Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Secret Life of Huguette Marcelle Clark

This story caught my attention enough that I wanted to share it with other bloggers. I have modified and combined several stories taken from the Associated Press.

Huguette Marcelle Clark lived a quiet secluded life, which for more than two decades consisted of residing under fake names in a hospital room, although in relatively good physical health. Shy and sad, she was almost entirely alone, aside from her private nurse, other helpers and occasional visits by her accountant. She had a slew of attorneys, one of whom represented her for 20 years without meeting her face to face, but instead talking to her on the phone and through a closed door. In the last year of her life, her three empty mansions drew the attention of a reporter for msnbc.com. In late 2009, she became a subject of public fascination, a trending topic of searches on Google and Yahoo and pictured on the cover of the New York tabloids, with fan pages on Facebook and a biography on Wikipedia. Her story was read by millions of people. Nevertheless, the last known photograph of her was made in 1930.

Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for msnbc.com, introduced the public to heiress Huguette Clark through his series of narratives on msnbc.com and NBC's TODAY Show. He lives in suburban Connecticut, where he discovered the first of Clark's three vacant palaces. His narratives on the Clark family have been the most popular story in the history of msnbc.com, topping 100 million page views. He received more than 1,000 letters and emails from readers of the Clark series, many of them confessing to an obsession with the mystery heiress. As a young woman in New York, actress Kimberly Belflower, explained to her Twitter followers: "Don't mind me, I'll just be reading about Huguette Clark for the rest of my life." Huguette spent more than $3 million dollars on dolls. Nearly $2 million was donated to her attorney's favorite charity. No matter, as she had over $43 million to spend and now her heirs, none of whom have seen her for many, many decades are coming forward to stake a claim to their interests. When another $380,000 in checks was written to her staff on a single day, the press started to ask questions.

These details were revealed in court documents filed in the early stages of a legal battle over the $400 million copper-mining fortune of this late reclusive heiress. They raise serious questions about the actions of her attorney and accountant, who are under criminal investigation after her death in May, 2011 at 104 years of age.

Attorneys are readying for a massive battle in the probate court known as Surrogate's Court in Manhattan. The building is less than a mile from Exchange Place near Wall Street, where Clark's father, former U.S. Sen. William Andrews Clark, managed the fortune he made from the mines of Montana and Arizona, and from banks, railroads and other ventures. Clark's relatives, kin from her father's first marriage, are challenging her last will and testament, which cut out her family entirely, leaving about $34 million to her nurse and more than $17 million to her attorney and accountant through fees and direct bequests. In this early phase of the massive estate case, her attorney and accountant have had to account to the court for all financial transactions they made using her legal power of attorney. They held that power, in various forms, for the last 15 years of her life, beginning in July 1996 when she was 90 years old, including the sale of various properties owned by Clark. The pair asked the court to keep their financial accounting secret, arguing that they wanted to protect Clark's privacy. But the court rejected their request, making the following details available for anyone to read at the Surrogate's Clerks office.

In all, the records show $126.3 million in spending by her attorney and accountant from her accounts during those 15 years, and another $43.3 million that was transferred into her personal account, apparently to cover her own spending. Between January 1997 and February 2009, a period of 12 years when she was between 90 and 102 years old, her magic checkbook was refilled in the amount of $43,325,000. Au Nain Bleu, a renowned doll and toy shop in Paris, was paid $2.5 million in 110 separate payments from 1997 to 2006. One of Clark's friends has said that her dolls were "her closest companions." The largest payment was for $82,513 in February 2004.Theriault's doll auctions received $729,000 in 21 payments from 1997 to 2009. The largest was $232,680 in July 2007. The total of $170 million works out to $1 million per month for a woman who never left her hospital room during that time.

Attorney Wallace "Wally" Bock says he has always done exactly what his client, heiress Huguette Clark, has asked. However, he acknowledged soliciting from her a gift of $1.5 million for the community where his daughter and grandchildren live. Court records show the amount to be actually $1.85 million. Clark, who was raised a Roman Catholic, made several large contributions to Jewish settlements on the West Bank, where her attorney's daughter lives. Msnbc.com disclosed in 2010 that the attorney, Wallace "Wally" Bock, 79, asked Clark to contribute $1.5 million to a security system for his daughter's settlement. Bock acknowledged that payment in a legal filing last year, but the new accounting shows that the total was actually $1.85 million. Bock or Clark's accountant, convicted felon and registered sex offender Irving Kamsler, 64, wrote four checks on her account totaling $1.65 million from 2000 through 2002 to the Central Fund of Israel. Then in September 2003, Bock wrote a check on her account for $200,000 to American Friends of New Communities in Israel.

The accounting shows that Kamsler received a stipend for his accounting services, peaking at $7,500 a month, or a rate of $90,000 per year. Bock's law firm was paid $18,000 to $25,000 per month, or about $250,000 per year. If the will is upheld, they stand to gain much more. Bock and Kamsler would receive $500,000 each as beneficiaries, and about $8 million each if the court allows them to serve as executors of her estate, with additional fees or salary as directors of a charitable foundation to be established to show her art in her California mansion. Both men have declined to comment on their actions, but their spokesmen have said the men both acted honorably in carrying out Clark's wishes. The most remarkable day covered by the financial disclosure may have been Nov. 16, 2009. This was one month after this reporter met with Bock at his office and made clear that msnbc.com was going to publish a story raising questions about Clark's whereabouts and financial affairs. On that Monday in November, Bock or Kamsler wrote $380,000 in checks on Clark's personal account, which apparently hadn't been used in nine months. Checks went to Dr. Henry Singman, her internist, for $50,000; nurse Hadassah Peri for $60,000; her husband Daniel Peri for $60,000; accountant Kamsler for $60,000; personal assistant Christopher Sattler for $60,000; nurse Geraldine Coffey for $30,000; goddaughter Wanda Styka for $50,000, and nurse Erlinda Ysit for $10,000. That was followed three weeks later by a check to attorney Bock for $60,000. In all, $440,000
Through the years her main private nurse, Hadassah Peri, received $2,520 a week, or $131,040 a year. She also was paid a lump sum of $5 million in 2009. Clark gave Peri the money to buy four homes for herself and her children. If the will is upheld, Peri would receive about $34 million, in addition to Clark's doll collection valued at millions more. Beth Israel Medical Center, the New York hospital where she lived for years, received $4.9 million from December 1997 through February 2011, not counting payments to various doctors and departments. That works out to about $1,000 per day. The hospital has declined to explain why it allowed Clark, who was said to be quite healthy, to live in hospital rooms for the last 22 years of her life. Her primary physician, internist Dr. Henry S. Singman, received regular monthly payments peaking at $5,000 a month, or $521,000 during this period. He is named in her will for another $100,000. Her closest friend, Suzanne Pierre, received regular payments of $50,000 for service as a social secretary, totaling $1.7 million. Pierre also received a $10 million gift back in 2000. Pierre, who was the widow of Clark's physician, died just weeks before Clark.

Only a few public charities appear in the accounting. The largest is $810,000 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where the bulk of her father's art collection resides. In the will, the Corcoran stands to receive one of Monet's Water Lilies series, a small canvas valued at roughly $25 million. The painting has not been seen publicly since 1925.

Bock or Kamsler wrote checks for other small charitable gifts: $1,000 to the Music Academy of the West, $100 to the New Canaan Firefighters Benevolent Fund, $25,000 to the Santa Barbara Community Arts Music Association. Two gifts were made in the spring of 2010, just after her case came to light: $10,000 to the Paul Clark Home founded by her father in Butte, Mont., and $1,000 to the Spence School, her alma mater in Manhattan. Other charitable gifts may have been made from her personal checkbook.

Clark, who had no children of her own, apparently paid tuition and fees for several students. Bock or Kamsler wrote checks to Boston College ($53,000), Boston University ($20,000), New York City College of Technology ($6,600), and four Catholic Schools: Long Beach Catholic School ($25,000), Sacred Heart Academy ($47,700), St. Bernard's School ($15,000), and Saint Ignatius Loyola School ($500).

She made payments to the IRS for $45 million, and New York state income tax of $15 million. And state gift tax payments of $975,000.

Her unoccupied 5th Avenue apartments, said to be the largest property under a single ownership anywhere on the prestigious avenue, cost $3.75 million during these 15 years just for the taxes and co-op fees, peaking at $28,844 per month. She has 15,000 square feet on two floors of 907 Fifth Ave. at 71st Street. Another $900,000 went to Anton Sattler Management Co., which handled affairs at her apartment. And $1.5 million was paid through the years to Christopher Sattler, who worked as a personal assistant and property manager. He also would receive $500,000 if the will is upheld.

Her vacant country home in New Canaan, Conn., on the market for several years at $24 million, cost over $100,000 a year just to pay the property taxes. Her unoccupied Santa Barbara oceanfront estate, with an estimated value of $100 million, cost her $8.8 million in various operating costs from 1997 to 2011.

All of Clark's properties are locked down now, protected by the court until the case is resolved.

The expenditures will be investigated by attorneys for the New York County Public Administrator, whose office was appointed by the Surrogate's Court to serve as a third temporary executor, along with Bock and Kamsler. One of the roles of the Public Administrator in this case is to make sure the estate was protected, both before and after Clark's death.

To keep up with the spending, her attorney and accountant were raising money during this period as well: $87 million transferred in from a custody account at J.P. Morgan, $15 million from a Bank of America account, a $5 million loan from J.P. Morgan in 2009, the $6 million sale of one of her Stradivarius violins, and $52 million in sales at Sotheby's. (Her last major purchase at Sotheby's was in 2000 for $124,000.)

Huguette Clark did save considerable money through the years in one respect: electricity. As she lived in a hospital room on the Lower East Side, the Con Edison bill at her 15,000-square-foot apartments on Fifth Avenue rarely rose above $100 a month.

A previous will, signed just six weeks earlier, left $5 million to the nurse, and all the rest to Clark's family. The family was cut out of the second will entirely.

Clark reached age 98 without directing who should inherit her fortune, one of America's greatest from the Gilded Age, estimated to be at least $400 million. Her nurse, an immigrant from the Philippines, assigned to Clark by a home care agency almost 20 years ago now owns a $200,000 Bentley Arnage luxury sedan and five houses. Money to purchase four of those houses was given to her through the years by Clark. Nineteen of Clark's relatives filed an objection to the second will this week in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan, who claim that Clark "was not competent to make a Will . . . in that she did not know the nature, extent or value of her assets, was not of sound mind or memory and was not mentally capable of making a Will." The relatives’ attorney claims in the pleadings that the will "was not freely and voluntarily made," that it was "procured by the undue influence of [attorney] Wallace Bock, [accountant] Irving Kamsler, Hadassah Peri, and/or by other persons acting in concert," and that the same people obtained the will by fraud.

A key issue in the case will be the close timing of the two wills, just six weeks apart. If Clark was not competent to sign a will in March 2005, then how was she competent to sign a will in April 2005? Of course, from the family's perspective, it doesn't matter if the judge throws out both wills. In that case, if she dies without a valid will, the family inherits everything under state law.

Another key issue will be the extent of contact between the relatives and the reclusive Clark. Her attorney and accountant portray the relatives as distant, having no contact with Clark. The relatives have said they and their older relatives had contact with Clark through the years, exchanging letters and telephone calls while respecting her desire for privacy, and that those contacts were cut off abruptly by her attorney about the same time as the wills were signed.

The second will tells a different story, attempting to foreclose any claim by family. "I intentionally make no provision in this my Last Will Testament (sic) for any members of my family, whether on my paternal or maternal side, having had minimal contacts with them over the years. The persons and institution named herein as beneficiaries of my Estate are the true objects of my bounty."

The 19 relatives are descended from the first marriage of Clark's father, the former U.S. Sen. William Andrews Clark (1839-1925).

Huguette Clark, born in 1906, was married only briefly and had no children. Her only full sister died at age 16 and had no children. Her mother had no other children. Under state law that leaves 21 "intestate distributees" — the relatives who would inherit her estate if she left no will or if the court chooses to uphold the earlier will instead of the later one. Of those 21, 19 are challenging the will in court.

A public official investigating Clark's finances, the Public Administrator of the city of New York, has accused the attorney and executive of fraud in handling Clark's taxes. The attorney and accountant, also the subject of a criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, have said they handled Clark's finances appropriately and according to her wishes. No criminal charges have been filed. A judge has suspended them from being executors, a role which would have earned them about $8 million each.

Speaking for nurse Peri, attorney Harvey E. Corn argued in court documents on Dec. 7 that Clark gave the money, and her doll collection, to her out of "gratitude for Ms. Peri's devoted service." Corn says that "Ms. Peri saw or communicated with the Decedent almost every day" during her nearly 20 years of service. And he says that hospital records from the six months around the signing of the wills show that Clark was in good health, "conversant, cheerful, well read and engaged in taking care of her personal affairs."

Hadassah Peri has not spoken publicly about Clark, but a press agent issued a statement on her behalf in June after she was named in the will: "I saw Madame Clark virtually every day for the 20 years. I was her private duty nurse but also her close friend. I knew her as a kind and generous person, with whom I shared many wonderful moments and whom I loved very much. I am profoundly sad at her passing, awed at the generosity she has shown me and my family, and eternally grateful. Just as Madame Clark demonstrated kindness toward others in her actions, so, too, will I and my family devote a substantial portion of this bequest toward making the world a better place for all people."

The public administrator's office has said in court papers that it might seek to "claw back" into the estate some of the gifts given from Clark's accounts while she lived. The administrator said the powers of attorney that Clark signed over to her attorney and accountant did not include the authority to give gifts, including a $5 million check written to Peri in 2009, after Clark herself stopped writing checks on her account.

Te New York attorney general has also entered the case, representing the interests of charities that could be helped or hurt by the decision —those include the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, which is named in the second will to receive one of Monet's "Water Lilies" series of paintings, and the yet-unborn Bellosguardo Foundation, the art museum to be set up at her California home under the second will.”

Cooper-Gordon LLP will be closely following this very fascinating story and will be providing updates as they arise.