By Michael E. Miller
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As the afternoon sun wanes, F. Lee Bailey squints his light blue eyes and peers from his back yard onto the dazzling Intracoastal Waterway. Seeing him there in his trademark cowboy boots, you understand why he is often described as a legal lion. A short, potbellied man with a large, gray, Irish head, he is a bit leonine in appearance. With 67 years behind it, his face is jowly yet still square, and his chin, with its perfect cleft, is still powerful. His large nose looks as if it were cut from smooth stone. He's an American icon, and he looks the part.
Like any jungle king, he has an enviable spot in the world, a $1.5 million waterfront home on the exclusive island of Manalapan near West Palm Beach. But his abode is modest compared to the ornate palaces across the water, some of which are 20 times the size of an average middle-class house.
"They call it Billionaires Row," he says in his familiar, deep-and-scratchy voice. But this isn't the same courtroom curmudgeon described by his friend Patrick McKenna as having "balls made of cement." Bailey now seems more like a kid in a toy store. Smitten with the fantastic wealth surrounding him, his voice quickens as he lists his neighbors. "Don King lives in one of them," Bailey says, eyeing one of the modern castles. "Yanni lives over there. The Sara Lee president has got one. Hartley Peavey, who makes speakers, lives out there, too. And you see that building way out there in the distance? That's the Ritz Carlton hotel."
If Bailey's house and its spectacular view aren't convincing-enough evidence of the good life, he has color brochures inside to prove it. One includes a magazine story about his airplane, the Bailey Bullet, and another is replete with pictures of the glorious 74-foot yacht he used to own, the Spellbound. (These days he settles for a 22-foot boat that he says he "uses to go to dinner.") For land travel he has two Mercedes, including a beautifully refurbished 1968 two-door model.
And he has underlings, to whom he sometimes refers as his minions. There's a jack of all trades named Chuck Herzperg, who can often be found on the Bailey premises doing everything from planning flights in the Bullet to fixing the plumbing. There's Bailey's computer guru, Howard Harris, and crack investigator McKenna. And there's Bailey's sister Nancy, who manages his West Palm Beach law office and helps to handle his increasingly hectic business affairs.
The minions, the house, the swimming pool, the plane, Billionaires Row, the cars... It's enough to drive a prosecutor crazy. Federal courts have been trying to snatch Bailey's wealth ever since he snatched millions of dollars from the government five years ago. First it was $20 million in stock the lawyer tried to keep from a case involving a very rich French drug smuggler named Claude Duboc. While Bailey made international headlines defending O.J. Simpson, he was living large on Duboc's money and buying the Manalapan house.
In 1998 Bailey took another $2 million that he should have handed over to Uncle Sam. This time it was a chunk of the fortune of William and Chantal McCorkle, who had hired Bailey to defend them on fraud charges stemming from an infomercial scheme.
In both cases Bailey obstinately insisted on keeping the money, reasoning that he earned it for his legal work. And the fights over those pots of gold have caused Bailey much suffering. He was imprisoned for six weeks and went into debt in 1996 after failing to repay the millions he took from the Duboc fortune. (Ultimately that case cost him his beloved Spellbound.) Two months ago a Florida Bar hearing officer recommended the state supreme court disbar him. Last month he was held in contempt of court in Orlando for taking the McCorkle millions. And the U.S. Attorney's Office is now considering civil action against Bailey for everything he has.
Taking possession of Bailey's assets, however, won't be easy. In fact federal prosecutors have already said in court that it appears impossible to wring anything of value from America's most famous lawyer. The house, the plane, the high life -- it's all an illusion, encumbered with more debt than it's worth. And there's more Bailey magic: The government doesn't even know about the boat and 1968 Mercedes, which Bailey told New Timeshe owned. In fact Bailey testified under oath in Orlando last month that he had only a 1983 Mercedes and no boat.
The former Marine pilot is not only fighting to keep his own wealth, he's also suing to regain the Duboc fortune. His case will likely go to court this winter, and if Bailey succeeds, he will land a $20 million payday. "In litigation someone always loses, but they don't always stay the loser," he says. "Those who give up, however, always lose. I'll fight as long as I have anything to fight with."
Though Bailey has some potentially damaging ammunition to use against the government, his odds of winning seem as long as his former yacht. Judges have already repeatedly ruled against him, making this latest lawsuit appear to be nothing more than a desperate grab for drug money, a stab at keeping his spot in the shadow of Billionaires Row. Has greed finally driven him to distraction? With Bailey, who seems to be equal parts bluster and brilliance, it's hard to tell. Much of America felt he was bound to lose when he took on the O.J. Simpson case, too.