After spending months vilifying real estate mogul Burt Handelsman for causing the break-up of his nearly 70-year marriage and ostracizing his adult children, a lawyer representing Handelsman’s ex-wife on Wednesday admitted he falsely accused the 90-year-old Palm Beach man of pocketing $1 million.
Attorney Joel Weissman, who is representing Lucille Handelsman in the epic battle to divide the couple’s estimated $550 million real estate empire, said a forensic accountant took another look at the books and realized Burt didn’t squirrel away the money to keep Lucille from getting half of it.
“We immediately disclosed it,” Weissman said. Unfortunately, he said the discovery came after he blasted Burt on the witness stand earlier this month. “We did not know that fact until after Mr. Handelsman testified,” he said.
Weissman’s explanation didn’t satisfy attorney Alan Kluger, who is representing Burt. In court papers filed Wednesday, he asked Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Scott Suskauer to sanction Weissman for “making material misrepresentations to this court” to influence how to split the property that includes some of the toniest shops on Worth Avenue, bars and restaurants in Delray Beach and apartment and office buildings in upstate New York.
Weissman’s accusations were part of a carefully-crafted assault on Burt’s character, Kluger wrote. “As the orchestrator of these unfortunate events, Mr. Weissman must be made to pay,” he wrote, without specifying how much he is seeking.
While Suskauer didn’t rule on the motion, he made it clear that the fighting between the lawyers has gotten out of hand. Before adjourning court for the day, he handed all of the attorneys copies of the Florida Bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct and read aloud passages that require lawyers to treat one another, judges and witnesses with courtesy and respect.
Suskauer’s not-so-subtle message came after he chastised Kluger for “rolling his eyes” at him — action he branded unprofessional. Earlier in the trial, he criticized Weissman for speaking too harshly when questioning Burt and this week told Burt’s other attorney, Richard Segal, to “bring the decibel down” while he was questioning Lucille.
Taking the stand for the first time since Suskauer began the trial by granting Lucille’s request for a divorce, the 89-year-old voiced relief that her marriage is finally over but insisted she doesn’t want to punish Burt.
“When I started this, I wanted a divorce and I wanted what I’m entitled to, which is 50 percent. That’s it,” said Lucille, who is also known as Lovey. “I was told that’s what I was entitled to. I was told that’s what legally I could get, and that’s all I want. I don’t want anything more than that.”
But Segal said some of her demands were unfair. Under her proposal, the value of the property would be evenly split but Lucille would get to keep the couple’s longtime homes.
She would keep the couple’s apartment on Worth Avenue, two adjacent summer houses in the Catskills and a house in White Plains, N.Y., where the couple raised their children. That White Plains house now serves mainly as the office for the family business, which includes some of the toniest shops on Worth Avenue, bars and restaurants in Delray Beach and apartment and office buildings in upstate New York.
When Lucille said the homes have sentimental value for her, Segal suggested they may contain fond memories for Burt as well.
“His memories is business,” Lucille countered. “He doesn’t have family. If he had family memories, we wouldn’t be doing this.”
She said she would consider allowing him to keep another apartment on Worth Avenue where he has been living since Suskauer ordered him to leave the apartment the couple shared. Still, no promises were made.
The division of the property is complex. Much of it is shared between Burt, Lucille and their children. The children, like Lucille, have made it clear they don’t want to remain in business with their father, who testified that he considers them his enemies.
The two sides also vehemently disagree about what various pieces of property are worth. Each side accuses the other of valuing property they want too low and property they don’t want too high in an effort to end up with what they want and deny the other the land they deserve.
In an unmasked moment, Suskauer this week again urged the warring family to try to reach a compromise. He told them of an elderly friend he visits in a nursing home who is hobbled by Alzheimers. His friend, Suskauer said, would think this battle is crazy.
“So I say that to you in hopes that … if there is any chance to reach some common ground, have some sanity here, because like this person would say, this is insane,” Suskauer said.
If no compromise is reached and he has to divide the property, no one will be satisfied, the judge said.
“There is no winner,” he said. “No one’s going to be happy. That’s my prediction.”