Published November 09, 2010
NEW YORK – It involves royalty, loyalty, big money, supposedly illicit transactions and sexually explicit statues. In other words, it's not your average lawsuit.
Brunei's notorious "Playboy Prince" Jefri Bolkiah looked on Tuesday as his legal fight with some former advisers went to trial, promising jurors a peek at the life of a royal renowned for surrounding himself with such luxuries as gilded toilet-paper holders.
They'll peer into a palatial hotel, elaborate estates and multimillion-dollar deals — even if they may be the only people in town who can't get a look at the life-sized, erotic statues once kept at one of his properties.
The artwork is just one of the eye-catching features of the dispute between Jefri, the youngest brother of the sultan of Brunei, and Jefri's ex-lawyers Thomas and Faith Zaman Derbyshire, a married British couple. He says they stole about $7 million from him; they say he owes them $12 million or more in promised payments.
The case has quickly become a tabloid talker thanks to those statues, though it's primarily a dispute over the decidedly less titillating issue of lawyer-client relationships. Or at least the court's trying to make sure it is.
"It's not about how rich any of the parties may be. ... It's not about anybody's lifestyle," Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Ira Gammerman — who once told Woody Allen that "I'm the director here" in court — admonished jurors Tuesday.
"This case is not about sex," the judge added, "although it might have been much more interesting if it was."
The prince, sporting a dark blue suit, said nothing but watched intently from the plaintiffs' table.
Jefri, who is in his 50s, is part of one of the world's wealthiest families and one of its most sensational royal family feuds.
His brother Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah (HAH'-sahn-ahl bohl-KAY'-ah), Brunei's supreme ruler, famously lives in a 1,788-room palace in his tiny, oil-rich country, nestled on the southeast Asian island of Borneo. The sultan once had his polo shoes delivered to the field by helicopter for a match he was playing with Britain's Prince Charles.
Nonetheless, Jefri cuts an extravagant figure, even for the ultrarich.
There's his style: A 2001 auction of some of his possessions featured gold-plated hot tubs, new fire engines and gilded trash bins and toilet-paper holders. He also once owned more than 2,000 cars, 600 properties, nine aircraft and five boats, according to a 2008 Delaware court ruling.
There's his personal life: Four wives, 17 children and 18 adopted wards, according to Brunei media. And, at least at one point, a coterie of roughly 40 women competing for his attention at nightly parties, according to "Some Girls: My Life in a Harem," a recent book by American writer Jillian Lauren.
And there's his alleged looting of his country's money, which spawned years of tension with his powerful brother.
Brunei's government accused Jefri of embezzling nearly $16 billion from Brunei's state coffers while he was its finance minister, nearly bankrupting the country.
Jefri has denied any wrongdoing, saying he had authority to use state funds. But he agreed in a 2000 settlement to repay the nation's investment arm the money he allegedly used to buy hotels and other expensive items.
The Brunei Investment Agency launched court proceedings in 2004, saying the prince hadn't given up about such promised plums as the New York Palace hotel and the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles. He said he needed the assets to maintain his lifestyle, but Britain's Privy Council — the final court of appeal for many former British colonies — ordered him to turn them over in 2007.
A British judge issued an arrest warrant after Jefri skipped a June 2008 hearing on the issue.
During all that, he hired the Derbyshires in 2004, giving them broad authority to handle his legal problems and help run several companies he then owned.
"He gave them the keys to the palace," Linda Goldstein, a lawyer for some of the companies, told jurors Tuesday, but "this story does not have a fairy-tale ending."
The Derbyshires exploited his trust "to line their own pockets in ways that were both spectacular and spectacularly petty," she said.
Just a few of the couple's schemes, according to the prince's legal papers: Using more than $5 million of the prince's proceeds from selling a Las Vegas ranch to buy themselves homes in Manhattan Beach, Calif.; awarding themselves a a $500-a-month lease on an apartment worth far more at the New York Palace, and charging more than $18,000 worth of beauty treatments and $1,000 in motorcycle accessories to Jefri's corporate credit cards.
The Derbyshires say they worked diligently for the prince, making deals in his best interest and getting benefits he authorized as a way of paying them — but still ending up far short of what they were owed. The two sides are disputing the basic fee the prince agreed to pay the couple but agree it was at least a total of 2 million pounds a year. They were fired in 2006.
"The Derbyshires have not taken a dime," one of their lawyers, Mark A. Cymrot, told jurors. "(Faith) was entitled to pay her own fees. That is what she did, and not a dime more."
But none of this, of course, is what's caused the stir surrounding the trial. That honor goes to the several nude statues once kept at an estate the prince owned on New York's Long Island.
The pieces were crafted by noted sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr., whose representatives didn't immediately respond to inquiries this week. They told The Daily Beast, a news and opinion website, last week that the pieces were commissioned anonymously.
Word — and pictures — of the statues emerged after the prince's lawyer asked the court to keep them out of the trial, saying "jurors easily could be offended."
Gammerman ordered lawyers Tuesday not to mention the pieces during the trial.
Associated Press writer Raphael Satter contributed to this report from London.