Note: Not all of this column appeared in the News-Press.
The parts edited out (mid-section) are, in this post, given a different font and color.
Judging by the slow pace in which our judicial system trudges along (especially with COVID-19 leaving courts backlogged with more cases than ever before) one has to wonder why Kathryn Zimmie, at the ripe age of 85, has filed so venomous a lawsuit against her ex, Beanie Baby billionaire Ty Warner of Montecito.
This conflict first surfaced last March when Ty and his lawyers obviously thought the best defense was a good offense and filed a preemptive lawsuit (in Chicago, his preferred jurisdiction, presumably after having received a demand letter from Ms. Zimmie’s lawyer) seeking to bar her from staking a claim due to “an implied or oral agreement” that he would take care of her financially. At that time, Ms. Zimmie was apparently seeking a $70 million settlement.
Clearly, there was no resolution. Because earlier this month, two days before Mr. Warner’s 77th birthday, Ms. Zimmie’s gift to him was her own lawsuit in Santa Barbara Superior Court demanding $200 million (said to be half the value of Mr. Warner’s Channel Drive 18,967 square-foot, 6.58-acre oceanfront digs), the return of her artwork and other personal possessions plus punitive damages for emotional distress.
Cases like this can go on for years and years and it will be to Ty’s advantage, in this case especially, to stretch proceedings out as long as possible.
Which means, this may be bleaker for Ms. Zimmie than Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, a novel symbolic of endless litigation.
Unless, of course, resolution and payment is not the true motivation for this lawsuit but, instead, it is about humiliating Mr. Warner in revenge for beating her to the punch and not settling with her (in addition, of course, to the suffering she claims she had to endure—for how many years? Quite a few as their relationship apparently goes all the way back to 1977).
Our point being, how can Ms. Zimmie expect her ex-partner to now fork out millions in settlement after she laced her lawsuit, for all to see (and court-protected from libel charges), with the following allegations?
· She fled Mr. Warner’s Montecito manse without her clothes and personal possessions “out of fear for her well-being and safety.”
· That Mr. Warner, upon being told by Ms. Zimmie that she was leaving, placed his hands around her neck and told her “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” States the suit: “Warner squeezed Zimmie’s throat so hard that she realized that her life was in danger if she ever left him.”
· That she was under constant surveillance in Mr. Warner’s homestead.
· That he berated her and hid the cane she needed to get around on foot.
· That he committed fraud, using her identity without her knowledge to conceal assets in a shell company, citing 50 wire transfers in 2019 and 2020 to Cleveland Design Consultants, LLC, what they term “a pattern of deceit.”
Given Mr. Warner’s 2013 guilty plea for tax evasion and resulting fine plus community service, the last item is clearly calculated to invite renewed IRS attention.
Meantime, Mr. Warner is battling legal disputes on two other fronts, one pertaining to noise emanating from an un-permitted redevelopment at his Montecito country club, an action initiated by one Angelo Mozilo, former CEO of Countywide Financial and partly responsible for our whole countrywide 2008 financial collapse (he pled guilty to securities fraud and insider trading and was fined $67.5 million), in other words, no saint himself; the other, a labor dispute involving 300-plus employees furloughed last year from his Biltmore Hotel due to COVID closures represented by a contingency lawyer who knows Santa Barbara’s Labor Commission and courts always side with labor, whatever the facts.
And this: As with the Biltmore Hotel and Coral Casino, Ty’s Four Seasons Hotel New York has been closed since COVID lockdowns began in March 2020 and, according to its website, remains closed “due to substantial infrastructure and maintenance work that is expected to last well in 2022.” This is similar to what local folks have been told about the Biltmore, though no maintenance appears to be taking place. As reported earlier in this column, what we know is this: Mr. Warner will reopen neither his New York City nor Montecito hotels until he is able to sever ties with Four Seasons Hotels (perhaps leading to even more acrimony); the management contract between Ty and Four Seasons is believed to expire in mid-2022, which ties into Ty’s NYC timeline.
Despite these closures, Mr. Warner’s fortune—estimated at $4.3 billion—doubled during COVID (according to Forbes magazine). One might therefore conjecture that Ty makes more money when his properties are closed than when they’re open (especially with real estate prices soaring).
Mr. Warner’s Montecito Club dispute falls into this adage of how Montecito folk view building permits: It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
Just ask Pat Nesbitt, who maintained an unpermitted helicopter pad for two decades on his 20-acre Montecito estate then audaciously attempted to rationalize this unlawful usage as the reason he should be allowed to secure county approval to make it permit-able. Of course, he should have been disqualified just for flaunting the rules all those years—and fined to boot. Fortunately, Superior Court Judge Colleen Sterne had the good judgment to point out that Mr. Nesbitt’s argument was fallacious and there’s no reason he shouldn’t use Santa Barbara Airport, just 20 minutes away, like every other self-important private-flyer in Montecito. Plus, how can you open the door to whirly-gig usage for Mr. Nesbitt and close it to others who would most certainly seek similar permissions? You can’t. Once open, every self-important Montecito wannabe helicopter flyer would be lining up to join the club and we’d be seeing and hearing helicopters whizzing out of the Oprah Winfrey estate, among others.
Pat Nesbitt and his extraordinary entitlement issues aside, the real question that begs to be asked is this: Is Ty Warner truly a magnet for legal trouble—or is this the price people pay for being very wealthy in our ultra-litigious, Bar Association-dominated culture?
It seems awfully sad to us that Ty, who revitalized the public Butterfly Beach promenade at his own expense and upgraded the Coral Casino (no thanks to its old-time members who thought they owned the place and tried to stop him) along with spending $119 million to remodel the Montecito Club… it seems awfully sad that he must spend his august years surrounded by multiple lawyers of varying specialties, his own and others’, the latter with teeth bared and claws extended—and with seemingly no end to bad publicity from all directions.
And just so you know we’re not fawning over Mr. Warner, we have a bone to pick with his Stonehouse Restaurant at San Ysidro Ranch: The prices remain sky-high but the food in no way equates. In fact, dining there for a recent birthday celebration, the meals served were far from spectacular (as expected) and at best mediocre. Maybe the chef was on vacation?
GOOD BURGHERS OR BAD?
Is it a good thing when one wealthy individual owns 50% or more of the bricks, mortar and businesses in town, thereby able to dominate with their presence and reshape community amenities to their own liking?
On the other side of the country, in Maryland on the Chesapeake, half the town of Easton has been bought up and beautified (not to mention foodie and wined) by Paul Prager, a New York City energy magnate. Many fulltime residents adore him for bringing gourmet eating/drinking to this charming town (settled in 1711) on the Eastern Shore about 90 minutes from your nation’s capital; others point out that local merchants, born and bred, cannot compete with the art and flowers with which Mr. Prager infuses his many establishments, including one that celebrates and serves only gnocchi. “I like gnocchi,” Mr. Prager explains, suggesting that he, indeed, is recreating the town to his own taste and to accommodate his own desires. On the upside, because he believes “every town needs a bookstore,” he opened one. So, kudos to Mr. Prager.
Mid-country, in Colorado, one finds hedge fund billionaire Mark Walter, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, buying whatever commercial property he can get his hands on in the authentic wild west town (with ski resort) of Crested Butte (CB). During the past year he has gotten his hands on quite a lot.
Thus, when we visited CB this summer, we witnessed firsthand what can happen when one person holds many of the keys. As I wrote in my journal at the time:
The intimacy and sheer authenticity of CB is the high point (9,000 feet-up) of this road trip and engages me as we roll up Elk Avenue in search of lunch. I’d had my heart set on Magill’s (their hearty beef stew) but, alackaday, they are closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays; a sign in the window says, “Help Wanted,” which presages what’s to come.
Cocktails are at the Dogwood and dinner at Wooden Nickel, which, like Dorothy returning to Oz, leaves me wondering what happened to this place, because, in my 10-month absence, a hedge fund billionaire has been buying up the best commercial properties along Elk Avenue, including the Nickel and the restaurant adjacent I had so enjoyed, Elk on Prime, which is inexplicably closed for the summer. Wooden Nickel is barely open with a limited “staff emergency” menu of soup and sandwiches. Gone the elk loin for which I’d been yearning. And gone, as well, its soulfulness, as if a great beast had sucked out all the oxygen and blown back a roomful of carbon dioxide.
Our server is apologetic and tells us the new billionaire owner has nothing to do with the bad vibe and staff shortage; that the chef walked out 3 days earlier for other unspecified reasons and the kitchen staff followed him in solidarity. So, who’s in the kitchen? Turns out, some financial guy (connected to the billionaire) and his father. Which explains the elk stew put on the table in front of me. The broth with vegetables is flavorful. But the chunks of elk are hard and tough, as if having spent the last three years in a deep freeze.
The server further elucidates the crisis going on in CB, a topic that was also discussed at the Dogwood. The labor force is being forced out. Homeowners are taking advantage of the property boom and selling their properties, which means eviction for young renters with nowhere else to go. Crested Butte South already went that direction—and now nearby Gunnison, home to Southern Colorado University, is going the same way. Simply put, without low-income housing, the young adults who would otherwise staff CB’s restaurants and bars and shops can no longer afford to live and work here.
Which means, unless things change, CB is destined become a community of very rich people with no one to service their needs.
(Paul Prager of Easton, with better foresight than Mark Walter and understanding the gravity of balance, has plans to redevelop Easton’s harbor with affordable housing.)
Which brings us back to Ty Warner and Montecito.
We all must endure his personal taste, which, as we’ve seen, first at the Biltmore Hotel and now at with his Montecito Club remodel, is best described as Turkish bazaar-meets-Moroccan brothel. And then, in contrast, at the latter, a drab dining room designed retro-1960s from the TV series Mad Men; very gray, very drab. Ugh.
Even if Ty had better taste—or based his designs on local (perhaps Chumash Native American) not foreign heritage—one wonders what will happen to all of his holdings when he passes without heirs and everything falls into the hands of faceless executors at a foundation or trust for whom the bottom line (as in profits) will be all that matters.
Mr. Warner may have idiosyncrasies and his own taste (however odd), but he is big on aesthetics generally and seems to have the community’s best interests at heart (if focused only on the very rich). On the other hand, heartless financial folks in another state may be much less inclined to perpetuate Ty’s habit of spending without concern for near-term return.
And that will be a sad day for Montecito.