IT SEEMED TO COME STRAIGHT OUT OF A JUDITH KRANTZ novel, though Shakespeare was probably more apt. Last spring, half sisters Scheryle Patigian and Andrea Swanson filed a lawsuit claiming that their father, Dallas tycoon Harold Simmons, was a selfish tyrant who was trying to cheat them out of money that was rightfully theirs. They alleged he had taken millions of dollars out of trusts he had set up for them and used it to buy homes, an airplane, and gifts for his third wife, Annette. They alleged he gave away funds from the trusts to charities and conservative Republican officeholders they don’t support. In their suit, 44-year-old Patigian and 31-year-old Swanson asked for $50 million in damages and Simmons’ removal as the trustee of the two trusts, which hold most of his $1.3 billion fortune.
The media couldn’t wait to weigh in. The New York Times compared the family drama to King Lear. Reporters predicted that the trial, which began in October, would cast a harsh light on the reclusive, 66-year-old Simmons, who had built the bulk of his empire mounting hostile takeovers of publicly held companies. Patigian and Swanson (who won’t talk to the press) hired more than fifteen lawyers to help plead their case, promising multimillion-dollar contingency fees if the trusts are wrested from their father’s control. Some Dallas residents who know Simmons guessed that he would settle out-of-court rather than pay an estimated $8 million in legal fees only to risk everything in court.
Simmons, however, refused to settle—which, to even his own surprise, brought him a degree of public support he had never before received. “My two daughters believed they should be getting as much money as they want, whenever they want it, and I said no,” he told me in an interview at his palatial North Dallas home, showing me dozens of supportive letters he has received from Dallasites he does not even know. Close friends—including philanthropist Nancy Brinker and Southern Methodist University president Gerald Turner—have gone so far as to write emotional letters to the Dallas Morning News praising Simmons, quoting Scripture about honoring one’s father, and criticizing the newspaper for devoting space to the daughters’ allegations.
Raised in a home without electricity in East Texas, Simmons began his banking career in Dallas as a loan officer for Republic National Bank. In 1961 he borrowed $95,000, kicked in $5,000 of his own money, and purchased a drugstore; three years later he put the net value of the store, $33,000, into a trust for his daughters to avoid creditors and reduce his estate-tax bill. He eventually paid back his creditors, bought more drugstores, sold out to the Eckerd chain in 1973 for $50 million, and then used that money to make bigger investments and take over little-known conglomerates. To avoid higher taxes, Simmons placed nearly all his money and all his companies in the original trust or a second one he also set up for his daughters.
At issue in the trial was whether the specific wording of the trusts gives Simmons the right to use the money for his personal benefit. The trust agreements clearly state that Simmons has “absolute discretion” in running them, from investing income to paying out that income as he sees fit. But Patigian and Swanson, who have complained publicly that since childhood their father has valued money more than them, alleged Simmons engaged in “flagrant breaches of fiduciary duty” as trustee. For example, they said, he has given money from the trust to political candidates in their names without their authorization. And purchasing jewelry for his wife, they said, is a selfish act that cuts into the value of the trusts. (Simmons counters that the jewelry is an “investment,” owned by a company controlled by the trusts, which the daughters will be able to wear or sell after Annette dies.)
Patigian and Swanson have said they simply want to preserve the trusts for their own children. But courtroom observers were startled when the two women talked openly of how dependent they are on the money Simmons pays them from the trusts—and how badly they want more. Patigian, who lives in Arizona with her husband, a struggling artist and poet, and her children in an eight-bedroom home that Simmons paid for, receives a tax-free $15,000-a-month allowance from the trusts. Swanson, who receives $5,000 a month tax-free, lives in California and is married to a man who, according to testimony during the trial, has trouble keeping a job (he also reportedly lost $80,000 trying to set up chess tournaments). Swanson was asked under oath if she had ever considered paying for her own living expenses. “No, I don’t think so,” she replied.
More relevant to the case, however, was whether Simmons has always acted in the best interest of his beneficiaries, which he is required to do by law. Thanks mainly to his failed bid for the defense contractor Lockheed in the early nineties, the value of the trusts did drop from $1.8 billion to $1 billion, which Patigian and Swanson say shows his reckless investing strategy. Yet in a key moment in the trial, a trust expert testifying for them was forced to admit under cross-examination that if a typical trustee had put the $33,000 net value of Simmons’ first drugstore in the types of conservative investment vehicles that standard banks require, the trust would be worth only $245,000 today.
Then there was the matter of Simmons’ other daughters: Lisa Epstein, who is Patigian’s sister (their mother was Simmons’ first wife), and Serena Connelly, the sister of Swanson (both born to Simmons’ second wife). Ironically, Epstein and Connelly have received less money from the trusts than their sisters. (Between 1991 and 1995, according to court records, Simmons gave $2,064,472 to Patigian, $896,575 to Swanson, $422,430 to Connelly, and $395,675 to Epstein.) Yet in her testimony in early December Connelly not only said she was grateful for her father’s “very competent” work as a trustee but added that Swanson was a “greedy” woman who wanted control of the trusts only after she learned how much they were worth.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this feud was the irrelevance of the outcome: Lose or win, Simmons vowed that Patigian and Swanson would remain beneficiaries of the trusts. “I don’t care how many hate letters they write me,” he told me. “They are my daughters, and I won’t abandon them.” And if he loses? The billionaire shrugs. “Well, it’s not too late to start over. But I won’t be putting all my money in a trust again. I think I’ve learned my lesson.”