Puff Daddy Keeps a Father Waiting [1999-05-17]
The February date, though, concerned Puffy’s more modest days, before he earned $53 million a year, indeed when he was just a low-paid record company hustler promoting a basketball game featuring rap stars at the none-too-fancy Nat Holman Gymnasium at City College. In the first big event he ever promoted, a swelling crowd burst into a horrific stampede for entry that crushed nine fans to death and injured 29 more.
Eight families of the deceased settled wrongful death lawsuits against Mr. Combs in early 1998. One didn’t, though, so in February Mr. Combs asked to sit down, man to man, with the one holdout father, Leonard Nelson Sr., who lost his only child, Leonard Jr., in the crush. At the meeting, Mr. Combs, 29, and Leonard Nelson Sr., 41, talked for about an hour without lawyers around, according to an attorney familiar with the case.
The case was not resolved. It continues to linger, even as a growing crush of legal cases has begun to pile up around Mr. Combs. They include garden-variety family court negotiations over matters involving his children; disputes over noise at his 21st Street restaurant, Justin’s, and criminal mischief charges in 1996 for filching a film reel.
Things have gotten more serious this year: An April 15 dispute with record executive Steven Stoute allegedly ended with Mr. Combs hammering Mr. Stoute over the head. He faces seven years in prison if convicted of second-degree assault. Out on $15,000 bail, he’s reportedly offered Mr. Stoute, who has retained attorney Tom Puccio, $2 million to forgive and forgo a contemplated civil suit, but a source in Mr. Combs’ camp told The Observer that no offer has been made.
In early May, a new legal issue sprouted when questions were raised in the press about whether he actually worked 40 hours a week last year on behalf of a charity he had founded in upstate White Plains, Daddy’s House Social Programs Inc. That?s what he stated on the organization’s tax form.
With all this, Mr. Combs has turned into a veritable one-man legal employment bank. On his team the longest has been Kenny Meiselas. Mr. Combs was 19 when he first retained Mr. Meiselas, then the more rap-fluent of two partners in a Great Neck, L.I., firm and now a partner of music industry powerhouse Grubman Indursky & Schindler, who represents many other hip-hop stars and producers. Mr. Meiselas still handles Mr. Combs’ deals, but now farms his other legal work out to specialists. Some are well-known in Manhattan, such as Jay Goldberg, who has handled criminal matters for Mr. Combs, including the bottle incident, and Stanford Lotwin, who has advised Mr. Combs on matters involving his children. Others don’t even have offices in the city: Garden City, L.I.-based Mark Goidell is advising Mr. Combs about the City College matter. Mr. Meiselas declined to comment for this story.
The City College matters continue to haunt Mr. Combs. Earlier this year, he said in a prepared statement: “There is not a day that passes that I do not regret the fact that I was a promoter of this tragic event at City College. I have lived with the horror of that night for the last seven years.” Not to mention the legal bills: In addition to the eight wrongful death cases, he has so far settled all three of the 20 or so personal injury cases filed in state court.
The ninth wrongful death case involves Leonard Nelson Jr. On Dec. 28, 1991, Mr. Nelson, a 17-year-old honor roll student at Truman High School and aspiring accountant, cadged $20 from his father to see his favorite rapper, Heavy D, play basketball with members of A Tribe Called Quest, Run-D.M.C., Brand Nubian and several other rap performers of the moment. Jostling in the ticket lines before game time intensified after Mike Tyson was ushered past the ticket holders and straight to his seat. Soon after, ticket holders pushed down a stairwell to enter, but three of four gym doors were locked. Mr. Combs grabbed the cashbox and made it into the gym, but was unable to get the crowd to stop so the doors could be pushed open. Horribly, Mr. Nelson and eight others were crushed and asphyxiated.
The other eight families who lost their children settled their lawsuits early last year. Mr. Combs ended up paying around $600,000 of a total $3 million or so, said two involved attorneys. The city, rapper Heavy D and a security firm paid the rest. That approximate 20 percent stake reflected the fact that Mr. Combs had not adequately planned for the crowds, and had not questioned security plans at all. Mr. Combs also neglected to insure the event, as he was required by the college to do. One unnamed defense lawyer told The Village Voice last year that the Combs team was “willing to jump at these numbers” because the cases were “being dispensed of for significantly less than their value.”
It’s unlikely a settlement in that price range will resolve the Nelson case. “They have not yet made a reasonable offer. No, they haven’t,” said Mr. Nelson. The father lamented that Mr. Combs, Mr. Myers and the third remaining defendant, the city, have all let the case drag along: “They haven’t shown any concern, as far as I’m concerned. Or enough concern, let’s put it that way.”
Mr. Nelson, a construction worker in the Bronx, left the meeting with the impression that Mr. Combs was not well informed about the case, according to two sources. Mr. Nelson declined to acknowledge the meeting for The Observer. (The parties signed a confidentiality agreement that covers any contact with the rapper, said two sources familiar with the case.) He said that he does suspect that Mr. Combs’ lawyers are not updating the star about every torturous turn in the case: “I feel it’s possible, yes. . .very possible.”
Mr. Combs’ lawyer, Mr. Goidell, said his client and Mr. Meiselas are involved in every important decision in the matter. “We’ve made offers which we believe to be in excess of the top value of the case considering Puffy’s share of responsibility,” he said. A judge in the case against the college deemed that Heavy D and Mr. Combs (who was not on trial and merely testified without cross-examination) were 50 percent responsible for the tragedy.
The Nelson family, represented by Schneider, Kleinick, Weitz, Damashek & Shoot, is said to be asking for around $500,000 in the case. Value in these cases is guided in part by the tough wrongful-death law in the state, which calculates damages from the lost income of the survivors only. “Reasonable people can disagree about what, ultimately, the value of the case might be,” said Mr. Goidell.
Also pending are the three personal injury lawsuits stemming from the City College stampede. Mr. Combs’ relations with those parties are strained. “Our offers have been serious and reasonable, and the reactions to them have been unreasonable,” said Mr. Goidell.
“I think that Puffy Combs has been very, very conservative in terms of settlement negotiations and is really treating this as more of a business situation and less of a human situation,” contended Peter De Filippis, who is representing Nicole Levy, a onetime acquaintance of Mr. Combs now suffering from a thyroid disease said to be triggered by the incident. Mr. Combs has offered to pay half what the State of New York, as parent of City College, pays out, said two sources familiar with the case. The state is currently offering $50,000, the plaintiffs demanding $300,000 and up.
Meanwhile, Mr. Combs has developed more pressing legal matters: the criminal kind. An indictment stated that Mr. Combs kicked Mr. Stoute about the body, struck him with a glass champagne bottle, a chair and a telephone about the head and body, fracturing Mr. Stoute’s arm, after Mr. Stoute reportedly refused to drop Mr. Combs from a video he had made, in which Mr. Combs hung from a cross. Mr. Combs also allegedly destroyed a telephone and threw over desks. There’s been some speculation that the brawl was a message to Mr. Combs’ street following, which lately has been finding him out of touch. If so, it may be a very expensive message to send.
And here’s another possible legal bill on the horizon: According to the “Smoking Gun” Web site, Mr. Combs reported in the 1998 tax filing for his charity that he had performed 40 hours of work a week, and was compensated $50,000. Mr. Combs’ camp put out a statement clarifying that he was not actually paid and that was just an estimate of his time’s worth. It did not address whether he actually worked 40 hours a week for the charity or not.
Mr. Combs is apparently aware of the legal consequences of these many cases. Jay Goldberg said his client knows what’s going on legally as well as he knows his way around a Marvin Gaye sample. “He understands legal concepts better than most people, he comes up with incisive questions, he’s in control of himself and the people around him. He really is something to admire. When I think about it, he’s just 29, the restaurants he has…” Mr. Goldberg drifted off.
Of course, Mr. Combs’ success has rubbed off on his lawyers. Mr. Meiselas’ closeness to him couldn’t have hurt him in the eyes of the Grubman firm. Mr. Goidell’s visibility has grown since taking on Mr. Combs’ case. Last year, Atlanta lawyer Wayne Grant asked Mr. Goidell to help him pursue non-bomber Richard Jewell’s libel case against the New York Post, its columnist Andrea Peyser and ABC- TV for falsely casting him as guilty. Mr. Goidell’s firm (whose Web site address is www.justiceprevails.com) was recommended by friends in New York. “They are tenacious, they are professional, they are hard-hitting. And when you have associate counsel, you can’t ask for a better combination,” said Mr. Grant. The Post settled. Mr. Goidell is now working on an unrelated libel case, against the Buffalo News.
So the lawyers profit, Mr. Combs’ empire grows, and Mr. Nelson waits for the phone call that could end his eight-year stint in legal limbo. “The closure I’m looking for right now is not to deal with the lawyers no more, not to deal with the courts no more, not to deal with the thought of going through this whatever,” said the father, who is left without a son, an only child, or a settlement to conclude his legal ordeal.