The Spouse That Roared: Hedge Funder’s Ex Slaps Him With Rico Charge

Firms dragged into nasty divorce; who's next?

divorce photollo The Spouse That Roared: Hedge Funders Ex Slaps Him With Rico ChargeWhy don’t you go ahead and make a federal case of it, said one thousand husbands to one thousand wives, and then one of them went and did. On July 9, a Scarsdale resident named Elizabeth Bingham-Perry filed a civil RICO action in the U.S. Southern District’s White Plains courthouse.

Her husband, Jeffrey, an executive at hedge fund marauder Dan Loeb’s $9 billion Third Point LLC, had engaged in a pattern of criminal conspiracy, she alleged, committing mail and wire fraud to conceal more than $1 million in assets since he’d first hired a divorce lawyer in 2006. That was just the beginning. Mr. Perry’s entire career, his wife said, “has been marked by repeated criminal activity in his quest to amass his fortune.”

And that’s where the complaint took a tabloid turn. To support her claim, the plaintiff cited Mr. Perry’s status as a defendant in a 2006 lawsuit accusing the hedge funder of participating in a scheme to manipulate the stock of a Canadian company called Fairfax Financial. Ms. Bingham-Perry didn’t stop there. She also noted the involvement of three hedge fund managers—Mr. Loeb, James Chanos and Steven A. Cohen—who were co-defendants in the Fairfax case.

It hardly matters that all four men had been dismissed from the Fairfax lawsuit, or that Ms. Bingham-Perry’s complaint will stand or fall on her charge that Mr. Perry concealed assets. If a judge agrees to hear her case, the plaintiff’s legal team could potentially drag some of the heaviest hitters in the hedge fund world into the discovery process, forcing them to answer questions about events that took place nearly a decade ago.

Mr. Perry’s lawyer says the lawsuit is groundless, a crude play to influence settlement negotiations. But even if the complaint amounts to no more than a shakedown attempt, it’s unlikely to fade quietly.

Pay up, or have your dirty laundry aired in public—that’s the blueprint for most blackmail. But using federal racketeering law to threaten to expose hedge-fund managers’ most closely guarded secrets takes a certain amount of ingenuity. Even if the judge dismisses Ms. Bingham-Perry’s complaint, the suit has placed her among the vanguard of hedge fund wives seeking to establish civil RICO as a go-to weapon in high-finance divorce. And when marriages go south, affluent spouses tend to fling whatever piece of legal crockery is close at hand.

“The rich have more complicated splits because there are more assets to divide,” noted Jill Kargman, whose novel The Ex-Mrs. Hedge Fund chronicled the pre-financial crisis extravagance of Manhattan’s leading financial couples, imagining a world of $675,000 bowls of matzoh ball soup and orgies on private jets.

But it doesn’t take a novelist to imagine juicy tales of high-finance divorce—the real-life cases making headlines in recent years have been plenty salacious.

Last month, for instance, hedge fund manager Daniel Shak sued his ex-wife, the professional poker player Beth Shak, for failing to disclose certain assets during their divorce. To wit: a collection of 1,200 pairs of Christian Louboutins and other designer shoes that Ms. Shak herself values at a cool $1 million. (Mr. Shak withdrew the suit last week.)

In March, Highland Capital Management founder James Dondero argued that he was insolvent according to Texas family law, despite showing income of $36 million on his 2010 tax returns. According topress reports, Mr. Dondero, who through Highland manages $23 billion in assets, wanted to avoid making good on a prenuptial agreement that would have capped his wife’s settlement at a mere $5 million.

And then there was the case of self-proclaimed genius and private equity investor Henry Silverman, who attempted to introduce “scientific” evidence into his divorce proceedings to demonstrate that his $450 million fortune derived from his own innate qualities—and thus were not subject to equitable distribution as marital assets. (A bold effort, but shot down in court.)

“They’re more strategic in divorce because they have to be,” Karen McMahon, a Long Island-based divorce coach, said of her high-net-worth clients.

Such strategies seem to be proliferating of late. For instance, prenups are increasingly being written to include “escalator clauses”—by which a spouse is guaranteed a greater piece of the pie the longer a marriage lasts. Meanwhile, postnups have become de riguer in the hedge fund world. Some hedge funds actually require new partners to sign postnuptial agreements with their spouses as a condition for gaining ownership shares in the firm. The impetus is less about preventing a spouse from winning controlling shares—an outcome generally precluded by partnership agreements—than it is a question of keeping an aggressive lawyer or accountant from slapping an exaggerated valuation on the firm.

“The idea is to keep nosy spouses out of the books,” said Ken Burrows, a lawyer who has written such agreements. It’s hardly a far-fetched concern. Earlier this year, Twin Capital Management founder David Simon sued his wife Linda, alleging that she hacked into his laptop. She said she was looking for evidence of extra-marital affairs; he said she accessed highly confidential financial records.