Haft melodrama rivals TV's gaudiest Family feuds over control of a $1 billion business empire

August 12, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

It's like "Dallas Comes to Dulles."

With the great budget brouhaha in the history books and Congress in recess, the nation's capital is finding relief from the August doldrums in the continuing soap opera surrounding the Hafts, one of its most powerful business families.

In this week's episode, materfamilias Gloria sued paterfamilias Herbert for divorce as part of a venomous struggle for control of a retail and real estate empire estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion. In a filing that reads like a script for a television movie, her suit weaves a tale of physical abuse, financial skulduggery and sexual misconduct -- all denied vigorously by Mr. Haft.

Like previous battles in the War Between the Hafts, this clash is being played out on the front page of the Washington Post, which has covered the domestic dust-up with a glee it usually reserves for political scandal or a Redskins victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

"I don't know that it's bigger than the penis-being-cut-off story, but it's up there," said Craig Winneker, who writes the column "Heard on the Hill" for Roll Call magazine. He was referring to a notorious case in nearby Manassas, Va., in which a young woman who alleges she was raped by her husband cut off his penis.

The Hafts' story might lack the lurid detail of that drama, but the struggle for control of their family businesses has been only slightly less vituperative.

Herbert H. Haft, 72, controls a retail domain estimated to be worth between $500 million and $1 billion. As chairman and chief executive officer of the Landover-based Dart Group Corp., he exercises control over Crown Books Corp., Trak Auto Corp., the Shoppers Food Warehouse grocery chain, and a wine-and-beer superstore called Total Beverage in Chantilly, Va. The Hafts also control a large real estate portfolio under the name Combined Properties Limited Partnership.

In earlier years, he and his wife pioneered the concept of discount drugstores through the Dart Drug chain. For several years in the 1980s, Mr. Haft and his eldest son, Robert, cut a swath through the nation's retail industry as their threatening takeover tactics earned them a reputation as accomplished "green mailers."

It was a dispute with 40-year-old Robert, the one-time heir-apparent, that led the intrafamilial intifada.

For years, Herbert and Robert had been regarded as an inseparable team, but the rift over succession plans and other issues apparently has been brewing since last year.

The family's internal divisions burst into public view in early June, when Herbert Haft announced he was dumping Robert from the boards of the publicly traded Dart and Crown because of "obstructive and destructive" behavior. The move was apparently sparked by a statement made by Robert in April to the Wall Street Journal that he was acting as the "de facto" chief executive of Dart.

At the same time Herbert ousted his son, he used his 57 percent stake in Dart to remove Gloria, his 66-year-old wife of 45 years, from her board positions because of her support of Robert.

The feud heats up

The feud escalated in early July when Herbert ousted Robert from his positions as president of Crown and vice chairman of Trak. Herbert subsequently named his 34-year-old younger son, Ronald, president of Dart and a board member of Dart, Crown, Trak and Shoppers. The Hafts' daughter, 43-year-old Linda, is apparently aligned with Robert and Gloria.

In her legal filing Tuesday in the District of Columbia's Superior Court, Gloria Haft made public her version of what was happening behind the scenes.

"In recent months, Mr. Haft's conduct toward Mrs. Haft has changedabruptly and without justification," the suit says. "He has physically assaulted and injured her, humiliated and reviled her, threatened her and two of her children with bankruptcy and destruction of the family, and summarily ejected her from her customary participation in any of the family's business interests over which he claims to hold controlling power."

In her suit, Mrs. Haft takes direct aim at Mr. Haft's control of the family's business interests. She is seeking a division of the couple's property that would give her control of either the retail or real estate side of the business empire.

Charging that Mr. Haft has taken improper steps to dilute the value of her and her family allies' holdings in the businesses, Mrs. Haft also asked the court to appoint immediately a "special fiscal agent" to take control of the couple's joint assets and protect her interests.

'Unholy partnership'

In response, Mr. Haft charged through his attorney that Gloria and Robert Haft had formed "an unholy partnership" and were making "totally false allegations" to seize control of the businesses.

The public airing of the Hafts' feuding is especially ironic because of the family's longtime penchant for secrecy. Among investors, the Haft-controlled public companies are notorious for reluctance to share even routine information with investors.

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