David Paul, who made Miami’s CenTrust an opulent example of ’80s banking indulgence, dies at 82

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

David Lewis Paul — the famously opulent, brilliantly detail-oriented founder of CenTrust Bank in Miami whose vertigo-inducing fall stood out as one of the most infamous cases of the late 1980s savings and loan crisis — has died, his family said. He was 82.

Paul passed away Tuesday morning at a Manhattan hospital from COVID-related complications, his daughter Deanna Paul said.

Federal prosecutors in 1992 charged Paul, the chairman of Miami’s CenTrust Savings Bank, with 69 counts of evading taxes and using CenTrust’s money for personal gain, namely the $3.2 million in funds spent on his La Gorce Island home, according to Miami Herald reports.

Paul also pleaded guilty to 29 securities law violations like racketeering and lying to regulators. The charges revolved primarily around CenTrust’s financial dealings with other scandal-plagued institutions, “including junk-bond powerhouse Drexel Burnham Lambert and the rogue financial institution Bank of Credit and Commerce International, founded by a Pakistani financier,” according to the Herald.

In 1993, he was convicted on 68 counts of banking fraud and the 29 securities law violations and sentenced to 11 years at the Federal Correctional Institution in southwest Miami-Dade.

“His eventual sentence was, at the time, among the longest given to a white-collar criminal in U.S. history,” the Herald reported.

“I would say 75 to 80% of the people I used to associate with I never hear from,” Paul told the Herald in an interview from inside the federal prison in 2002.

“I think I’m a better person for having gone through this,” Paul said in the interview. “But there are other ways to get there.”

Miami Beach roots

Born in Miami Beach on May 1, 1939, Paul moved with his family to New York City when he was a child. His father, Isadore, had founded a chain of dry cleaning stores and died when his son was 10.

Paul later attended Cheshire Academy in Connecticut, received his bachelor’s degree from Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania, and earned both his master’s of business administration juris doctorate degrees from Columbia University.

By 1983, Paul returned to Miami Beach and took over a failing thrift named Dade Savings across the causeway and rebranded it CenTrust. Housed in its famed I.M. Pei-designed CenTrust Tower building (now Miami Tower) the bank would see its facade become a national image through airings of NBC’s groundbreaking Friday night cops show, “Miami Vice.” The series ran for five seasons from 1984 to 1989.

Eye for detail

Pei designed the building, but it was Paul who turned the CenTrust Tower into one of Miami’s most extravagant showcases for those who passed through its front doors.

“You meet a lot of people who know a little about a lot of things. David Paul knew a lot about a lot of things,” added his friend and former colleague at CenTrust, Lee Brian Schrager, who went on to found the popular Food Network’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival in 2002.

How SOBEWFF® founder Lee Schrager brought the community together to help save SoFla restaurants

Schrager become executive vice president of administrative services at CenTrust in 1987 and worked alongside Paul until the bank’s public fall in the early 1990s. Among Schrager’s roles, he did all the buying and shopping for the executive dining room.

And his friend was a brilliant teacher. “Rough and gruff,” at times, to be sure, Schrager said. But he had an eye for detail.

“I probably learned more about luxury, and not only luxury but a luxury lifestyle, from David than I did from anybody,” Schrager said. “He just knew about every fine detail of linen, china, crystal, glassware. I’ll never forget traveling with him to France to buy linen and learning how to hang linen properly. I never even knew about that.”

Schrager remembers walking around the lobby of the CentTrust Tower before it opened to the public as Paul inspected the work. Paul would walk the marble floors and mark off spots with yellow sticky dots. He would use the markings to note blemishes. He insisted that pieces of marble that didn’t meet his approval be removed.

CenTrust’s offices reportedly featured gold-plated plumbing and gold-leaf ceilings and a million-dollar Italian marble staircase. According to Herald reports, Paul assembled a $30 million collection of Old Master paintings for CenTrust’s executive suite. The centerpiece was a $13.2 million Rubens that ended up hanging in Paul’s manor.

“He really had the most extraordinary sense of detail. And he really just knew about fine, fine, entertaining and how to do it right,” Schrager said.

Schrager recalls his phone ringing at 6 a.m. Miami time. On the other end, Paul from the French ambassador’s home in Paris. He loved the chefs, he told Schrager, and had a grand idea to fly six of the oh-so-fastidious French chefs to Miami to serve at a grand private charity dinner Paul had planned.

Paul’s charitable interests

Schrager also credits Paul with helping to bring the New World Symphony to Miami. When Michael Tilson Thomas was first hired to lead the new symphony, he lived for a time in a guest house at the home of Paul and his then-wife Sandra.

Over the CenTrust years, Paul also reportedly donated $500,000 to the University of Miami and $100,000 to Barry University in addition to being on the governing board of Jackson Memorial Hospital.

A daughter’s acceptance and love

Paul’s children declined, at this time, to discuss their father’s passing.

His daughter Deanna, a former New York City prosecutor, became a reporter for The Washington Post. She wrote a moving feature on her relationship with her father for the Post in 2020 after they had reconciled following his release from prison in 2004.

“I grappled with the stigma of having an inmate father, and my attitude toward him shifted,” she wrote in her essay titled, “When my father went to prison, I wrote him off. We found a way back together.”

Deanna Paul closed her Post feature as follows:

In 2014, after I began studying my dad’s legal history and learned to see his incarceration more sympathetically, I wrote him an email — to remind him that I, too, was always thinking of him and to tell him how much I had come to regret the distance I had kept. “I’m so proud to call you my father. I admire you,” I told him. “For your love, support, resilience, and guidance, I am forever grateful. And know I always love you, with all my heart.”

A familiar ping soon bounced from my phone. My father had emailed a response: “WOW. . . nothing to say except I am proud of you and love love love you . . . love Dad.”

Survivors, services

In addition to his daughter Deanna, Paul is survived by his sons Michael and David, his brother Robert, four grandchildren, and his longtime companion, Fritzie. He will be buried in New York.