Don Bren has spent millions backing conservative Republican candidates in Orange County, around the state and across the nation. He routinely dines with presidents and powerful international businessmen. But how rich is the Irvine Co. chieftain?
LA Superior Court Judge George Wu says Bren is "very, very, very, very, very, very, very rich." Wu should know, but doesn't want to: in a high-stakes case that pits Bren, a man Forbes magazine says is worth about $6 billion, against two of his own children, Wu has upheld Bren's contention that no one, not even the offspring of Bren's dangerous liaison with Jennifer Gold, has a right to examine the billionaire's finances.
Three years ago, those children, Christie Alexis Bren, now 18, and David Leroy Bren, 14, sued Bren for unpaid child support. How much they're owed hinges on the mystery of Bren's wealth; under California law, child-support payments are linked to income—unless you're what the state considers very rich.
"One of the situations in which the formula child support can be disregarded is where a paying parent is an 'extraordinarily high-income earner,'" says Irvine attorney David P. Toberty. "Philosophically, the thinking behind [the exception] is that the formula would provide for an amount of child support so excessive for the child's needs that it would be absurd." State law allows the extraordinarily high-income earner to refuse requests—even from the court itself—for specific financial information.
Bren says he destroyed 10 critical years of financial records and therefore can't say precisely how much he made after the two children were born. One thing is utterly clear: however rich—and Forbes' estimate would put Bren at No. 104 in the world—Bren is wealthy enough to have the run of Wu's courtroom.
Bren is represented by Daniel M. Petrocelli in the case, set to go to jury trial in October. Petrocelli, whose clients include Hollywood celebrities, the father of Ron Goldman and Enron executive Jeff Skilling, has argued that the children's investigation into Bren's estate is an invasion of privacy. So far, Wu has agreed. He upheld Petrocelli's guesstimate that, on average, Bren has clocked a mere $14 million per year since 1988, when Christie Alexis was born. Is that a real number? Consider that Petrocelli argued that any more thorough investigation of Bren's income would put him in an "untenable position."
Outside observers say Petrocelli is being coy. But even his lowball number means that Bren should have paid each of his two kids $65,000 per month—instead of the average of $80,000 per year he doled out.
But Hillel Chodos, the attorney for Christie and David, says Bren is making much more than $14 million per year. Citing Forbes' estimate, he says Bren makes something like $23 million per month—or $145,000 per hour—even if he earns just 6 percent on his wealth. Given Bren's refusal to disclose his actual worth, Chodos has argued that the court should go with the Forbes estimate and compel Bren to pay each child a little more than $1 million per month.
"I am telling you that his income is $300 million a year," Chodos told the court. "If he wants to stop at that, we can all save this trouble. If not, then he needs to bring [the judge] the documents instead of making me extract them."
But the kids' case is crashing and burning in the pretrial phase, where Wu has ruled for Petrocelli in almost every instance. His April 3 protective order handed Bren everything but the gavel:
•He granted Bren complete control over disclosure of financial records. "This is not rocket science," Wu said. "I will allow him to unilaterally categorize documents being privileged."
"Bren gets to make documents confidential," Chodos responded. "That means I'm walking around here with my hands and feet tied behind my back, trying to try a case against a billionaire. It's not right."
Bren's right to control records is not only unilateral but retroactive: Wu's protective order allows him at any time in the trial to declare that any documents he previously made public ought to be made private.
•Wu upheld Petrocelli's demand that Chodos be barred from sharing Bren's financial information with his clients. That ruling, Chodos said, requires him to violate professional obligations to his clients.
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•Wu gave Bren complete control over any information that Chodos might dig up on his own. The judge agreed with Petrocelli that Chodos must require all of his witnesses and the attorneys on his own legal team to sign what Chodos calls "vows of secrecy" regarding their knowledge of Bren's wealth. If Chodos brings expert witnesses to trial, their estimates of Bren's wealth cannot be made public without Bren's approval.
•The judge blocked the children's request that Bren certify that his financial documents are accurate and blocked them from seeking details of Bren's deals with his other children.
Chodos says Wu's protective order is "unconstitutional" and says he's likely to appeal. In an April 14 response to the judge, Chodos said, "This protective order has no purpose except to give Bren and his lawyers an excuse to harass plaintiffs and their lawyers with fictitious and fabricated 'privacy' disputes."