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Their marriage ends, their lawsuits begin

The Baltimore Sun

For more than 20 years, the husband-and-wife developer team of Clark and Debbie Turner had the routine down: He built the homes, and she sold them.

Together, they made millions working on some of the highest-profile projects in Harford County. When they separated in late 2003, they resolved to continue working together to reap the benefits of their combined skills.

The post-marriage business honeymoon didn't last long. Within a year, she had accused him in court filings of siphoning tens of millions of dollars from their businesses to a "parasitic, secretly-formed" company that didn't include her and said he was taking lavish trips using company money.

After firing her for allegedly neglecting her responsibilities and harassing employees, he sought a restraining order and filed for divorce.

In court papers for the divorce, the attorneys describe the perks that come with being associated with such high-profile ventures and people of power, the same perks that are fought over when marriages and businesses end.

"Throughout their marriage, the parties enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle," Debbie Turner's lawyers wrote. "Through their businesses, or in their individual names, they own multiple residences and luxury automobiles. The parties traveled frequently, routinely dined at expensive restaurants, and established a very high standard of living."

Recently, according to court papers, Clark Turner purchased a Bentley, a luxury car that when bought new can cost $170,000 to $330,000. A court-appointed receiver determined that the couple's living expenses were $40,000 a month each.

There were other perks. Deborah Turner is a member of the board of directors at Franklin Square Hospital Center. And last year, Clark Turner hosted teenage golfer Michelle Wie at his home for the second straight year. The Cecil Whig reported that she arrived in a caravan of four SUVs with four assistants handling her Louis Vuitton luggage.

With more than $50 million at stake, the lawsuits and countersuits are in the hands of a private mediator. Though accusations and lawsuits continue to fly, an attorney for the husband says the couple could be nearing a settlement after more than two tumultuous years of legal wrangling.

Experts say the Turners' divorce is a cautionary tale for couples looking to go into business together. More than 1.2 million husband-and-wife teams run companies together, according to the National Federation of Independent Business, and studies suggest that as many as a quarter of the couples will divorce.

'A big mess'

"When it comes time to split the assets, they're not only taking away somebody's business interests, but somebody's going to lose their livelihood," said Paula J. Peters, an Annapolis family law attorney and a fellow at the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "People get upset and don't know what else to do, and then it's a big mess."

While the Turners' spat has played out, some of the company's projects have won national design awards. The Residences at Bulle Rock, a Havre de Grace project, includes more than 2,000 condominiums, villas and single-family homes, wrapped around a top-rated golf course that will host the LPGA Championship next month.

For that project, the company teamed up with Baltimore developers Richard Alter, president of Manekin LLC, and John Paterakis, the H&S; Bakery magnate. The company linked up with them again for a corporate campus taking shape across the Susquehanna River at the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center. The cost of that project exceeds $1 billion.

"All the people I work with know me and know my reputation. [The conflict with his ex-wife] does not fade my business," Turner, 53, said in a phone interview from a builders conference in Las Vegas. "That is a personal matter that my spouse and I will work through."

Among the couple's rental properties is a downtown Bel Air office building rented by The Sun.

Separation in 2003

The trouble started in late 2003, when the couple separated. Debbie Turner, 52, claims in an affidavit that her husband said he wanted them to "remain as best friends and good business partners" despite their marital difficulties.

By mid-July 2004, she alleges in court documents, he began shifting future projects from Clark Turner Inc. - of which Clark Turner owned 55 percent and Debbie Turner 45 percent - to Clark Turner Signature Homes Inc., which he created and is sole owner of.

Among the projects that moved to the new company were Bulle Rock and other waterfront projects, according to the court documents.

A month later, Debbie Turner alleges, she questioned Clark Turner about tickets for a golf event. He became "enraged," setting off an incident that resulted in the filing of domestic violence charges against Clark Turner that were later dropped.

According to a police report, the company's longtime accountant, Lawrence Kramer - described in court papers as the "third-most important person in the company" behind the Turners - tried to restrain Clark Turner after he kicked a garbage can at Debbie Turner.

Kramer, who had been associated with the company for 30 years, said he was grabbed by his necktie, pulled toward the floor and slammed into a file cabinet, bruising his back and ripping his shirt sleeve.

He was fired that evening but said he thought the incident would blow over because of his long association with the company. But when he arrived the next day, he said, he was greeted by security guards.

Though a report of the incident was filed, the charges were dismissed after Kramer and Debbie Turner declined to testify.

In an interview, Kramer, 53, recalled a close-knit company where employees were invited to ice skate on a pond at the Turners' Darlington farm.

"The company was a true success story of a 'ma and pa' operation, taking something from nothing and growing it into a viable business," Kramer said.

Over the next few months, Clark Turner fired his wife and told her to stay out of the company's waterfront office complex in Belcamp.

Debbie Turner had "become increasingly disruptive to CTI's workplace and harassing of CTI employees," Clark Turner said in court filings.

He accused her of opening employees' mail and taking papers, bills and documents off their desks while neglecting to pay electric, phone and water bills.

"Several employees have indicated to me their intent to leave work should Debbie continue to appear at the offices," he said in his affidavit.

Clark Turner sought a temporary restraining order against Debbie Turner, then opened a new company account for which he had sole signatory authority. He deposited rent checks from their properties in the account to "preserve the company's assets," according to court documents.

In response, she wrote letters to tenants contradicting instructions that they had received regarding where to send their rent payments.

The couple's problems were not restricted to the direction of the companies. After saying that her husband was "undergoing a personal crisis," Debbie Turner's lawyers detailed a litany of alleged unseemly behavior.

"Unfortunately, I think divorce sometimes brings out the worst in human emotions, and she has made claims to get leverage and improve her position that are not factual at all," Clark Turner said in an interview. "Anyone can file a claim. ... The truth is known by the mediator working through this."

Debbie Turner declined to comment through her attorney, Geoffrey H. Genth.

Her lawsuits name some of the couple's partner companies as defendants and have required people including Alter to give depositions.

Amid the legal wrangling, disputes continued to emerge. At one point, Debbie Turner contacted Clark Turner about concerns over Grand Oaks, a townhouse development in Bel Air. Clark Turner said he could assure her of a share of the profits if she consented to and guaranteed a $6.8 million loan.

"If Mrs. Turner does not consent to the loan, the chips will fall where they may," Clark Turner's divorce lawyer, Sheila Sachs, responded. Those exchanges led to another lawsuit, which Debbie Turner filed in March of this year, accusing him of withholding proceeds from sales at Grand Oaks.

The Turners' assets are being overseen by a court-appointed trustee, a move that Clark Turner appealed on grounds that it took away his power to run the companies. The Court of Special Appeals upheld the decision, and the cases are being heard by a private mediator at a cost of $26,000.

In a written opinion, Court of Special Appeals Judge Ellen L. Hollander summed up the cases:

"We are mindful that the parties are extremely wealthy persons involved in a bitter, contentious divorce that will inevitably involve claims for analysis of the many business entities that they have created as part of their lucrative real estate empire."

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