Published December 15, 2010
NEW YORK – Two British attorneys won a multimillion-dollar tussle with Brunei's Prince Jefri Bolkiah on Wednesday after a trial that provided a glimpse into the prince's jet-set lifestyle as a member of one of the world's richest royal families.
Husband-and-wife legal team Faith Zaman Derbyshire and Thomas Derbyshire could come away with more than $21 million after Wednesday's jury verdict in a New York court, though the prince's side plans to challenge its findings against him.
Although it became a tabloid staple largely because of some erotic statues the jury never got to see, the case was mainly a dispute over competing claims in an attorney-client relationship gone bad — with a client who happens to be an ultrarich prince long locked in a spectacular royal family feud.
The prince said the Derbyshires abused his trust to steal from him in various schemes. They said he underpaid them and had given his permission for everything they did. Jefri had hired them partly to help him fight efforts by his sultan brother's government to get him to surrender some of his assets after he was accused of embezzlement.
"For us, yes, this is huge vindication by real people," a tearful Faith Derbyshire said after hugging her lawyers and even jurors outside the courtroom. "We're not the sort of people like Jefri."
Jurors awarded Thomas Derbyshire, 43, more than $10 million in one piece of the case. The jury also found for Faith Derbyshire, 34, on another issue worth $11 million. Both sides had agreed to that amount if she prevailed on that matter.
The jury did side with Jefri on just one of the myriad allegations in the civil case: that one of Faith Derbyshire's brothers had improperly charged expenses to one of the prince's corporate credit cards. Jurors awarded the prince $54,000.
The prince, who is in his 50s, wasn't in court for the verdict, though he had been a steady presence and testified during the five-week trial. Officials at one of his properties, the New York Palace Hotel — where the Derbyshires were accused of helping themselves to a generous management deal and benefits — expressed disappointment at the verdict.
"We continue to believe that based on the facts presented, the hotel has been a victim of a crude fraud scheme, and we are confident that the verdict will be overturned on appeal," the hotel and its ownership company said in a statement.
The Derbyshires, however, portrayed themselves as collateral damage — "roadkill," Faith Derbyshire said — in the rocky legal life of an imperious prince.
Jefri is the youngest brother of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the supreme ruler of oil-rich Brunei. The tiny country is on the island of Borneo in southeast Asia.
The prince is known for living lavishly. He once kept a stable of more than 600 properties and 2,000 cars, according to court documents. A 2001 auction of some of his possessions featured gold-plated hot tubs and gilded toilet-paper holders.
Also among his accouterments: a set of sexually explicit, life-size, custom-made statues by noted sculptor J. Seward Johnson Jr. Their existence emerged in the run-up to the trial, but a judge barred any mention of them before jurors.
Jefri's family includes four wives, 17 children and 18 adopted wards, according to Brunei media, and a recent book by an American writer chronicled her experience years ago as a member of a coterie of roughly 40 women competing for his attention at nightly parties.
But Jefri has spent much of the past decade vying to hang onto various assets after being accused of embezzling nearly $16 billion from Brunei's state coffers while serving as its finance minister.
Jefri denied wrongdoing but agreed in 2000 to repay Brunei's investment arm. But the dispute dragged on for years as his brother's government pressed him to turn over such promised plums as the New York Palace and the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles.
He hired the Derbyshires in 2004 to help, giving them expansive power in his legal and business affairs.
"Prince Jefri gave Zaman and Derbyshire total control, and the evidence shows he was taken advantage of," one of the prince's lawyers, Geoffrey S. Stewart, told jurors in a closing argument. "The (Derbyshires) betrayed Prince Jefri at a time when he needed them most."
The prince's camp accused the Derbyshires of profiteering off the prince in ways including siphoning off more than $5 million of his proceeds from selling a Las Vegas ranch to buy themselves property in Manhattan Beach, Calif.; awarding themselves a $500-a-month lease on an apartment worth far more at the New York Palace; and charging beauty treatments and other personal luxuries to Jefri's corporate credit cards.
The Derbyshires said the disputed transactions were the prince's way of paying them, reimbursements for money they advanced to pay his business expenses or purchases he asked them to make — sometimes for such items as designer watches for his family.
The prince fired the two in 2006 and later sued them.
"Prince Jefri decimated our reputations and our characters," Thomas Derbyshire, who said the allegations had destroyed his established London legal practice.
The Derbyshires now live in California with their two small children.