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Separated McCourts both claim ownership of the Dodgers

Frank McCourt's attorney says his client owns the team outright. Jamie McCourt's attorney says she owns 50% of the franchise. The dispute could lead to a prolonged ownership battle.

October 16, 2009|Bill Shaikin and Harriet Ryan

In what is shaping up to be a classic celebrity battle, the attorneys for Frank and Jamie McCourt volleyed contradictory claims of who really owns the Dodgers just one day after the couple's marriage separation was announced.

The looming showdown confirmed what many Dodger fans fear, that the team could be embroiled in a prolonged ownership battle that may affect the running of the club.

Dennis Wasser, who represents Jamie McCourt, on Thursday rebutted claims that Frank McCourt is the club's sole owner.

"We disagree," Wasser said. "We are confident that, if the ownership issue must be adjudicated, the Dodgers will be determined to be community property, owned 50% by each of the McCourts."

But Marshall Grossman, who represents Frank McCourt, said he has documents to back up his assertion that his client is the sole owner.

"Anyone reading them will readily see that Mr. McCourt's ownership is 100%," said Grossman, who declined to release the documents.

Wasser said he was unaware of any such documents and said he knew of no reason why California's community property law would not apply.

"Everything I've seen leads me to believe it's 50-50, whether there's a document or not," Wasser said.

All this transpired as the Dodgers prepared to play the first game of the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies won Game 1, 8-6.

Major League Baseball lists Frank McCourt as the Dodgers' "control person." But a high-ranking baseball source said Thursday that the couple presented themselves together for the approval of Commissioner Bud Selig when they bought the team in 2004.

"I firmly believe each of them is going to try to keep the team," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation. "I think it's going to be pretty ugly."

Neither Frank nor Jamie McCourt has spoken publicly about their separation, instead leaving comments up to some of the biggest legal names in town.

Grossman is a high-powered business litigator whose clients have included AIG, Apple Computers and such celebrities as singer Mariah Carey, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and writer J.K. Rowling. Frank McCourt also has retained veteran family law attorney Manley Freid, who represented Tom Arnold in his divorce from comedian Roseanne Barr, battled Lee Iacocca in court on behalf of his third wife, and helped Janet Jackson's former husband, Rene Elizondo, try to challenge a prenuptial agreement.

Jamie McCourt has hired Wasser, among the most sought-after defense attorneys for the city's rich and famous. Wasser's client list reads like the front row of the Academy Awards audience: Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Jane Fonda, Alec Baldwin and Stevie Wonder, to name a few. He has represented athletes, including baseball player David Justice and former Dodgers star Steve Garvey, as well as billionaires Ron Burkle and Kirk Kerkorian.

The case could turn on whether the McCourts' ownership of the team is in any way related to their ownership of residential real estate.

In the five years since they moved to Los Angeles, the McCourts have purchased four properties in upscale areas. In 2004, they bought two adjacent residences in Holmby Hills, near the Playboy Mansion. They added a beachfront home in Malibu in 2007 and, in the following year, bought the bungalow next door.

Within a month of each purchase, Frank McCourt filed papers that identified the homes as "the sole and separate property" of his wife and giving up any claim to them. Together, the properties in Jamie McCourt's name are valued at close to $80 million, according to county real estate records.

Hillel Chodos, an attorney who has handled divorces involving wealthy individuals, said of the property transfers: "On the face of it, they had an agreement that they would buy the properties and she would own them.

"Maybe she gave up something else in exchange. That is what usually happens, but you can't be sure," said Chodos, who is not involved in the McCourt case.

Lynn Soodik, a Santa Monica family law attorney also not involved with the McCourts, said the property transfers raise the possibility that the McCourts have an agreement that could make community property law moot.

"I would imagine they do," Soodik said.

With the possible exception of poor credit, she said, there would be "no other reason" for Frank McCourt to transfer the properties, except as part of an agreement. It is uncertain whether any such agreement would determine who controls the team.

For now, Dennis Mannion, the Dodgers' president, reports directly to Frank McCourt.

Yet Jamie McCourt remains the Dodgers' chief executive officer and plans to continue in that role and retain an ownership interest in the team, Wasser said.

And then more immediate matters are at hand, such as the ongoing negotiations for a long-term contract extension for General Manager Ned Colletti. The Dodgers are planning to discuss new deals with coaches and executives whose contracts expire in December.

"We've got business as usual here," said Josh Rawitch, the Dodgers' vice president of communications.

Wasser said he was disappointed that the matter has become so public.

"Jamie McCourt had desired just to focus on the Dodgers' success in postseason play," he said.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

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