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Fighting Words?

After a bitter divorce, Maria George appeared to get her revenge when she sent around documents purporting to reveal the ugly truth about her ex-husband, Scott. He sued her for defamation—and won a record judgment.

It was the night of the Opera Ball at Lyric Opera of Chicago, a stunning extravaganza. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa sang in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Tout Chicago was there. Months later, an entire page of photos in Town & Country memorialized the evening. In one picture, one of Chicago’s beautiful couples have posed in the opera house’s lobby. He-a member of Lyric’s board-pauses midstride in a handsome tuxedo. She looks ravishing in an elegant low-cut gold lamé gown. They are smiling. They appear to be the luckiest of the lucky. You would do anything to have been in their place that magical evening.

That was 1995. Four years later Maria and Scott George, the glamorous couple, were parties to an unusually acrimonious divorce. The details spelled out in court are sealed from public view, but this much is known: Scott ended up with custody of the couple’s three minor children and Maria soon moved out of the state.

They didn’t talk for three years. They didn’t write. They lived a thousand miles apart. When Maria next surfaced in Scott’s life, it was in the form of a document mailed to a score of her ex-husband’s colleagues, a document so inflammatory that Scott sued for defamation of character. While the suit was pending Maria sent off another shocking document, this time to hundreds of Chicagoans, social and business acquaintances, arriving just as Scott was in the middle of a job search.

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold-but Scott got his own taste of retribution. The libel trial took place last fall, and he walked away with a $9.7-million judgment, the largest defamation verdict in Illinois history.

“It’s very, very rare for a libel case like this to go to trial,” says David Sanders, a Jenner & Block attorney who specializes in libel law (and who was not involved in this case. “Invariably the complaint is dismissed before trial or there’s a settlement. Even then, it’s usually a business or academic squabble. I can’t think of a single divorced husband and wife instance.”

How does a storied North Shore couple go from a seemingly perfect marriage to a record libel judgment? The plot unfolds with the turns and drama of one of Scott’s beloved operas.

Maria, today 51, was a bright, beautiful woman. An Indiana native whose father was a doctor, she graduated from Northwestern University in 1978 with a degree in psychology. At college she met a fellow student, Scott, today 52, a Chicago native and the son of parents who owned a small chain of shoe repair stores. Maria earned a master’s degree in anatomy, specializing in the brain and spinal cord; Scott got an MBA at the University of Chicago and became an investment banker. They were married in 1980 and honeymooned in Hawaii. Two years later, their first child was born, a boy named Peter. Soon they had two more boys and a girl.

Life, to all appearances, was good. Scott rose through the ranks of the investment banking world, moving from Salomon Brothers to Morgan Stanley, then Bankers Trust. His annual salary soared to well over $1 million. He started his own company, Titan Financial Group, and later sold it for $3 million. The Georges, refugees from Lincoln Park, lived in a $3-million, 12,000-square-foot, 22-room home in Kenilworth. They led a busy social life. Scott was on the board of directors at Steppenwolf Theatre as well as Lyric Opera. They attended openings and went to galas. They were on the society pages. They hosted lavish dinners. In winter they skied Aspen. They were, as one friend of the time put it, “the golden couple.”

A fateful omen, and possibly more, occurred one beautiful May afternoon in 1989 when Maria went to a neighbor’s house in Kenilworth to pick up a child in her nursery school carpool. While standing on the porch, she was doused with a liquid. To her horror, she realized that landscapers were spraying the trees and bushes adjacent to the house with a pesticide. “All of a sudden I was drenched,” she told me on the phone from Florida. “I was sopping wet.”

Maria says the event made her realize that life was short and should not brook an unhappy marriage. It also started a decline in her health, which would soon lead her to try a host of natural remedies and, eventually, to start her own holistic cosmetics company, Laser Garden.

The marriage came apart, as marriages do, though the Georges did not go quietly into the night. The separation was bitter, the 1999 divorce trial volatile. In her bill of particulars, Maria delivered a stinging 60-page catalog of Scott’s alleged emotional abuse, threats, and daily insults. Scott presented a very different version of events: he claimed that Maria had abused him, that she was the provocateur. Each wanted custody of the four children, who ranged in age from 10 to 17.

The divorce judge appointed a psychologist and a psychiatrist to examine the two parties and help determine who was the more fit custodian. Both recommended that Scott be awarded custody. Maria hired her own expert, a prominent Michigan Avenue psychiatrist named Robert Galatzer-Levy, who urged that Maria be granted custody. His testimony did not sway the judge, who gave the children to Scott.

Scott soon remarried and later moved to more modest housing in Lake Forest. The Kenilworth mansion was sold. Maria moved to Clearwater, Florida, close to where her parents lived, and started Laser Garden. Scott joined Ernst & Young as the national director of mergers and acquisitions of its investment banking division, called Corporate Finance. He was appointed to the board of directors of the division and remained on the boards of Lyric and Steppenwolf. Scott and Maria talked a single time, one Thanksgiving, when Maria called to speak to her daughter; Scott answered and quickly passed the phone. Three years went by. The past and its bitter residue had been laid to rest.

Or so it seemed.

On a November morning in 2002, about a week before Thanksgiving, Scott was in the New York office of Ernst & Young. Peter Griffith, E & Y’s chairman in Los Angeles, called to say he had just received a disturbing document. Scott should get a copy from Human Resources.

It was the 60-page bill of particulars from his divorce. It had arrived in a plain white envelope with an Ernst & Young return address. Anyone who read the document would have been horrified. In it were all Maria’s allegations: Scott’s volatile temper, the terrible names he called her in front of the children, his insults, his threats, the time he emptied her drawers and hurled the contents on the floor. There were also charges of business misconduct.

To Scott’s dismay, it soon became apparent that others in his office had received the document. Later he learned that 20 Ernst & Young partners throughout the United States had received the package. A few colleagues phoned to commiserate. Most who had seen or heard of the document kept silent. His future at Ernst & Young grew precarious. Eventually, Giuliani Partners, the New York firm started by the former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, bought Corporate Finance. All the partners in Scott’s division were invited to join the firm-all but Scott. If he hadn’t been devastated he might have appreciated his operatic fate-the happiest of men undone by vengeance.

The question of who had sent the document was quickly resolved. Scott and his attorney, Edward Joyce, traveled to Clearwater to take Maria’s deposition. Of course she had sent the document, she admitted. The world had to know the truth.

“I sent the letter because I was concerned about my life,” she says by phone from Florida. “I felt my life was being threatened. I felt it throughout my marriage. My attorneys and law enforcement told me all I had [to protect myself] was my pen and my voice. The divorce file was sealed, so people never knew the truth.”

The grounds for libel of a private citizen are fairly basic. The defamation must be made public and it must have caused quantifiable financial damage. It must also, of course, be false. In October 2003 Scott filed a lawsuit against Maria for defamation of character.

As the case started its slow progress to trial, Scott was busy arranging his severance from Ernst & Young and was immersed in a job hunt. The year 2004 promised a new beginning. He had a dozen or so interviews with high-profile investment firms. A top executive search firm, DHR, seemed on the verge of hiring Scott to recruit candidates for its banking clients. By the fall of 2004 his future was again looking bright.

That’s when the second letter arrived.

This one was a three-page single-spaced document titled “Investment Banking Scam Has Woman on the Run.” It began, “My name is Maria George and I am writing because I am involved in a situation that has relevance to millions of people in this country. I have also come to the realization that my life may be in danger due to my continuing effort to tell the truth and expose both corporate and judicial corruption.”

Maria went on to include a claim that Scott had left Bankers Trust with a generous settlement because he had threatened to sue for reverse discrimination. (Scott has acknowledged receiving a “package” of a million dollars upon leaving, but denies any threat to sue.) Maria also claimed that Scott had “bought” the divorce trial judge as well as attorneys and experts-and she mentioned his relationship with a criminal defense attorney, who she asserted might help arrange “an accident” if any of this were revealed. Maria’s letter ended with a plea to contact her at a designated address in Florida and to send contact information so that she could “telephone you on a secure line within 48 hours.”

The letter went to past clients of Scott’s and to likely future clients. Friends and social acquaintances received the letter. Everyone on the boards of Lyric Opera and Steppenwolf received the letter. The executive search firm, DHR, received the letter. Most significantly, the letter was sent to virtually all of Chicago’s top investment banking firms, a list apparently culled from Crain’s Chicago Business. Many were in the process of final interviews with Scott.

Scott thinks that, all told, between November 2004 and January 2005 Maria sent more than 200 copies of the letter. (Maria says she sent “thousands” to politicians, news media, and women’s rights groups.)

The results were predictable. None of the companies where Scott was in the process of being interviewed-discussions he would later describe from the witness stand as “positive” and “favorable"-chose to make an offer. One of the companies was Mesirow Financial, whose vice chairman, Jeff Golman, had known Scott for 25 years, since their days together at Salomon Brothers. Golman was among dozens who were stunned to hear about the letter and read its contents. Almost immediately, on the eve of Thanksgiving, he faxed a copy of Maria’s letter to Scott.

“We were discussing a possible relationship,” Golman says. “I never regarded the accusations as having any merit. But this is a very personal business. We work with public companies. There are lots of competitors. A letter like that would definitely be a swing factor. Stories like that can have an impact. It would certainly be rattling.”

Golman is careful to stay in the hypothetical, to emphasize that the letter was not the reason his friend Scott didn’t get the job. “You put a lot of things into the equation,” he says.

Still, Scott believed the letter had been fatally decisive with most if not all of his potential em ployers. His career appeared ruined. His peace of mind was in a shambles. “The most difficult part,” he told me during a long session in the office of his attorney, “was I didn’t know what people were thinking or what they knew about me. I didn’t know [the reasons why] I didn’t get invited to join a board or get a piece of business I’d gone after aggressively. Most people [will] read things in the press and think where there’s smoke there’s fire. This wasn’t the case. It was all false. But of 200 people who received the letter maybe 20 called me. That’s very stressful.”

Down in Florida, meanwhile, Maria noted the impact of her letter with mixed emotions. “Was I satisfied with the results of the letter? My goal was to tell the truth,” she says. “I told the truth and I’m still here.”

Maria had sent the second letter, she says, because the Illinois Supreme Court had recently dismissed Scott’s motion to limit her financial settlement in the divorce. She claims that within days her apartment was broken into and her phone tapped, and she was frightened. She has claimed that on this occasion and others when she felt threatened she went to the local police or the FBI, though no record has surfaced to substantiate that claim. (Under cross-examination by Scott’s lawyer during the libel trial, Maria acknowledged that she had never filled out a complaint with police against her husband.)

In February 2005, Scott filed a civil suit claiming domestic abuse based on the letters and documents Maria had sent. Seven months later, Scott was granted an order of protection that was eventually incorporated into the divorce decree. Scott agreed to settle the dispute without going to trial, provided Maria paid a token amount to offset legal fees and promised to send no more letters. The mediation effort fell apart, and the curtain went up on act 3.

Testimony for the libel trial got under way on September 27, 2006, in the Daley Center courtroom of Cook County Circuit Court judge Irwin Solganick. Edward Joyce represented Scott. Maria’s lawyer was Richard Ducote, a Pittsburgh attorney transplanted from New Orleans who specialized in victims of emotional abuse.

After opening arguments, Joyce spent nearly two days taking Scott through his short-circuited job prospects. Scott testified he was now employed at an out-of-state investment firm, Morgan Joseph, where his compensation was $160,000 as an “employee at will.” Joyce showed him a document on Morgan Joseph letterhead.

Joyce: “And what does it mean to be an employee at will?”

Scott: “As I understand it, it means that they can-at any point in time they can terminate me for any reason or for no reason.”

Ducote conducted a vigorous cross-examination, including trying to suggest that Maria’s letter wasn’t alone responsible for Scott’s reduced prospects.

Ducote: “Prior to the time that the letter was sent by Maria had your compensation ever been reduced in your employment?”

Scott: “Well, my compensation was- Yes, my compensation was reduced at Bankers Trust. . . .”

Ducote: “Now, when your compensation was reduced at Bankers Trust, was your job changed in any way?”

Scott: “No.”

Ducote: “And you said this was a record year for Bankers Trust?”

Scott: “It was a record year for the office that I ran at Bankers Trust.”

The defense lawyer also tried to get Scott to admit to threatening a reverse discrimination suit at Bankers Trust when he was told that he might be replaced by someone younger and African American.

Ducote: “Before you went in that meeting, you thought, as I understand it, that maybe you could claim that you had been the victim of reverse discrimination; that is, that you were being moved around so an African American could have your job, right?”

Scott: “I didn’t claim that. I want to be clear. But did I ever think that I could have claimed that? Sure, I think there were enough facts there that I could have raised the issue. I chose not to.”

On the trial’s third day, an Ernst & Young colleague of Scott’s described the pall the letter had cast at work. The CEO of the search firm DHR testified that after receiving the letter he was compelled to withdraw his job offer. An employment expert testified that Maria’s letter had made Scott virtually unemployable in the rarefied atmosphere to which he was accustomed. He estimated Scott had lost $1.7 million in past earnings and would lose $8 million in the future.

Maria herself first took the stand on September 28th. Much of her testimony revolved around documents she said she had found in Scott’s office that she felt proved aspects of the reverse discrimination charge. Legally, she was not required to prove that her husband, Scott, had threatened reverse discrimination; she had only to convince the jury he had told her that. She did not have to prove there was a judge in Scott’s pocket; but she did need to persuade 12 men and women that that was what he said to his wife.

Two witnesses were not permitted to testify on Maria’s behalf. One was the opera singer Eleni Matos, formerly a “young artist” at Lyric. While the Georges were still married, Matos had met Scott at a Greek event-they’re both Greek-and he invited her and her husband to stay in an upstairs apartment of the Kenilworth mansion. Matos and her husband stayed there for three months, from December 1996 until March 1997, and she recalls that she heard Scott haranguing Maria over the intercom and on a phone extension. “In all my life,” she says, “I’ve never heard such profanity.”

Matos, who testified at the divorce trial, maintains that to the outside world, Scott was charming, brilliant, a lover of the arts, a good family man; in the privacy of his own house, it was a different story. “It was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” she says.

“Maria’s allegations of abuse were false when first introduced and [are] false today,” Scott insists. “They were contradicted by my children and three other witnesses. It was as a result of Maria’s failure to prove her allegations of abuse that I was awarded sole custody of our children.”

The issues at the trial had been narrowed to focus on Scott’s professional reputation-the three-page letter was redacted, eliminating mention of any abuse-and Matos was barred from testifying. “It was a libel trial,” Joyce explains. “Abuse had nothing to do with it. They [Scott and Maria] hadn’t talked in three years.”

The jury was out for two hours. It returned to award Scott what the employment expert had indicated he had lost in past and future pay: a total of $9.7 million.

The likelihood of his collecting that sum appears bleak. In a personal letter to me, Maria wrote, “Every morning I awaken and wonder if the sheriff is coming today to take my few pieces of furniture, my bed, and the clothes off my back.”

Eleni Matos, who lives nearby, confirmed that Maria “has nothing.”

Joyce, for one, is not persuaded. “She’s hired very expensive lawyers,” he says; “she always appears with an entourage; she dresses in expensive clothes. Her parents happen to be wealthy and quite old.”

“She does not appear to be operating under any financial constraints,” says Scott.

Scott tells me he is satisfied. “I’m not looking for sympathy or pity. The last thing I want is more publicity. I truly don’t have any vindictive feelings for her [Maria]. I wish she’d just go on with her life and let me and my family go on with mine.”

He is unlikely to get his wish, at least not right away. Ducote claims he has several grounds on which to base a successful appeal, among them the questionable redacting of the letter as well as the decision barring Eleni Matos and her husband from taking the stand. Maria’s appeal is scheduled to be argued sometime this spring.

In other words, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings.        

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