Longform

The Life We're Handed

Page 3 of 7

The reality is something altogether different. Beginning in the spring of 1992, a small army of lawyers, investment managers, psychologists, and doctors took their cuts of the money. Looking ahead to a life of limited personal and professional options, Alex Pittock continues to watch his future take a hammering. At the moment the trust fund stands at roughly $1.4 million. That fact lies at the heart of a family's disintegration.

Lawyer Joel Wolpe, who undertook the lengthy and complex negotiations with Costco Wholesale Corp., got paid handsomely: $720,000, plus $66,946 in additional costs. Debts to insurance companies, surgeons, and medical-rehabilitation experts ate another $149,725. After a few other expenses, Northern Trust Bank, as co-guardian, took over the actual sum Alex received -- $1,034,189.

With five staff economists and various other legal and financial experts on its payroll, the bank's services don't come without a price. To safeguard Alex Pittock's money, Northern Trust requested a base annual fee of $2000, plus further yearly expenses predicated on a sliding scale: $9 per $1000 on the first half-million, $8 per $1000 on the next half-million. The fees add up. In December 1993, for example, former chief probate court judge Moe Tendrich agreed that $15,130 of Alex's money should go to Northern Trust for its administration of the minor's account -- just for the period from May 1992 to September 1993.

In October 1996 attorney Howard Kuker finished a three-year stint as counsel to the guardianship and submitted his comparatively modest bill of $1387 (for a total of nine hours and fifteen minutes of work). The judge approved it, meanwhile appointing John J. Raymond, Jr. the new legal protector of Alex's money. Only ten weeks later, Raymond petitioned the court for $9800 in attorney's fees. He got them.

If Raymond's bill seems high, there were extenuating circumstances. Yet another lawyer, C. Thomas Tew, was brought in to review the bill. He found it acceptable given "the novelty and difficulty of the issues involved." In short, Raymond discovered that Northern Trust Bank had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Though the "issues" are never directly addressed in the public court file, Raymond's detailed billing makes reference to "Northern Trust's administrative and investment failings," a "breach of fiduciary duty," and questions regarding "initial computation of damages." Raymond summed up the damages to Alex Pittock's trust account in a settlement proposal and sent it to Northern Trust's senior vice president. Stephen A. Lynch III wrote back on December 13, 1996: "While I could argue with your proposal, we agree with it."

Lynch declined to discuss the past management of the trust fund, citing law that forbids revealing client information.

In late 1997 Northern Trust agreed to pay $74,718 out of its own pocket, depositing the money into Alex Pittock's trust account. In addition the bank agreed to manage the trust free of charge for the next three years.

Robbin Pittock fumed, convinced that Raymond had settled for too little in his negotiations with Northern Trust. He filed a complaint against Raymond with the Florida Bar Association, claiming Raymond had a serious conflict of interest: Raymond, as the court-appointed lawyer for the co-guardians, served Jean Pittock and Northern Trust. So how could he effectively negotiate a settlement with the bank?

On February 24 of this year, Florida Bar investigator Kevin Tynan concluded that Pittock's complaint was groundless. Tynan didn't elaborate on his conclusion. Other probate lawyers suggest, however, that Pittock simply didn't understand the legal technicalities involved, some of which are unique to trusts and guardianships. In essence, they say, Raymond's loyalties lay with the ward, Alexander, and the attorney's behavior in going after Northern Trust makes it clear that he lived up to that responsibility. An appearance of conflicted interest may have existed, but there's no evidence of anything more.

A month later a snarling Raymond noted in court documents that Pittock's Bar complaint was nothing more than "a continuing slanderous attack... upon Jean Pittock and her advisors."

Whatever the truth about that, Pittock's motives certainly revolved around Jean as much as Alex.

In yet another courtroom, this one in Broward County, attorney Steven Butter rose to question an estranged wife: "Were you, in fact, having an affair with the karate teacher?" he asked.

"Yeah," replied Jean Pittock.
The teacher in question was Greg Silva, a seventh-degree black belt who ran the Pittock kids' Coral Springs karate school and today operates a billing company for other martial arts training centers. But for Jean Pittock, on October 19, 1994, the affair with Silva wasn't the force driving her incipient divorce. Her husband, she claimed, had become an alcoholic monster.

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Sean Rowe