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Fla. mogul, facing trial, adopts girlfriend

Friday, February 10, 2012

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The story already had people's attention: A multimillionaire polo magnate was accused of causing a drunken-driving wreck that killed a young man. But now, with his criminal trial approaching, a strange twist has raised even more eyebrows: He has adopted his 42-year-old girlfriend.

Critics say it is an attempt by John Goodman to shield some of his fortune from the accident victim's family. But at least one legal expert says a judge is likely to see through the maneuver and prevent the 48-year-old owner of the International Polo Club in Palm Beach from benefiting from it.

The adoption was revealed in recently filed court papers, dumbfounding even the judge who will preside over the wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the victim's family. Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley said Goodman's actions "border on the surreal and take the court into a legal twilight zone."

"It's the kind of thing that you go, ‘Whoa. What?"' said Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Florida's Nova Southeastern University.

A lawyer for the mother of the man killed in the wreck said in a court filing that Goodman's move was meant to disguise his true wealth should he be found liable and forced to pay punitive damages.

"If, through a series of transactions, John B. Goodman succeeds in preventing the jury from considering evidence of his true wealth, the jury's punitive damage verdict may be far short of anything close to meaningful punishment," said Christian Searcy, who represents Lili Wilson.

Goodman was the heir to his family's business, a heater and air conditioner manufacturer, which he sold in 2004 for $1.43 billion. He built his polo club into one with an international reputation, drawing Palm Beach elites to watch matches and sip Veuve Clicquot champagne.

On the morning of Feb. 12, 2010, police say, a drunken Goodman was driving his black Bentley convertible home after a night out and ran a stop sign, slamming into a Hyundai Sonata. Behind the wheel was Scott Wilson, a 23-year-old recent college graduate.

Wilson's car rolled into a canal. Goodman, police say, left the scene, leaving Wilson to drown.

He waited about 50 minutes before calling 911. When police arrived, he reeked of alcohol, his eyes were bloodshot and glassy and his speech was slurred, authorities say. His blood alcohol level was 0.177 percent, more than twice the legal limit.

Goodman's criminal trial is scheduled for March 6, and he could get up to 30 years in prison if found guilty of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide. His fortune is also at stake because of the Wilson family's lawsuit, set for trial March 27. The family has not said exactly how much it is seeking.

Some of Goodman's fortune is already shielded because it is in a trust fund that was set up for his two biological children in 1991 and is estimated to be worth more than $300 million. He added a third beneficiary to the trust -- girlfriend Heather Colby Hutchins -- after adopting her last fall. Hutchins got immediate access to some of the funds because she is the only beneficiary who is an adult.

It's not clear whether Goodman has put any more of his money into the trust since the accident. While he can't withdraw money he has put in, his opponents worry he is using his girlfriend to maintain some indirect control over the trust.

Goodman and Hutchins refused to comment. Daniel Bachi, one of Goodman's attorneys, defended the move, saying his client will not benefit from Hutchins' adoption. Bachi said a separate contract between Goodman and his ex-wife assures that 95 percent of the trust will ultimately go to his two children.

"Nothing in this arrangement with Ms. Hutchins is illegal," Bachi said in a statement. "Everything that has been done by Mr. Goodman was done with the intention to preserve and grow the assets of the trust for his two minor children."

A guardian for the children's interests, Jeffrey Goddess, has asked that the adoption be dissolved. "If Mr. Goodman is bound to Ms. Hutchins, and feels as though he would like to protect her and take care of her financially, the obvious solution would be to marry her -- not to make her his child," Goddess' attorneys said in court papers.

Adult adoption isn't unheard of. Gay couples have turned to adoption to ensure their partners are given their estates. Elderly people have used it as a way to bequeath something to a trusted caretaker. Similarly, wealthy defendants regularly look for ways to shift their assets so they can't be touched. Money is moved into offshore accounts, and property titles are put in a spouse's name.

But Jarvis said he couldn't recall a move like this.

"It's an attempt by his attorneys to protect his assets, to get some assets in the hands of his girlfriend, to give him some control indirectly over his assets," Jarvis said.

Because Hutchins wasn't added to the trust until after Goodman's fortune was threatened, a judge could invalidate the maneuver or allow the jury to count any money she takes out in deciding on damages, Jarvis said.

"It's a Hail Mary," the professor said of the maneuver. But he added: "At the end of the day, I don't think it's going to be successful."


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