Money Doris Duke Meant for Charity Is Making a Lot of Other People Rich

This was Doris Duke's predicament. She was worth $1.2 billion, but had no relatives or friends she particularly cared to enrich so massively when she died. Instead, she decided with immodesty befitting one of the world's richest women that her estate would go toward "the improvement of humanity," as her will said. Her money would allow dancers to dance, artists to paint, doctors to cure diseases, animals to escape the cruelty of people.

It was a wonderful vision. But it overlooked what turned out to be the first effect of Miss Duke's largess: It allowed lawyers to eat.

The 30-month fight over Miss Duke's estate was as full of mystery and intrigue as was the life of the reclusive, mistrustful tobacco heiress who died in October 1993 at 80. There was her alcoholic, barely literate butler who was named in her will as the executor of the estate, and one of her many former doctors who believed he deserved the job -- and the fees. The situation was resolved last year when a surrogate judge in Manhattan approved the creation of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, one of the nation's best-endowed charitable funds.

The dispute played out in Surrogate's Court was, in the words of one lawyer, "the World Series of litigation," with big-name law firms playing for big stakes. Now the contest over Miss Duke's estate has gone into extra innings. The prizes this time are legal and estate administration fees that already amount to $10 million and probably will more than double when all of the requests are filed with the court.

Lawyers flew across the country charging their hourly rate as they went, sometimes as high as $450 an hour. They stayed in New York City's finest hotels. And In court appearances and meetings, clients often were represented by multiple lawyers, causing a gridlock of expensive suits and large briefcases.

Consider the lawyers' bonanza of January 1996. When the State Court of Appeals issued a decision in the case, 14 lawyers from two firms spent a total of more than 40 hours reviewing it, and all submitted bills for their work, according to court papers.

The case involved dozens of lawyers in some of the nation's most prominent firms. One of the more noteworthy lawyers, Alexander D. Forger, the president of the Legal Services Corporation, has applied for $450,000 in fees. He was appointed a temporary administrator of the estate, but the appointment was stayed nine days later, according to legal papers filed by the New York State Attorney General, Dennis C. Vacco.

Mr. Forger, who did not return telephone calls, said in court papers that his responsibilities lasted for months, not days, and that "in any event, I have not been motivated by notions of compensation."

Since the fees will be paid out of the charitable money, the requests for payment are facing stiff opposition from two other sets of lawyers -- the State Attorney General, who represents beneficiaries of the charity, and lawyers representing the trustees of the charitable fund.

"This is a feeding frenzy," said a lawyer associated with the case, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On the record, the critism is only slightly more restrained.

"If one needs cause to question the legal profession, these excessive claims provide ample issue," Laura Werner, an assistant New York State Attorney General wrote in a Dec. 11 court filing.

But the lawyers seeking the fees insist they are justified.

"This litigation undoubtedly was one of the most complicated probate matters in the history of the state of New York," said Rodney N. Houghton, one of the many lawyers representing Miss Duke's former doctor. "Its complexity was matched only by the intensity of the litigation, requiring us to work on many occasions on an around-the-clock basis to meet competing deadlines."

Even so, there were instances where it appears lawyers were stacked up like planes over La Guardia. When the charitable foundation questioned why lawyers from three different firms had to appear at court hearings on behalf of Miss Duke's former doctor, one of the lawyers answered in court papers that it was important for them to discuss matters in person after the court session and "to observe the reaction of the Court and co-counsel to various factual and legal issues."

Lawyers for the charitable foundation, who are trying to protect the estate's assets, were incredulous.

"It would plainly be wrong to require the Estate to foot the bill for multiple attorneys to 'observe the reaction of the Court,'" the foundation lawyers wrote in an Oct. 21 filing. "Presumably, one representative of the three firms could have attended proceedings to observe reactions and passed his or her observations on to other attorneys as necessary."

When several law firm partners charged the estate for attending depositionse, the charitable foundation lawyers wrote to the court that "the Estate should not be compelled to pay $465/hr. for one partner to watch other partners work."

In many respects, Miss Duke's will was straightforward, especially given the size of her fortune.

Miss Duke was twice married and twice divorced, and her closest relative when she died was a daughter, Charlene Gail Heffner, known as Chandi, whom Miss Duke adopted in 1988 when Ms. Heffner was 35. Their relationship fell apart a few years later and Ms. Heffner sued, seeking to become the beneficiary of Miss Duke's estate. The estate settled with her for $65 million last year.

In her final years, Miss Duke was unwavering in her decision to give her fortune to charity, but her estate became complicated because she repeatedly re-wrote her will, changing the executor of the estate -- a designation that would carry millions of dollars in fees. The rewriting of her will, those who knew her said, reflected her isolation from friends and relatives and her suspicion that those who were close to her were merely trying to get her money.

"We're here because of Miss Duke's personalities and eccentricities," said Don Howarth, a Los Angeles lawyer, explaining why the disposition of the estate had turned contentious. "This is a reflection of Miss Duke's vulnerability at not having close friends."

In the final years of her life, she signed a succession of wills, transferring control of her estate from her daughter to her diet doctor, Harry Demopoulos, then to her accountant, then to Bernard Lafferty, the butler whom many of Miss Duke's associates accused of isolating the heiress. (Mr. Lafferty died in November.)

The course of the estate through the court was complicated by two factors.

First, Dr. Demopoulos, and others, contended that Miss Duke, weak and disoriented, was coerced to sign her final will and suggested that her death may have been hastened to keep her from changing the will. An investigation ordered by the court found that Miss Duke's death was hastened by doses of morphine.

Dr. Demopoulos hired three law firms to press his case, and although no conspiracy to induce Miss Duke to change her will or to murder her were ever found, the lawyers say their request for more than $4 million in fees is justified. They say their work benefited the charitable fund by insuring that Mr. Lafferty would not be in control of the estate.

The other complicating factor was a May 1995 decision by Surrogate Eve Preminger to remove Mr. Lafferty and the United States Trust Company as co-executors of the estate. She said Mr. Lafferty used Miss Duke's fortune to finance his own "profligate life style" and she criticized the bank for giving him an unsecured $825,000 loan.

Surrogate Preminger installed as temporary administrators the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company and Mr. Forger. In addition to his job with the Legal Services Corporation, Mr. Forger is a veteran estates lawyer in New York and was a co-chairman of a lawyers' committee that ran advertisements backing Surrogate Preminger in the 1990 race for her court seat.

Although Surrogate Preminger's decision was stayed nine days later and ultimately reversed by the Court of Appeals, which criticized her for not giving the administrators a hearing before removing them, lawyers for Mr. Forger and Morgan Trust argue in court papers that their responsibilities lasted longer than nine days. The bills for their legal and administrative work, including fighting to defend their appointments, comes to more than $5.3 million.

While Mr. Forger's bill is relatively small, the tussle over it is particularly nasty.

In a December court filing, lawyers for Attorney General Vacco said it was worth considering "how it looks to the public when the president of the L.S.C. seeks $450,000 for 'outside work' while claiming to be working full-time to protect a federally funded program designed to assist the poor."

In a series of responses, Mr. Forger said that the Attorney General's statements were "flawed beyond carelessness," and that his contract allows him to do outside work. He also said that if the court agrees his reponsibility lasted just nine days, his fees should be substantially reduced.

"Whatever the compensation, however limited or modest, I shall not feel aggrieved," Mr. Forger wrote. "This mission was a worthy one and one -- in the long and unfortunate saga, not yet completed -- which I was privileged to undertake."