings with a reputed mobster at a downtown Denny's.
The circumstances that have kept his name in headlines shocked everyone who knew him or had heard of him.
The son of an immigrant rag dealer, Silberman had parlayed the millions of dollars he made in the hamburger business and his success at political fund raising into a calling card that provided entree to elite social and political circles in San Diego, California and, at times, the world.
Driven more by the thrill of high-powered deal-making than by ideology, Silberman rode his financial acumen and boundless energy to the rarefied air of multimillion-dollar business pacts and presidential politics. Though he displayed a chameleon-like tendency in his politics and occasionally trimmed ethical edges in business dealings, most simply saw those traits as evidence that Silberman, as one friend put it, "knows how to play big-league hardball."
As a fast-food magnate, bank owner and state budget director under Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Silberman, who turned 60 Saturday, gained a reputation as someone who could "make it happen."
"To me, he seemed like a smaller-scale Donald Trump," one politically active lawyer said. "He was one of these guys who could get it done, whatever it was."
Boasted of Deals Completed
But, on the afternoon of April 7 in a San Diego hotel room, the FBI arrested Silberman, allegedly as he was negotiating to launder $1.1 million in what he was told was Colombian cocaine money. By that point, Silberman already had helped launder $300,000 in two earlier schemes, prosecutors allege in an indictment released Friday.
According to an FBI transcript of taped conversations, Silberman counted reputed underworld figure Chris Petti among his longtime associates, boasted of ways to hide income overseas and talked comfortably about deals worth tens of thousands of dollars being transacted with shoe boxes and the need to bring in mob "muscle" when one transaction went sour.
"Just for your background, this is not my first go-around, OK?" Silberman allegedly told an undercover FBI agent last November. "I've been here before."
Silberman and his wife, San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairman Susan Golding, have declared his innocence. But the accusations, backed up by a richly detailed federal affidavit quoting wiretap conversations of Silberman, prompted bewilderment from friends and enemies alike as they struggled to understand what could have happened to one of San Diego's most prominent and powerful businessmen.
Since his arrest, San Diegans have wondered aloud whether Silberman could possibly have been involved in such activities for years, as suggested by his wiretapped boasts.
Is it possible that Silberman, a man often reported to be worth $25 million and thought to have the Midas touch, was forced into a foolish caper under pressure from recent financial reverses? Or, as some of Silberman's defenders ask, could it be that he was the victim of government overzealousness?
Regardless, the accusations were especially surprising to those who knew Silberman's early political work.
As a young businessman, Silberman had backed a series of reform candidates who toppled C. Arnholt Smith, a San Diego financier later convicted of grand theft and income-tax evasion, from power in the 1970s.
"To me, he always had that air of integrity and honesty about him," said A. David Stutz, a deputy district attorney who has known Silberman for nearly two decades. "I could never conceive of him being other than honest and having integrity. That goes back 18 years. That's always been my impression . . . until I picked up the newspaper."
Today, however, Silberman is in jeopardy of joining Smith, J. David Dominelli and Roger Hedgecock on the roster of prominent San Diegans whose high esteem was transformed into ignominy through public or private transgressions.