Battle royal continues over Palm Beach mansion


Alexandra Clough writes about the economy, real estate and the law. Contact her at aclough@pbpost.com.

The standoff between Russia and the United States over the Ukraine isn’t the only source of tension between the two superpowers. In a Palm Beach County courtroom, the battle over a Palm Beach mansion sold to Russian oligarch Dmitri Rybolovlev has erupted into a recent flurry of bitter filings by lawyers for Dmitri and his estranged wife, Elena.

The filings demand sanctions against attorneys on both sides, following a contentious London deposition of Dmitri last August. The deposition was over a lawsuit Elena brought against Dmitri involving his 2008 purchase, through a company, of a Palm Beach mansion owned by real estate mogul Donald Trump.

The Palm Beach Post was the first to report the sale and price: $95 million.

The 33,000-square-foot mansion at 515 N. County Rd., dubbed Maison de L’Amitie, formerly was owned by the late health care magnate Abe Gosman. Trump bought the property out of Gosman’s bankruptcy.

With the Rybolovlev couple is in the midst of a divorce in a Swiss court, Elena is trying to pin down marital assets spread across the globe. Dmitri is fighting efforts to have a Swiss asset freeze apply to jurisdictions outside of Switzerland — including Florida.

Relations between the couple are deteriorating. Last month, Elena made international headlines when it was reported she was arrested in Cypress on charges she took a diamond ring that belongs to a Dmitri family trust fund.

But David Newman, a lawyer for Elena, said the arrest was made in error. Elena owns the ring, he said. Newman, of the Day Pitney law firm in New York, provided an invoice to this columnist, showing that the 15.4 carat pink, pear-shape diamond ring was purchased by Elena for $26 million (including tax) in March 2008 at Graff, a high-end London jeweler.

Big money defines the Rybolovlev couple. In Forbes’ 2014 rankings of the world’s billionaires, Rybolovlev comes in at No. 147, worth $8.8 billion. He formerly owned a large stake in Uralkali, a fertilizer company.

After news broke of the $95 million Palm Beach mansion sale, Rybolovlev told the Wall Street Journal that the Trump “acquisition is simply an investment in real estate by one of the companies in which I have an interest.”

In 2009, Elena sued Dmitri in Palm Beach County Circuit Court to protect the Palm Beach estate, claiming her husband “has a history of secreting and transferring assets in order to avoid his obligations.”

Subsequently, in Palm Beach County Circuit Court filings, Dmitri said he did not own the property, “either directly or indirectly.” He told French journalists the property was in trust “to secure the future of our two daughters.”

The bad feelings between Elena and Dmitri now have spilled over to their lawyers.

Newman acknowledged that relations between him and Dmitri’s West Palm Beach lawyer, John Christiansen, have become nearly as chilled as the U.S. and Russia over Crimea.

“I’m not sending troops down to (Christiansen’s house), but they are frosty, yes,” Newman said in an interview last week.

Here’s why.

Newman wants to depose Dmitri again because he claims Dmitri was uncooperative during last year’s deposition. In court filings, Newman said Dmitri stated, “I have already answered this question,” or variations on that theme, 120 times.

In fact, Newman was so incensed by the deposition that he filed papers to sanction both Christiansen and Dmitri for “outrageous and obstructionist” conduct, ranging from allegations of prompting from handwritten notes, to non-answers to frivolous objections.

“It is plain and simple law of Florida that a witness cannot refuse to answer a question because it has allegedly already been asked and answered,” Newman wrote in his filing.

Meanwhile, Christiansen has his own beef with Newman.

In a motion for sanctions against Newman, Christiansen said the videographer used at the deposition wrongly zeroed in on handwritten notes by Dmitri’s Swiss lawyer, Tetiana Bersheda. Christiansen said the notes are privileged, and Newman’s instructions to have the videographer zoom in on the notes “are inappropriate and unethical.”

A hearing was held Feb. 28 in Palm Beach County Circuit Court to determine whether another Dmitri deposition should be held. ” The court has not yet ruled on the motions at hand, but my client and I are fully confident in the position we have taken in the matter,” Christiansen said.

In court filings, Christiansen argued against another deposition of Dmitri, especially since the August one “far exceeded the limited scope” of the lawsuit…Any further deposition would be beating a dead horse.” He also points to various excerpts from the deposition showing Dmitri answered Newman’s questions.

Additionally, Christiansen reiterated Dmitri has no interest or control of the trust or LLC affiliated with 515 N. County Road.

So far, Dmitri is winning the legal wars.

Last month, Dmitri won a lawsuit in Hawaii, with Elena losing her bid to include a $20 million property as part of their marital assets. The order states that a Swiss court’s order to freeze the couple’s marital assets cannot be enforced in Hawaii. Newman said Elena plans an appeal.

Alexandra Clough writes about the economy, real estate and the law. Contact her at aclough@pbpost.com.


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