Their marriage ends, their lawsuits begin

Husband-wife developers split up, and acrimony over business ties soon follows

May 31, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN REPORTER

For more than 20 years, the husband-and-wife developer team of Clark and Debbie Turner had the routine down: He built the homes, and she sold them.

Together, they made millions working on some of the highest-profile projects in Harford County. When they separated in late 2003, they resolved to continue working together to reap the benefits of their combined skills.

The post-marriage business honeymoon didn't last long. Within a year, she had accused him in court filings of siphoning tens of millions of dollars from their businesses to a "parasitic, secretly-formed" company that didn't include her and said he was taking lavish trips using company money.

After firing her for allegedly neglecting her responsibilities and harassing employees, he sought a restraining order and filed for divorce.

In court papers for the divorce, the attorneys describe the perks that come with being associated with such high-profile ventures and people of power, the same perks that are fought over when marriages and businesses end.

"Throughout their marriage, the parties enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle," Debbie Turner's lawyers wrote. "Through their businesses, or in their individual names, they own multiple residences and luxury automobiles. The parties traveled frequently, routinely dined at expensive restaurants, and established a very high standard of living."

Recently, according to court papers, Clark Turner purchased a Bentley, a luxury car that when bought new can cost $170,000 to $330,000. A court-appointed receiver determined that the couple's living expenses were $40,000 a month each.

There were other perks. Deborah Turner is a member of the board of directors at Franklin Square Hospital Center. And last year, Clark Turner hosted teenage golfer Michelle Wie at his home for the second straight year. The Cecil Whig reported that she arrived in a caravan of four SUVs with four assistants handling her Louis Vuitton luggage.

With more than $50 million at stake, the lawsuits and countersuits are in the hands of a private mediator. Though accusations and lawsuits continue to fly, an attorney for the husband says the couple could be nearing a settlement after more than two tumultuous years of legal wrangling.

Experts say the Turners' divorce is a cautionary tale for couples looking to go into business together. More than 1.2 million husband-and-wife teams run companies together, according to the National Federation of Independent Business, and studies suggest that as many as a quarter of the couples will divorce.

`A big mess'

"When it comes time to split the assets, they're not only taking away somebody's business interests, but somebody's going to lose their livelihood," said Paula J. Peters, an Annapolis family law attorney and a fellow at the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "People get upset and don't know what else to do, and then it's a big mess."

While the Turners' spat has played out, some of the company's projects have won national design awards. The Residences at Bulle Rock, a Havre de Grace project, includes more than 2,000 condominiums, villas and single-family homes, wrapped around a top-rated golf course that will host the LPGA Championship next month.

For that project, the company teamed up with Baltimore developers Richard Alter, president of Manekin LLC, and John Paterakis, the H&S Bakery magnate. The company linked up with them again for a corporate campus taking shape across the Susquehanna River at the former Bainbridge Naval Training Center. The cost of that project exceeds $1 billion.

"All the people I work with know me and know my reputation. [The conflict with his ex-wife] does not fade my business," Turner, 53, said in a phone interview from a builders conference in Las Vegas. "That is a personal matter that my spouse and I will work through."

Among the couple's rental properties is a downtown Bel Air office building rented by The Sun.

Separation in 2003

The trouble started in late 2003, when the couple separated. Debbie Turner, 52, claims in an affidavit that her husband said he wanted them to "remain as best friends and good business partners" despite their marital difficulties.

By mid-July 2004, she alleges in court documents, he began shifting future projects from Clark Turner Inc. - of which Clark Turner owned 55 percent and Debbie Turner 45 percent - to Clark Turner Signature Homes Inc., which he created and is sole owner of.

Among the projects that moved to the new company were Bulle Rock and other waterfront projects, according to the court documents.

A month later, Debbie Turner alleges, she questioned Clark Turner about tickets for a golf event. He became "enraged," setting off an incident that resulted in the filing of domestic violence charges against Clark Turner that were later dropped.

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