Does An Influential Newport Coast Conservative Publisher Have A Deep Secret?
Illustration by Jeff Drew
Perched on Southern California's most breathtaking hillside real estate overlooking Pacific Coast Highway, 9 Pelicans Drive in Newport Coast appears to be the epitome of idyllic, worry-free living. The $21 million, three-story, Palladian-style house on 25,000 square feet contains five bedrooms, eight bathrooms, 400 feet of unobstructed sea views to Catalina Island, a grand staircase, two bars, a wine cellar, eight marble fireplaces, 14-foot ceilings, a gourmet kitchen, a swimming pool, fountains, a terrace, an elevator, $4.8 million worth of art and a movie theater. To lessen the burdens of occupying such a residence, the owner, Thomas Lee Phillips, employed a British-born butler and 14 other house servants, one of whom chauffeured him in a Rolls-Royce to swank restaurants, political events or his $14 million, oceanfront "beach house" 11 minutes away in the most exclusive section of Corona del Mar.
But the luxurious, gated-community setting is hardly scandal-free. In fact, life inside the mansion has produced enough intrigue to fill several seasons of television's raciest soap opera. The themes are sex, money, power, jarring hypocrisy and seemingly endless backstabbing plots that snared the local district attorney's chief of staff, as well as two model-handsome males, one a CBS Big Brother contestant and the other a Los Angeles rhythm-and-blues singer who appeared on Soul Train.
At the center of the controversies is 73-year-old Phillips, an advertising executive whose January 1974 ingenuity parlayed $1,000, three employees and his Chevy Chase, Maryland, garage into one of this nation's most potent conservative, publishing empires (plus a vitamin-supplement subsidiary) that saw, for example, $307 million in 1997 sales. Ronald Reagan hailed Phillips' Human Events as a favorite news source. The New Jersey native funded the National Journalism Center and an annual award in his own name that has been given to FOX News' Brit Hume, John Stossel and Rupert Murdoch. In the 2004 presidential election, he published Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, a book credited with tripping the Democrat's campaign. Before he retired from his Eagle and Regnery publishing houses, his authors included right-wing rubber-chicken-circuit dignitaries Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, David Horowitz, Laura Ingraham, Newt Gingrich, Mark Levin, Chuck Norris, Dinesh D'Souza, Bernard Goldberg and Pat Buchanan.
Phillips' success didn't just afford a $262,000 monthly spending budget that secured first-class service in all endeavors including private jet travel and lodging in the finest suites in luxury resorts. It has allowed him to showcase what even his critics acknowledge is a generous spirit. He has paid dozens of scholarships to budding journalists, funded political events, given pals huge loans and contributed more than $320,000 to Republicans in recent years. In 1998, he provided $1 million to help convert Rancho del Cielo, Reagan's 688-acre western White House atop the Santa Ynez Mountain range, into a permanent monument to the ex-president.
But on Nov. 6, 2014, a naked Phillips--who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease five years earlier and requires 24-hours-per-day assistance--wept in his shower. Nearby, an outraged Randall Phillips, his 5-foot-1-inch second wife, who is 26 years his junior, hurled obscenities. Believe it or not, the issue was money. An expected $1.5 million installment payment due from the $8 million sale of Eagle Publishing to Salem Communications earlier in the year had to be diverted for debts a shocked Randall didn't know existed.
"I heard Mrs. Phillips screaming at Mr. Phillips and say [sic] that he was a 'failure' and a 'loser' and that she could not stand him," Susie Matthews, the family's head caregiver who was in the room during the spat, described in a court filing. "Mrs. Phillips was screaming at the top of her lungs. . . . I helped Mr. Phillips get dressed, retrieved his medications, and I left 9 Pelicans with [him] as quickly as I could."
The incident wasn't atypical, according to a court declaration filed by Phillips, whose estimated worth is $100 million. "For as long as I can remember, I have felt profoundly embarrassed and humiliated in my own home," he stated. "Randall frequently calls me 'stupid,' 'incompetent,' 'a fool' and similar derogatory names in front of my two sons, caregivers and other household staff. She also said I would lose all my money if I did not turn complete control of my money and assets over to her. I can even recall times when she made fun of me for falling down or just asking for food or water."
Days after the incident, Randall tried to apologize for the outburst, but it was too late. Thomas, who was then living in an undisclosed hotel, removed his wife as an official in his lucrative holding company and on Nov. 14 filed for divorce in Orange County Superior Court. A month later, he issued a bombshell civil complaint accusing her of committing elder and financial abuse, assault and battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. According to the lawsuit, she schemed to overmedicate him, convince doctors he was legally incompetent and use the finding to confiscate his fortune while he lived in a daze--a scheme Randall rejects as self-serving fantasy.
Among the house staff, however, Thomas' impairment wasn't a secret. He'd infamously buttered his napkin during a meal, fumbled using a straw and broke bones tripping. And the marriage was most certainly rocky; Randall threw a heavy pewter container during an argument, though the parties disagree on whether she intended to strike him. The incidents made life inside 9 Pelicans Drive toxic. After one spat, a fearful Thomas handed an aide a Post-it note when his wife wasn't looking: It read, "GET ME HELP!"
Phillips hid a big secret while funding anti-gay media, Randall claims
Nasty divorces are as much a part of the Southern California landscape as palm trees, plastic surgery and traffic jams. But given their mutual interests--conservative thought, traditional values, journalism and Reagan, the relationship between Thomas and Randall Phillips initially didn't appear destined for disaster. In 1998, they met in Washington, D.C., got engaged a year later and married in December 2000. There was no prenuptial deal. She quit her reporter job at Reverend Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) for what she called "a very opulent lifestyle." They named the first of their two sons after the 40th president. Republican U.S. senators, congressmen and ambassadors dined in their $17 million McLean, Virginia, estate christened "Eaglecrest." But California tugged on their hearts, and in 2010, they moved to sunny Orange County.
Though Randall never struck it rich on her own, she built an impressive, multifaceted résumé. Born in 1967 in Panama to a family that included a grandmother who'd won honors for selfless relief work in World War 1 and II, she played the role of Annie as a child in the popular Broadway musical. In 1980 and 1984, she served as national chairman of the Youth for Reagan/Bush and the 1988 Bush/Quayle campaigns. Randall eventually worked for CBN, where she covered the Bill Clinton White House and Congress. Later, the charismatic Mt. Saint Mary's College graduate coached Republican politicians how to effectively interact with reporters, consulting that drove her to these conclusions:
"The thing Republicans have been really bad at is understanding that the message alone is not enough," she said in a 1999 interview. "They like to think that the message is so strong it doesn't need to be effectively presented. We don't need frosting on the message, they say. But the reality is, in the confectionery of politics, everything needs frosting. That is the kind of world we live in today--one in which everything comes in a package. It's just a good package or a bad package."
Susan Kang Schroeder, a Phillips family friend and an aide to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, describes Randall as "so sweet." But in the courthouse dispute with Thomas, Randall has been packaged without the icing by most of the household staff. More than half a dozen employees have filed declarations labeling her mean, revengeful, domineering and conniving--simply scary. While she worked to enhance her power over the family's assets in 2014, the staffers insist she overmedicated her husband to the point he became a zombie stuck in bed.
The staff additionally reports that instead of assisting Thomas when he struggled, Randall used her iPhone to video record him flailing in misery, seemingly documenting his incapacity. Worse, they claim, she ordered them to hide Thomas' mail, block him from seeing visitors or answering his phone, and make him wear adult diapers by hiding his underwear. They also allege she urged increased dosages of powerful drugs such as Depakote that caused severe drowsiness and confusion, even when he was already in stupors.
Staff testimonials portray Randall as a control freak:
"Mrs. Phillips absolutely forbade me from giving Mr. Phillips any mail that appeared to be pertaining to finances. . . . Mrs. Phillips wanted to scare [him] into compliance with her every demand," said Zoe Newman, house manager.
"Mrs. Phillips expressed her disregard for Mr. Phillips, stated directly to me, 'I am so sick of his crying. I have to put up with his crying for over 13 years, and I am tired of it.' . . . She told him, 'You need to stop complaining; suck it up' and 'Stop feeling sorry for yourself.' And, 'You're going to die; we're all going to die. Stop having a pity party--accept it and deal with it!'" recalled head caregiver Matthews.
"On the days I visited the house, I observed Mrs. Phillips ranting or yelling at various staff members, Mr. Phillips, or both," said Tina Irwin, Thomas' personal assistant. Randall was "a rushed, irritated and quick-tempered person. . . . Even in her own home, where I primarily worked, she never appeared able to relax," said housekeeper Ida Ashley.
"Mrs. Phillips never allowed Mr. Phillips to leave the house without her permission," alleged maid Cherie Hoenig Cooper.
"I repeatedly observed Mrs. Phillips shout at Mr. Phillips simply for entering a room and speaking to [her] when she did not want to be spoken to," said caregiver Nancy Amador.
"I heard her say she wanted to put him in the nursing home in order to scare him into doing what she wanted," said housekeeper Jannie Ramirez.
The other side of the story is equally eyebrow-raising. Randall's lawyers include Wayne Gross, the former head of the U.S. Department of Justice's Santa Ana branch; "Superlawyer" Michael I. Katz; and Frank Mickadeit, the longtime Orange County Register columnist who traded his pen for a bar card in 2013. Gross, Katz and Mickadeit cast Thomas' civil complaint as "a fantastical conspiracy" and "a dark theory." They have evidence staffers praised Randall's kindness. In court filings, the lawyers assert negative employee recollections are faulty because they want to remain in Thomas' good financial graces and were ignorant of a festering crisis in the marriage: Though he'd championed rabidly anti-gay activism for decades, Thomas has "homosexual inclinations" and engaged in "extramarital affairs" away from the mansion.
"Mr. Phillips harbored a secret that he knew would not go over well in the circles in which he traveled," Gross, Katz and Mickadeit told Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Glass in April. "Despite having married women twice, Mr. Phillips was sexually attracted to men."
Mangan: Excellent butlers keep secrets
Lucian Perkins/TheWashington Post
In California political history, Orange County--the state's historic conservative power base--has led the way in Republican Party powerbrokers who publicly espouse anti-gay positions but engage in homosexual or, at least, bisexual activities behind the scenes. Thomas A. Fuentes, the deceased chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County for decades, lived such a dual life as the husband and father in a staunchly conservative Catholic family. In the 1990s, Fuentes fervently opposed inclusion of Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, in the party. Outside of view, he dated numerous younger men, showered them with gifts, mentored their careers and took them to saunas. One of his projects was Fountain Valley traditional-values activist Jeffrey Nielsen, a deeply closeted gay man with an illegal fetish.
In the 1990s, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), Fuentes' longtime buddy and a politician funded in part by Phillips, took Nielsen with him to work in his Washington, D.C., congressional office. When he wasn't aiding Rohrabacher, Nielsen used his conservative credentials to gain a youth pastor-type post at a Northern Virginia church. There, he repeatedly raped an eighth-grade boy in the congregation before turning his attention to underage OC boys and earning a 2008 sexual predator conviction.
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If Phillips had a closer relationship with a man other than Fuentes, it may have been Michael Mangan, his butler at 9 Pelicans Drive. Mangan appeared in a July 1982 Washington Post article because he expertly served two prominent households in the nation's capital. The Nottingham, England, native told the Post he had a "cardinal rule" for his job: "You don't see anything, and you don't ever hear anything. You hear a lot of things, but you never, never repeat anything. Absolutely never."
Such loyal discretion may have delighted Phillips, whose Human Events called gays and lesbians "deviants," mocked Hollywood's acceptance of homosexuals and urged the Republican Party to remain staunchly anti-gay. The National Conservative Campaign Fund, a group Phillips ran and funded, worked with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Perkins, a frequent TV commentator, has said, "[Gays] are vile." Erick Erickson is arguably the nation's most passionately homophobic blogger. Erickson has opined that homosexuals are "destroying America" and businesses that serve gay couples are "aiding and abetting" sin. The man who employed Erickson at RedState.com? Phillips.
Inside the Newport Coast mansion, Thomas appreciated Mangan, but his wife didn't. According to court records, Randall viewed the butler both as "a gay man" and "rude," and she wanted him fired. "Mr. Phillips angrily told Mrs. Phillips that he would prefer that [she] leave him rather than to fire his valet," Mickadeit recounted in an April 2015 court brief. "On another occasion, Mrs. Phillips overheard Mr. Phillips tearfully beg a male employee not to quit, telling him that he loved him. [His] anguished tone of voice and his later denial that he ever said such a thing heightened Mrs. Phillips' suspicions."
Hunches turned to reality for Randall in 2010. That's when she saw Thomas' private medical records and discovered evidence he might be gay, according to court records. His handwritten notes describe decades of psychotherapy as well as prescriptions for Halcion and Prozac to overcome depression associated with one of his "biggest issues": sexual identity, Randall revealed in a declaration.
Then, in November 2012, she logged into Thomas' computer and noticed a puzzling icon on the screen. When she clicked on it, a file titled "Boys Mastrabating" [sic] appeared, containing links to gay pornography, court files show. Confronted, he denied responsibility.
Schroeder, Randall's friend in the DA's office, recommended she hire Mark Eskridge, a retired forensics expert for prosecutors, to analyze the computer's hard drive. Eskridge found numerous searches for "gay" and "porn." Confronted again, she claims in a declaration, he confessed. "I was angry because our two, preteen sons used the same computer and could have easily discovered the links," she explained.
In an undated incident, Randall also "found various sex toys" and condoms in her husband's luggage when he returned from a business trip. Thomas, onetime owner of the Christian Book Club, explained the risqué accouterments predated their relationship, but, according to court documents, "he admitted to Mrs. Phillips that prior to their marriage he had had sex with several men. Mr. Phillips assured her, however, that he was faithful to her and she believed him."
CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images
To Gross and Mickadeit, Thomas' tightly guarded secret gives proper context to Randall's frustration and illuminates the reason for keeping an eye on his interactions--especially with young male employees. They've not included any evidence of sexual affairs, but it's likely the Newport Coast patriarch appreciated the company of Fuentes' son T.J. and Dominic Briones as his gofers. Thomas showed his fondness for T.J. by giving him free housing and including him in his will for a seven-figure inheritance--far beyond what he gave his most trusted, multi-decade secretary.
A losing 2011 Big Brother contestant, Briones replaced T.J. in August 2013 and anticipated learning from a business genius. He thought his title would be executive assistant. Randall quickly disabused him of the notion, giving him general housework and yard tasks under the less-glamorous title "houseman."
"Almost every time Mrs. Phillips saw us talking in [Thomas' bedroom], she ordered me out to perform a task elsewhere in the residence, including to clean a toilet and other non-time-sensitive tasks," Briones complained in a court declaration.
He resigned in February 2014, citing Randall's "deplorable behavior."
During a March 9 deposition, Mickadeit got Briones--who married fellow Big Brother contestant Daniele Donato--to concede he was clueless about the cause of the couple's bickering.
Mickadeit asked, "What did you hear them argue about?"
Briones replied, "I don't know."
After the couple's separation, Briones, 45 years younger than Thomas and a half-Italian, half-Filipino model who shows off his smile and swimmer's physique in Internet photos, returned to his mentor's employment inside the community hyped by real-estate agents as the Pacific Riviera. "[Mr. Phillips] is one of the kindest, most intelligent and pleasant human beings I have ever had the pleasure of meeting," he said in an affidavit. "I learned so much from the man in a short period of time. I only wish I would have met him sooner in life."
The Second wife feared losing part of the $100 million estate
Both Phillipses, who've appeared on C-SPAN during political forums, viewed the Barack Obama administration as filled with intolerable socialists and a disaster for the nation. They contemplated relocating to Switzerland, New Zealand or the Bahamas until after the 2016 presidential election. Thomas preferred the warmth of the Caribbean; Randall liked Switzerland because she believed the Swiss protect their culture from mosques and operate a democracy. In October 2009, the Phillipses opened large accounts with cash and gold at Geneva's Pictet Bank, where discretion for the global rich is promised.
But Randall spent more time planning to quench her unsatisfied needs. By 2011, she began spending time with R&B musician Chuckii Booker (a.k.a. Eugene Allen Booker), who is two months older than her and a godson to the legendary, Grammy Award-winning Barry White. In 1989, Booker sang "Turn Away," which reached 42nd place on national song sales charts, the highlight of his career.
Their affair, which Randall freely acknowledges, was steamy. Numerous text messages and emails between the two underscore the lust. At 9:13 a.m. on June 16, 2012, for example, Randall sent Booker a message: "Quit your job and move with me to the [Corona del Mar] house. Fuck every morning, K?"
He replied a minute later, "K, would love that."
According to David A. Robinson and Benjamin P. Pugh, Thomas' veteran Irvine-based lawyers at Enterprise Counsel Group, Randall convinced their client to pay for Booker's "furnished apartment in Newport Coast, multiple eye surgeries, a car repair and the conversion of the basement at [Corona del Mar house] into a music studio for him." In court filings, they place the gifts at more than $200,000, also noting that Booker and Randall took an out-of-state vacation with Thomas' kids.
The publishing king's reaction to the affair wasn't what you'd expect from a Christian conservative. Randall maintains he posed a question after she revealed her relationship with Booker. "He asked whether he could participate [in three-way sex]," she stated in a court filing. She says she declined.
Randall's messages to Booker reveal a woman finagling to win financial security. She feared Thomas' children from his first marriage--Mark Phillips and Karen Broussard--might contest her husband's last will and testament after his death. Court records indicate that discussions between Randall and Thomas resulted in the elimination of the children's $1 million inheritances.
In a 2012 communication to Booker, she stated, "I have hatched what I think is a brilliant plan. But I will txtcrypt it as is safer. Will give cover 4 us plus be safety net for u in short term." She also asked him if he could "live off another man's money." His response seemed annoyed.
"We can craft interim fix for u for cash flow by being clever," she wrote. "I can easily transfer something into an account of mine no one sees."
Randall also discussed pressuring Thomas to give her assets before he thought to seek legal advice. Hinting at divorce plans on July 12, 2012, she told Booker, "I want to be with you. Period." Eight days later, Thomas gave Randall sole title to the Corona del Mar home, one of the most expensive properties in Orange County. During this period, she convinced him to name her a trustee in his holding company, a position that would allow her to take over if he became incapacitated.
In a text message to her lover, Randall discussed pre-divorce strategy about solving her "biggest vulnerability" in a separation: "I MUST get some addl houses jointly titled," and she fretted that "worse case I'd have to owe him [$3 million]. . . . I know I'm [fucking] cray cray, but I wanna go tell him I don't want to be w/him."
It's too soon to tell how the tale of these lovebirds will end. Both the divorce and the civil complaint accusing Randall of elder abuse continue to inch forward in separate courthouses. Settlement negotiations, styled "intense" by the parties, are under way. Who owns what from the marriage remains a bitter sticking point. Randall has majority custody of the boys and says the affair with Booker ended. She originally refused to vacate 9 Pelicans Drive, but a judge moved her to the Ocean Boulevard home. Thomas wants that "stolen" property back and financial damages for his wife's maneuverings.
Randall insists Thomas is shortchanging her financial ability to fight him in court. Frustrated, Thomas complains his money is funding both sides of the litigation. After Randall responded to his lawsuit with the gay allegation, Thomas' lawyers called their client a victim of "blackmail" and "extortion." Gross, Katz and Mickadeit dismiss the insinuation as "absurd" and note that Thomas' lawsuit never even hinted at the issue.
Who would expect less theater when $27 million or more is at stake?
[This article appears in the print edition as "Newport Coast Masquerade: Traditional Values Advocates aren't always what they seem in Orange County."]
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