Bert Fields On the McCourt Divorce

Frank and Jamie McCourt, the estranged billionaire couple that owns the Dodgers, are going through one of the messiest divorces in history. In late February, details of their case hit the news, specifying extravagant personal expenses like Ms. McCourt's $248,000 monthly NetJets bill -- paid by the Dodgers -- and allegations that Mr. McCourt potentially hid assets and failed to pay adequate income tax.

In an exclusive interview with me, Bertram Fields, the high power entertainment lawyer -- working on Ms. McCourt's team as what he calls a "strategic adviser" -- shares his views about the case.

HP: How is the McCourt divorce case distinct from other high profile divorce cases?
BF: It's about baseball, and that's always a fascinating subject to many people, and usually ownership of a sports team is not involved in a divorce case. Also, the husband estimated his net worth in a filing that's a matter of public record at $2 billion and he's relying upon an agreement that would give his wife 5 percent of marital assets and would give him 95 percent. It was an agreement they signed after 30 years of marriage. I was not her lawyer when she signed it. There was one lawyer for both of them. The husband has admitted in front of an unimpeachable witness that he never intended that he would get ownership of all those assets. Our side thinks we can knock that agreement over. Usually the husband goes in saying, 'okay, 50/50,' not '95/5.'

HP: Who was the unimpeachable witness?
BF: I'm not allowed to disclose that, but it's a very, very reputable estate planning lawyer with a major firm on the West Side of LA Before the divorce, she said to the wife, "you know you signed something that gives him virtually all the property involved with the Dodgers," and the wife said no. Frank said that was not intended.

HP: How do you respond to Michael Hiltzik's recent article in the LA Times about the couple pocketing income totaling $108 million from 2004-2009 without paying any federal or state taxes, according to documents Jamie McCourt filed?
BF: First of all, Frank was the guy who handled the taxes totally. She had nothing to do with it. He's the finance guy, the real estate guy, the tax guy. A lot of that income was borrowed and you don't pay taxes on money you borrow and it could be depreciation or some other deduction. I'm sure what he did was lawful, she really didn't make those decisions and it's unfair of the media to tie her to his tax decisions.

HP: What about her accusations that he's hiding assets? According to a Feb. 19 Wall Street Journal article by John R. Emshwiller, in her court filing, "Ms. McCourt said that her husband's personal financial statement as of Sept. 30 2008 showed his net worth at $834.9 million. However, a follow-up personal financial statement showed that as of last June 30, his net worth had dropped to $163.4 million." Her court filling alleges that the second financial statement was prepared after they separated and its results were "fabricated," and that his "net equity value" was more than $2 billion.
BF: Hiding assets is a pejorative word. He listed his assets speaking to potential investors at $2 billion but then his financial statement was around $800-900 million. The reason for the difference was a major asset was left off. Then he said it's only $160 million. It really takes extraordinary bad planning to lose more than 80 percent of your net worth in a few months. If you buy that story, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.

HP: How does Ms. McCourt feel about the media attention her divorce is generating?
BF: She's not happy about a lot of it. He filed papers trashing her and then wanted her papers to be under seal. She has resisted trashing him. She will not say a single word about his conduct or why she wants divorce. He immediately rushed to court to try to trash her.

HP: How does the divorce of Padres owners Becky and John Moores compare to the McCourts?
BF: There was not enough money for one to buy the other one out so they had to sell the Padres. Jamie has the ability to raise the money to buy out Frank, but he's refusing to sell his 50 percent. He claims he's the owner of 100 percent of the team.

HP: Why does Ms. McCourt want to own the Dodgers?
BF: Ever since she was 8 years old, she's wanted nothing more than to be the owner of a baseball team. They were married 30 years; they have 4 kids. She gave him his first $1,000 and her folks gave him $2 million to help with his business. Now he says she only owns 5 percent of their assets.

HP: How would she be involved with the Dodgers?
BF: She sees herself as very active in an ownership capacity with the team. She's not deciding on batting order or any day to day baseball decisions, but the managers make recommendations to her to approve and she's the face of the Dodgers.

HP: She's claiming $248,000 per month for flying on private planes, as a business expense for owning the Dodgers. (Her total monthly expenses are $444.349; the Dodgers pay for $287.074). How is that justifiable? Will she continue to maintain this extravagant lifestyle?
BF: Almost half of the business expenses she claims are the cost of maintaining their 8 houses. The rest are her personal expenses. They both live an extraordinarily high standard. But why should he spend whatever he wants while she gets restricted? We believe that he spends more than she does. She has to list what she wants. Why doesn't the husband have to do that?

HP: Do you think this case is sexist?
BF: A lot of people don't want to see a woman own a baseball team. The only other time that happened was when Marge Schott owned the Cincinnati Reds from 1984-2004.

HP: How is the divorce affecting the team?
BF: Frank doesn't want to spend a lot of money on it. He wants to bring payroll down the next few years and income up. He's raising ticket prices. That guy is thinking money, but he's not spending that kind of money to bring in an ace pitcher. She wants to bring in partners and raise money and really make them a World Series contender rather than an also-ran.

HP: Would she be willing to share ownership of the team with him?
BF: She would be willing to be co-owner. He wants to take 100 percent of the team. But now she's barred from the stadium. He had her locked out of her office. He fired her like she was the parking attendant.

HP: How did you get involved in this case?
BF: Twenty-five years ago, I gave up being a divorce lawyer. I am giving general advice to Jamie. I met her because she's my neighbor in Malibu; she lives a few houses north of me. When she got into this, she asked me to help her on a strategic level.

HP: Do you think they will settle or go to court?
BF: Jamie doesn't want to settle unless she gets 50 percent of the Dodgers. I would guess that they won't settle, which is a shame. We have intelligent people on both sides saying they should settle. Our view is that as a matter of fairness, he shouldn't be asking for 100 percent of the Dodgers and all but some houses.