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Betty Ford Fights Judge's Order to Give Deposition

Ex-first lady is not named in the suit against the Rancho Mirage rehab clinic she directs.

August 07, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Attorneys for Betty Ford are fighting a judge's order that the 85-year-old former first lady appear for a deposition in a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the rehab center near Palm Springs that bears her name.

Dismissing arguments that she has no relevant information to offer in the case, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Lawrence W. Fry on Friday ruled that Ford, chairwoman and director of the nonprofit Betty Ford Center at Eisenhower Memorial Hospital, show up for the videotaped deposition Aug. 15.

The lawsuit was filed by Mark Greenberg, former vice president of business development at the center, who says he was wrongfully terminated and cheated out of promised compensation for helping to create a recovery program for the treatment of those who suffer chronic relapses of chemical addictions.

According to the lawsuit, the center's president, John Schwarzlose, promised Greenberg 15% of the profits of the Professional Recovery Program. Instead, Greenberg says, he was forced out of his position shortly after the program opened in 2000.

David Freeman, an attorney representing Ford and the center, said, "We intend to ask the court to reconsider.

"We don't think she has anything to do with the subject matter of this lawsuit," he said. "She is the chair of the center. But she is not a party to the lawsuit. The lawsuit is against the center."

If he fails, Ford may become the first presidential spouse to be deposed in a court case, according to attorneys in the case.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Greenberg insisted that Ford's testimony is crucial to his case.

"Mrs. Ford is a hands-on chairwoman who oversees all of the center's board meetings," Greenberg said. "I would hope that Mrs. Ford would want to know why one of her most loyal and dedicated employees was forced to leave the center; I'm talking about me."

The Betty Ford Center's board meets every other month to consider policy and financial matters involving the 100-bed 15-acre facility that was established in Rancho Mirage in 1982, two years after Ford overcame an addiction to alcohol and painkillers.

By speaking openly about her personal problems, including breast cancer mastectomy, the spouse of President Gerald Ford -- the 38th president -- became known as "the godmother of the recovery movement" and an icon for recovering middle- and upper-class addicts around the world.

The center's patients have included a constellation of troubled motion-picture and television stars, among them Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Liza Minnelli, Tony Curtis, Johnny Cash, Peter Lawford and Mary Tyler Moore. However, less than 1% of the center's 56,000 clients have been celebrities.

Ford, who lectures to the center's patients once a month, could not be reached for comment. However, in a sworn declaration filed with the court, she said, "To the best of my recollection, the board of directors has never discussed any of the terms or conditions of Mr. Greenberg's employment with the Betty Ford Center or any promise to pay him 15% of the profits of the PRP at any time I was present."

Century City attorney Gerald Sauer, who is representing Greenberg, said, "Mrs. Ford is the highest ranking official at that institution, and I need to take her deposition to find out what she knows, as well as what she doesn't know. In fact, a deposition would reveal exactly who is calling the shots.

"Unfortunately, I believe the Betty Ford Center has attempted to keep Mrs. Ford from being deposed simply because of her status in this country. However, if a sitting president such as Bill Clinton can be subject to being deposed, then certainly a former first lady can be subject to the same thing."

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