Dodger Dog 

Frank McCourt's Wife Is Only the Latest to Get the Raw End of a Deal

Thursday, Aug 5 2010

The Los Angeles Dodgers made a rare trip to Boston in June to play the Red Sox. For Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, burdened by a messy and public divorce, it was a chance for a homecoming. McCourt took the opportunity to host a party.

The guest list contained many of his hometown friends. But it pointedly did not include other people from McCourt's past: a handful of local real estate developers who had partnered with McCourt decades before and were most responsible for launching his career.

Among the uninvited was Jim Craig, who got to know McCourt when the latter was a 24-year-old condo developer with big dreams and an appetite for risk. Craig was 30 years older than McCourt, more experienced, and more cautious.

click to flip through (5) ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS RAHN

The two fought over a piece of land that would become the cornerstone of McCourt's real estate empire, and the collateral for his purchase of the Dodgers. Their parting was not amicable.

"It's one of those sad cases," Craig told the Weekly recently. "You have people who are that ambitious and have the brains. It's just too bad they don't have the scruples to go along with it."

Craig went on to earn a degree in education when he was 65 and finished his career as a teacher in the Boston public schools. He is now 85, and has been legally blind for the last 15 years.

One of the last times Craig saw McCourt was in a men's room, nearly 30 years ago. As they stood side by side at the urinals, Craig said, "Frank, I really would never contemplate doing any business with you ever again."

But he wished him luck.

McCourt has been fortunate indeed. He and wife Jamie McCourt have carved out a life of private jets and lavish homes. But for a very successful real estate developer, he has actually developed very little.

McCourt's former business partners, who tell their story here for the first time, say that's because he can be impossible to work with. In fact, he can be implacable and even ruthless with his partners, whether they are fellow developers, the taxpayers, or — in the case of the divorce — his wife.

Like a marriage, a real estatepartnership has to endure over the long term and against unforeseen adversities. Such relationships are committed to writing, but at some point they all run on trust.

Craig and other partners interviewed by the Weekly came to see McCourt as a guy who could not be fully trusted — someone who, when the moment came, would grab an opportunity even if it meant leaving his partner behind.

Jamie McCourt is only the latest to experience it. In the divorce trial, scheduled to open in Los Angeles County Superior Court on August 30, she is fighting an uphill battle for co-ownership of the team.

Both sides have dug in to the point of near-total warfare. Instead of signing top-tier free agents, they have been hiring star litigators.

If Jamie loses, she will wind up with something like 15 percent of the couple's assets. That may be unfair — or even immoral — but from a legal standpoint, McCourt has the stronger argument.

There's an irony in that, and it's one that Jamie seems to appreciate. After enjoying the fruits of her husband's give-no-quarter style for nearly 30 years, she is now bearing the brunt of it.

In one of her court declarations, she said she had firsthand experience of her husband's tactics: "I know that Frank is very litigious and that he employs a 'scorched earth' litigation philosophy," she wrote.

Frank McCourt declined to be interviewed for this story.

The divorce has been bad for both of them, revealing their cavalier use of Dodger money and their loosening grip on reality. Given that, the sensible thing would have been to settle a long time ago. But the McCourts didn't get where they are by mastering the art of compromise.

The McCourt family has been involved in construction in Boston since the 19th century. When young McCourt returned from Georgetown University, though, he opted not to stay with the family business, preferring to set out on his own. He was not an instant success.

On one of his first condo projects, in a former olive oil factory, he ran out of money. Residents sued to force him to finish installing the floors in the hallways and the elevator.

"He was just a baby starting out," says Marie Toppi, who was his bookkeeper. "He was very intelligent. You knew he was going to do well."

On a Boston project in the late 1970s, McCourt partnered with two more experienced developers: Jim Craig and Austin Heath. McCourt has touted the development, known as Union Wharf, as one of his early successes. But Craig and another investor, Mahmoud Ketabi, have a different view. They tell the Weekly that McCourt failed to come up with a $245,000 equity investment, allegedly forcing Ketabi to provide the money at the last minute.

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