It is a tale of an alleged betrayal, fraud, of high-rollers, multimillion-dollar homes, a helicopter, a lost Ferrari, a rare book collection, and political donations to Hillary Clinton.
It has all the drama and intrigue that would befit a tale by Patricia Cornwell, the award-winning American crime writer, widely known for her series of novels featuring the heroic medical examiner, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.
Only, this is not about Scarpetta, and it is not in one of Cornwell’s novels. This is about her own life, playing out in a trial in federal court in Boston.
Cornwell, a 56-year-old native of Florida who has lived in Greater Boston for the last six years, has sued her former financial management company — Anchin, Block & Anchin LLP — and its former principal, Evan H. Snapper, for negligence in the handling of her finances, contending that Snapper and his colleagues personally benefited from their dealings with Cornwell and cost her and her company tens of millions of dollars in losses or unaccounted revenue over four years. She is seeking damages that could amount to more than $100 million.
“This case is, at its core, about trust,” her lawyer, Joan Lukey of Ropes and Gray, said in her opening statement Monday. “There was no check or balance system in place at Anchin. . . . There is no amount of money that is enough to properly compensate her for what Anchin, Block & Anchin did.”
Anchin’s lawyer, James Campbell, said in his statement to jurors Tuesday that the firm did nothing wrong, that any losses could be attributed to what was a difficult economic climate for investments and real estate, and that the firm charged fees appropriate for work done for “a demanding client.”
“The truth is, there is no money missing from these accounts, none,” said Campbell, of Campbell, Campbell, Edward & Conroy. “She is a demanding client, and she has the right to be a demanding client.”
But “there is a price to be made for that,” he said. “. . . That’s what drove the bills in this case.”
Cornwell, who has been open about her struggles with depression and bipolar disorder and the abuse she says she suffered in foster homes growing up, has had her share of real-life drama.
A romantic affair in the 1990s with then-married FBI agent Margo Bennett made headlines after Bennett’s estranged husband sought to kill the agent and her church pastor, enraged over what he termed her lesbian affair.
This most recent chapter of Cornwell’s life, mixed with personal accounts of the demands of being a novelist, her difficulty managing her finances because of her mental illness, and the alleged betrayal by her accounting firm, are taking center stage in the Moakley courthouse, on a day that lawyers for James “Whitey” Bulger were appearing before an appeals court panel.
A former newspaper reporter who has pursued her own investigation into the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, Cornwell has earned at times more than $10 million a year for her novels and nonfiction pieces. With the demands of a yearly deadline, she has had others overseeing her finances, and Anchin began working for her in late 2004 when it merged with another company that had been doing her accounting.
According to the lawsuit, Anchin agreed to take total control of managing Cornwell’s money and the assets of her company, Cornwell Entertainment Inc. Snapper, according to the lawsuit, had told Cornwell that Anchin would “do everything for its clients, including buying and delivering their toilet paper.”
But Cornwell soon learned that she was paying the company far more than the $40,000-a-month rate that she thought she and the firm had agreed on. Over more than four years, the company billed her more than $3 million, Cornwell alleges.
Meanwhile, she lost millions of dollars in investments and was astonished to know the company had invested in high-risk ventures, even though she says she tried to be conservative with her money.
Meanwhile, she alleges, Snapper gave her shady real estate advice, advice that seemed to benefit his own associates, including the son of the actor Robert DeNiro, whom he referred to as Bobby DeNiro. She lost millions in real estate, too, she said, adding that the stress and the distractions caused her to miss a book deadline in 2006, her first such miss, costing her millions more.
Cornwell said she was flabbergasted to learn, upon her questioning in 2009, that her net worth was only eight figures, which was her annual income in each of the previous four years.
When she took a closer look at the books, she said, she discovered that Anchin had borrowed money in her name for real estate investments without her knowledge. She says money from the sale of her Ferrari was unaccounted for, and she had to pay close to $200,000 in taxes on a helicopter because the firm wrongly registered it in New York. She also says that Anchin mishandled a financial transaction involving 48 rare books, leaving the money unaccounted for, and that she found a $5,000 check that Snapper had written for a bat mitzvah gift to his daughter from Cornwell.
After she filed the federal lawsuit in 2009, Snapper admitted to violating campaign finance laws by using her money to buy $50,000 in tickets to an Elton John concert benefiting Hillary Clinton. He later pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and paid a fine.
Anchin’s lawyer, Campbell, said Tuesday that the crime writer knew what was happening, including purchase of the concert tickets. The $5,000 bat mitzvah payment, Campbell said, was reimbursement for campaign donations Snapper had secretly paid on Cornwell’s behalf to James Gilmore, a former Virginia governor and a friend of hers who briefly ran for president in 2008.
Campbell also argued that the $40,000 monthly payment that was set was only a retainer, and that the company billed by the hour. Cornwell was so involved and demanding about her financial management that it boosted the billing, Campbell said. All expenses were accounted for, he said, and Cornwell made all financial decisions in what he called an extravagant lifestyle involving multimillion-dollar homes and private jets.
Campbell called Snapper an “honest person,” who was “service oriented, unfortunately, to a fault.”
“When you consider the income, you have to consider the money spent in this case,” he said.
The first witness to testify in the trial, expected to last more than five weeks, was Staci Gruber, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital, who met Cornwell when the author was conducting research a decade ago. Gruber began working as a consultant, and ultimately she and Cornwell married in 2005.
By then, she said, Snapper had been asking to manage Gruber’s finances, saying, “Come on, I can do it, I can do a better job for you,” she said.
“I trusted him,” Gruber said softly. She lost 42 percent of her assets, she said, including the proceeds from the sale of her home.
Cornwell, who in 2007 sued a Richmond, Va., man for libel after a string of Internet attacks, has been sitting in the front row at the trial and is expected to testify.Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@
globe.com. Follow him on