BY JIM DOOLEY – A real-life variation of The Descendants movie is being staged in Hawaii state Probate Court, where heirs to the Damon Estate, one of Hawaii’s wealthiest family trusts, continue to squabble over nearly $1 billion in land and other assets.
The family fortune was first amassed by patriarch Samuel M. Damon, whose family history bears at least a passing similarity to the family at the center of The Descendants.
In the film, which is based on a novel by local author Kaui Hart Hemmings, George Clooney plays an heir to a family fortune established generations earlier by the marriage of a haole banker to a Hawaiian princess.
Samuel Damon was a banker and, while he didn’t marry into Hawaiian royalty, much of his family fortune was derived from lands bequeathed to him by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, who also established the giant of all Hawaii land trusts, the Bishop Estate.
In the film, Clooney’s family is confronted with the decision to sell its last remaining large landholding in Hawaii, an undeveloped valley on the island of Kauai.
Nearly a billion dollars in Damon assets — stock in First Hawaiian Bank as well as real estate holdings on Oahu, the Big Island and the Mainland – were liquidated in recent years and distributed among Damon heirs after Samuel Damon’s last surviving grandchild died in 2004.
That hasn’t stopped the family feuding in Probate Court.
Two Damon Estate beneficiaries, Christopher Damon Haig and Myrna Murdoch, continue to press claims that trustees of the estate may have mishandled estate assets and are demanding that fuller financial disclosures be made to beneficiaries.
One of the trustees they have targeted, David Haig, is the brother of Christopher Haig and the ex-husband of Murdoch.
Virtually all that’s left of the estate is some $30 million held in reserve pending resolution of the objections from Murdoch and Haig, which have been under dispute for eight years.
In a recent court hearing, Probate Court Judge Derrick Chan refused to order the trustees to turn over additional material to Murdoch and Christopher Haig, saying he wants to wait for a report on Estate finances to be completed by mid-February.
The report will be written by former Circuit Judge Gail Nakatani, appointed by Chan as a court “master” to review Damon Estate financial accounts for the period 1999-2004.
The work of a previous independent “master” who reviewed those same accounts, private attorney James Kawachika, was rejected by the Hawaii Supreme Court in late 2008.
The high court upheld a claim by Christopher Damon Haig that Kawachika had been in a conflict of interest when he when he worked as the master because his law firm also represented the estate in other legal matters.
Damon trustee and beneficiary David Haig has been engaged in acrimonious legal proceedings with his ex-wife since the couple’s divorce proceedings in the mid-1990’s.
The pair reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in one dispute over what the legal name of their daughter should be.
Murdoch said her Probate Court objections to the actions of David Haig and other other trustees are unrelated to her personal history with David Haig.
She said she and other beneficiaries are entitled to detailed financial disclosures about what actions the trustees took when they oversaw liquidation of nearly $1 billion of estate assets.
“The beneficiaries have a statutory right to see all the documents and see what the trustees are doing with our money,” Murdoch told Hawaii Reporter.
Murdoch questions the decision by the trustees to invest more than $300 million in liquidated estate assets with Goldman Sachs, the New York-based banking and securities firm.
Murdoch asserts that undisclosed fees were paid to Goldman in connection with the investment.
“I cannot find out how much the Damon Estate paid to Goldman Sachs to manage hundreds of millions of dollars. Goldman Sachs is not a charity, so how much was charged for fees?” she said.
Attorneys for David Haig and the other trustees have said their clients acted ethically and appropriately in their stewardship of Damon Estate funds.
The estate’s ties to Goldman Sachs parallel similar connections between the New York institution and the multi-billion dollar Bishop Estate.
In the 1990’s, the Bishop Estate purchased and later sold a $500 million equity interest in Goldman Sachs. The estate also underwrote an unusual insurance policy for former Goldman Sachs co-chairman Robert Rubin when he joined President Bill Clinton’s administration.
Rubin placed his personal holdings in Goldman Sachs in a blind trust and Bishop Estate, for a fee paid by Rubin, guaranteed the value of those holdings.