Longform

Bullet Bob

Smooth-talking philanthropist Bob Montgomery has a dark side you don't want to see

It was ten 'til five on a Wednesday evening when Lisa Sanchez's supervisor at the State Farm office in West Palm Beach asked for a volunteer to drop off some documents. The stop was on her way home, so Sanchez, a personal injury adjuster, raised her hand. She had no idea that waiting for her at the law office on Clearwater Place was the verbal version of a behind-the-barn belt-whipping.

She got to the address just after 5 o'clock on November 19, 2001, and not long after, a lawyer strode into the lobby. She recognized him instantly. He was Robert Montgomery, the man whose silvery Southern drawl narrates public service announcements on just about every TV and radio station in town. In the most recent of those ads, Montgomery urges folks to check in on their loved ones at nursing homes. He has a compassionate voice and an appearance that matches it, with his trademark suspenders and earth-tone suits. Two months shy of 75, his thin hair is slicked to the side, and he wears a pair of wire-rimmed glasses that look as if they may have graduated law school with him. He looks sort of handsome, a whole lot distinguished, and -- for anybody who's never had professional dealings with him -- a good helping of grandfatherly.

Sanchez held an envelope in front of her. In it was a check to settle a case that had dragged on for a few months. It began when 91-year-old Souren Karagosian backed into Carol Green two months earlier in a Publix parking lot. Karagosian pinned Green to her car and shattered her pelvis. Montgomery's firm demanded a settlement of $100,000, the full amount allowed under Karagosian's policy with State Farm. After more than a month of insurance adjusters' delaying the settlement, Montgomery's firm gave State Farm an ultimatum: Pay by 5 o'clock November 19, 2001, or face a lawsuit. Sanchez claims she didn't even know the check was late, and she expected nothing more than to hand it over and go home. Green would be compensated for her painful injury, and Montgomery would be $33,000 richer.

Instead, she faced the wrath of Bob Montgomery. "You are 12 minutes late," he said to her. "I ain't taking your check. You had till 5 o'clock, and I'm sick of y'all trying to jerk us around."

Sanchez stood there in shock, saying nothing. Montgomery lashed into her for several minutes before kicking her out of his office. He told her to take her check with her. "He was extremely hostile and berating me," Sanchez recalled later in a deposition. "I was quite taken aback because people don't usually speak to me in that way... I'll never forget how he treated me."

What Sanchez saw that day was the dark side of Bob Montgomery. For most who know anything about him, Montgomery is a Southern gentleman who has made a name for himself as a benefactor of the arts and social causes. One estimate guesses his charitable contributions at $100 million. He supports orphanages, the Palm Beach Opera, and the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.

The breadth of Montgomery's philanthropy was brightly illustrated recently when the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art shut down in March after six years of cutting-edge exhibitions and sputtering support from its Palm Beach community. Montgomery and his wife, Mary, had almost single-handedly kept the place afloat, pouring about $8.5 million into the museum as entire weekends passed with as few as five customers bothering to visit the stylish art deco building.

But Bob Montgomery's big-hearted philanthropy and sweet public demeanor hide what is, by many accounts, a raging temper, wielded like a dagger during anything from cross-examinations to intraoffice disputes with his partners. Colleagues say he controls that wrath, waiting for his enemies to misjudge him. "You shouldn't mistake his kindness for weakness," says Richard Rampell, who has been Montgomery's accountant since 1977. "I think some people do, and he knows how to exploit that." His verbal attacks have earned him a fitting nickname: Bullet Bob.

His list of famous cases is long. In 48 years of practicing law, Montgomery has won 65 lawsuits worth more than $1 million each. He was already exorbitantly wealthy when he represented the State of Florida in its lawsuit against big tobacco; for his work in that case, he made a cool $206 million. For more than a decade, he has been a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, an invitation-only group of the country's top 100 trial lawyers including the likes of the late Johnny Cochrane and John Edwards.

For all his professional triumphs, Montgomery's home life has been beset with tragedy, with a son dying of AIDS and a daughter who struggled with drug addiction for years. In a business in which law partners can become family, Montgomery's firms have twice split in messy divorces that spilled into courtrooms.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton