- By John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
When Palm Beach Circuit Judge Martin Colin struggled to pay his bills back in 2008, he turned to a former client from his days as a divorce attorney: Helen Rosburg Rich, heir to the Wrigley gum fortune.
Rich, along with at least one other former client, served as a reliable piggy bank for the often financially strapped judge. He had already borrowed $85,000 from the heiress in 2006, but after he paid her back in 2007, he was looking for $30,000 more, saying he needed it for medical treatment for his wife’s cancer. Rich balked and the judge — according to the heiress — threw a “diaper baby fit.”
But Rich said it was her attorney at the time — Colin’s former law partner Kirk Friedland — who got her to commit to the 2008 deal for a $20,000 loan to the judge, who put up his Atlantis home as collateral.
“Friedland was my lawyer for almost 20 years. He made me loan him the money,” Rich told The Palm Beach Post from her home in the Tampa Bay area. “He said, ‘He is a good guy. He is my friend. You will have security, the collateral. I will stay on top of it for you.’ I did not want to do it. He talked me into it.”
Two years later, when a contentious $20 million probate case landed in Colin’s courtroom, the judge appointed Friedland as a neutral fiduciary between warring heirs of Wet ‘n’ Wild cosmetic king Stanley Acker. Acker of Delray Beach died in 2008.
“This is just another example of high-level cronyism and egregious acts of appointees,” said Mark Acker, an heir. “These actions make law firms rich, Mr. Friedland richer and deplete the estate even further.”
An effort to reach Judge Colin for comment on Friday was unsuccessful.
For Judge Colin, the Acker case stands as another example of the conflicts of interest that repeatedly dog him. He was transferred from the Probate & Guardianship Division this year after The Palm Beach Post’s investigation Guardianships: A Broken Trust. Colin then announced his retirement, effective later this year.
Colin’s problem with conflicts of interest goes back to at least 2008 in family court, as well.
The JQC had received complaints that the judge favored his wife’s attorneys and their firms when they appeared in other cases in front of him. The JQC said only that it had investigated and addressed the matter. The 4th DCA went further, directing Colin to disqualify himself from a case because of conflict of interest.
After the appellate court’s smack-down, Colin didn’t see a problem tapping Friedland for the Acker case.
Months after the first Rich loan, Friedland apparently did legal work for Colin, drawing up court papers for the judge in September and October 2006.
In 2007, when Colin paid off the $85,000 loan, Friedland prepared the document that showed the mortgage on Colin’s Atlantis house was satisfied. Friedland said he did that work for Rich.
However, he said he did not represent Rich when the $20,000 loan was negotiated in 2008. When asked by The Post whether he represented Judge Colin in that deal, Friedland did not comment.
A tie-breaker for siblings
Friedland’s appointment to the Acker case was to settle disputes between the feuding siblings over managing their father’s estate, which included financing the marital trust set up for the second wife of the deceased.
Judge Colin chose him after a November 2010 agreement that required the brothers and sister to nominate a neutral party together or accept one appointed by the court. At that time, the siblings had waived any objection to the judge’s choice.
The Acker case is a cash cow for Friedland. Invoices show he had made more than $500,000 in fees, often dealing with other attorneys in the case who have accrued at least $6.5 million in additional fees, according to documents filed three years ago.
It didn’t take long for Mark Acker, a police officer in New York state, to sour on Friedland, saying that Colin’s former law partner immediately aligned with the law firms representing his siblings — Proskauer Rose’s Boca Raton office and Tannenbaum Helpern Syracuse & Hirschtritt in New York. He estimates total legal fees have climbed to nearly $10 million.
“It is clear that Kirk is in it for the money and not what he was appointed for. He keeps the siblings fighting,” Mark Acker said. “My objective was to close the estate within one year of Kirk’s appointment.”
Judge Colin recused himself from the Acker case in July 2012 without an explanation.
Circuit Court Judge David French inherited the case and has denied Mark Acker’s request to remove Friedland. French is a good friend of Judge Colin’s, eating lunch with him nearly every day when they were both assigned to the South County Courthouse.
And while French has criticized the litigious Mark Acker, he has also expressed outrage at the attorneys’ fees.
“I see a bunch of attorneys who are just continuing to stir the pot and run up the bill and litigate, just for the sake of litigation,” French said at a hearing in October 2013.
“You’re a reflection upon our judicial system. And it has gone awry in this case.”
French pointed out that $107,000 in fees was generated on just one relatively simple motion. “You can try a month-long medical malpractice case and not spend that kind of money. How does that happen?”
Judge’s history of conflict
The Post’s series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust, exposed Judge Colin’s conflicts involving attorneys who represented his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, a court-appointed professional guardian for incapacitated seniors. After The Post started asking questions, Colin recused himself from 115 cases involving his wife’s attorneys in six months.
Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan told The Post at the time that Colin’s conflicts with his wife’s guardianship cases resulted in an appearance of impropriety, a violation of the Florida’s judicial canons.
Now conflicts involving attorney’s fees are emerging in the Acker probate case.
Robert Jarvis, a law professor who teaches a class on professional responsibility at Nova Southeastern University, said that for Colin “the chicken’s continuing to come home to roost.”
“Obviously, it is very disturbing that these conflicts keep popping up,” he said.
Friedland, in an email response to The Post, said he flew to New York in December 2010, before he assumed his duties, to tell the Acker siblings about his relationship with Judge Colin.
“I personally disclosed to everyone at that time that I had practiced law with Judge Colin in 1986, some 24 years prior to my appointment,” he said.
Friedland also said his fees have been approved by the siblings, including Mark Acker, who entered into a settlement with him on the issue.
Mark Acker said that for two years, he was the only one authorized to pay Friedland. And “when I refused to do so, he threatened to take me to his court in front of Judge Colin to have his fees approved and have sanctions against me personally.”
But did Friedland disclose his role in the Wrigley heiress’ loans or in other apparent legal work he did for the judge? Friedland didn’t address that question in his emails responding to The Post.
Even after his appointment to the Acker case, Friedland continued to be involved in the Wrigley heiress loans, documents show.
The Wrigley heiress
Friedland’s signature as a witness is on a 2013 mortgage modification document that renegotiated the $20,000 loan to Colin to add $10,000 in interest. Colin’s Atlantis residence continued to be collateral. Friedland traveled to Pasco County where Rich lived and notarized the document himself.
Friedland said signatures on court papers indicate his small role in the transaction.
“The preparation of a satisfaction of mortgage for a client, after a loan is paid in full, (or acting as a Notary Public or as a witness to a client’s signature on a document) is a completely different act of legal representation than representation of a client in a loan transaction and the drafting of the loan documents on behalf of the client,” he told The Post in an email.
Rich now believes that the reason Colin asked for the money — his wife’s cancer treatment — was not true. Friedland no longer is one of her lawyers, she said.
Jamie B.W. Stecher, a New York attorney, represents Karen and David Acker, the other two sibling heirs. He said that neither he nor his clients were aware of Friedland’s role in the loans from the heiress to Colin.
“I still find it hard to believe that Kirk would act improperly,” Stecher said.
In an October 2014 hearing in front of French, Friedland described the woes vexing the Acker estate as a sibling rivalry “on steroids.”
“Your honor, there is something in this world more powerful than money,” Friedland said. “I never thought about this until I was deep into this case, and that something is hatred.”
Stanley Acker founded Pavion, one of the largest mass marketed budget cosmetic companies in the world, selling makeup for 99 cents at chain drug stores. The Nyack, N.Y., company with 600 full-time employees was sold in 1997 for $100 million.
Shortly after Stanley Acker died at age 78, his son Mark sued his siblings, claiming mismanagement of the estate.
Friedland has said in court that he acts in the best interest of the estate and has always been upfront with the heirs.
Mark Acker said Friedland never acted as a neutral party, testifying against him in numerous court proceedings.
Karen Acker says Friedland deserves every penny for his work on the Acker case.
“Mr. Friedland’s service to the estate has been exemplary,” she said. “He has business acumen, he is fair and inclusive to all fiduciaries, and he is focused. It is hard to imagine that anyone else could be doing the job as well as he does.”
No way to anticipate
Mark Acker points to his siblings and Friedland as the cause of unnecessary litigation. Karen and David Acker point toward their police officer brother.
“There is only one sibling who has taken the offensive and been aggressive and has challenged absolutely almost everything and that sibling is Mark Acker,” Stecher said.
Stecher, attorney for David and Karen, also said there was no way to anticipate at the time of Friedland’s appointment the amount of fees the Acker probate case would end up generating, he said.
“When the parties entered into the settlement and heard that Judge Colin had appointed his former law partner to be a neutral fiduciary, my expectations were that the estate would be administered smoothly and that there would be no further disputes among the siblings,” he said.