Illustration by Kathyrn HyattIf Newport Beach tycoon Donald Bren never made another dollar, he could blow $33 million every month for the next decade and still have a fortune. As a confidante to mayors, governors, congressmen, attorneys general and presidents, the Irvine Co. boss is a man connected without rival. Republican and Democrat politicians offer taxpayer concessions to his lucrative real-estate projects. California media hail him as an "environmentalist" though he's poured more concrete and bulldozed more coastal mountains than anyone in Orange County history. Among cutthroat businessmen, his name is uttered with awe.
But the 71-year-old billionaire may be near powerless when it comes to the ladies. Despite routinely backing traditional-values candidates, Bren has fathered at least seven children with five women, three of whom he married. The public isn't supposed to know much of this; like Howard Hughes around germs, Bren dreads the media. He's got a team of deft public relations advisers—the latest is ex-Orange County Register investigative reporter Bill Rams—to cast him in near-mythological if always wholesome terms. He is Orange County's great untold story, and he likes it that way.
So we can only imagine the angst in Bren's 12-room, 11,200-square-foot waterfront Linda Isle estate last May when a former Beverly Hills girlfriend filed a child-support lawsuit. Jennifer Gold wanted an increase in support payments for their two children, ages 12 and 16. The legal action promised to be nasty and, sadly for Bren, revealing. It was both.
On Feb. 26, Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ended Bren's nine-month nightmare by dismissing Gold's case, citing the defense team's claim that the statute of limitations had run out. But Bren's win came at a price: disclosure. His high-priced legal team—including Daniel Petrocelli of O.J. Simpson case fame—begged numerous judges to seal all information in Gold's suit, but none agreed.
Gold painted a portrait of Bren as a tightfisted, uninterested father. According to Gold, Bren enticed her not to seek court-ordered child-support payments by guaranteeing that he'd fund their children's lifestyle "commensurate with his vast wealth and station in life." California law bases child-support payments on a parent's income and—this is critical—has no limit. Bren makes more than $120,000 per hour during a typical business day and, according to Forbes2004 top-money list, is worth at least $4 billion. Only 115 people on the planet have more money.
Three years ago, Gold claims, she learned the billionaire had made his promise only to trick her into accepting $8,990 per month for each child, whom she says he has avoided for a decade. "For personal and business reasons and in order to protect the claimed privacy of his personal and financial information from the many persons and companies with whom he had business dealings . . . [Bren] was extremely eager to avoid any public court proceedings pertaining to his obligations of child support," Gold's attorney asserted.
Bren replied that he was already paying "in excess" of his legal obligation. He also asserted that Gold wanted a "nonsensical" $2,225,000 per month in child support until the kids turn 18 years old. No document in the case file corroborated his claim.
The case was not only about money, but also irony. The man who reportedly frets about anyone knowing his whereabouts, questions the strength of the tint on his limo windows, creates a labyrinth of dummy corporations to hide business deals, and maintains personal security sure to earn the envy of a Saudi prince had this to say of his former girlfriend: "Gold's paranoia is breathtaking."
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Paranoia? Thanks to a disgruntled ex-Bren employee, the Weekly has obtained a copy of a confidentiality agreement Bren requires his maids, cooks, nannies, drivers, security and butlers to sign. In it, the "Employee acknowledges that Employer is a public figure and substantial effort and expense have been dedicated to limit the constant efforts of the press, other media and the public to learn of personal and business affairs involving Employers, and that Employee understands that part of his or her employment responsibilities require Employee's protection of the Confidential information," Bren wrote. The capital C is in the original.
The five-page document outlines Bren's fear that the public might learn about "financial, business, medical, legal, personal and contractual matters of or pertaining to" himself, "his family, friends, associates and other employees of Employer." To help guarantee a veil of secrecy, employees are told that any leak is grounds for immediate dismissal and that all money gained from selling information to, say a tabloid, must be surrendered to Bren. Another provision states that each leak caries a "reasonable and fair" $50,000 penalty and the threat of prosecution for "fraud and deceit." If a legal dispute arises between the parties, the employee must stipulate that all information revealed in court about Bren "shall be sealed . . . permanently."
What "Confidential information" could a billionaire like Bren possibly want kept secret? The relationship with Gold is probably the least interesting. Consider that while less-fortunate Americans struggle with increasing tax burdens, Bren's two corporate towers at Fashion Island are valued by the local tax assessor at just $63,221. Or that New York City tax officials say Bren's 15-story, upper-eastside Manhattan condo (the one with an elevator) is worth less than $159,000.