By Eamon Javers Richard T. Fields could have been a real-life forerunner to Donald Trump's reality show, The Apprentice. From 1995 to 1999, he learned the casino business at The Donald's side as a consultant, and the pair had visions of expanding Trump's New Jersey-based gaming operation nationwide. And why not? They were tight. Fields, a show biz promoter, advised Marla Maples, Trump's second wife. And Fields' wife, Meeka, was in the room with Maples when she delivered daughter Tiffany.
But this partnership has turned rockier than anything depicted in Trump's TV boardroom (see BW Online, 12/01/05, "Trump Deal Working out for Apprentice"). A cozy relationship has given way to a blood feud, rife with allegations of dishonesty. Locked in an ongoing legal battle over a Florida casino project, Trump and Fields have filed dueling briefs that reveal the depth of their animosity. At stake: more than $1 billion.
"P.T. BARNUM ACT". Trump charges that Fields betrayed him by snatching away a plan to build two casinos on land owned by the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida. He says his protégé misled tribal negotiators into thinking Fields still consulted for Trump after the two had parted. "This guy should be the most thankful guy in the world that he met Donald Trump," the 59-year-old developer says in an interview. "Before he met me he had virtually nothing. I taught him the business, and then he went out and took advantage of the situation unfairly."
Hardly, replies Fields. Now 60, he was no wet-behind-the-ears B-school grad: Fields was once part-owner of the Catch a Rising Star comedy club and helped promote rocker Pat Benatar. Now he charges that Trump is trying to get his hands on a profitable deal that he passed up years ago. "Donald Trump has built a career bullying and litigating in the courtroom -- trying to accomplish what he could not do in the boardroom," Fields tells BusinessWeek. "Trump's P.T. Barnum act may work with some folks, but in this case he's facing unintended consequences for his continued bad behavior."
The saga unfolds in a series of legal filings. In December, 2004, Trump sued Fields in Broward County Circuit Court. Fields fought back in Florida and by intervening in the bankruptcy of Trump's public company. That outfit, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, filed for bankruptcy protection in November, 2004, and emerged last May as Trump Entertainment Resorts (TRMP).
EXPENSES QUESTIONED. Trump says Fields first came to his attention in the early '90s. "By 1995, Fields's position grew to being a confidant and one of a select group of individuals who enjoyed access to Donald Trump at virtually any time," Trump's suit says.
In 1997, Maples and Trump split, and by 1998 Trump and Fields were at loggerheads. Trump ordered an investigation into Fields's expenses. Fields says Trump's accountants cleared him. Trump maintains that Fields couldn't account for the funds -- but he nonetheless kept him on contract as a consultant, under tighter controls.
In that role, Fields negotiated on Trump's behalf with the Seminoles to build and manage casinos on tribal property. Fields maintains in court documents that Trump was only interested in building "Class III" casinos, offering pure games of chance, such as slot machines, craps, and roulette. When Florida Governor Jeb Bush nixed the idea, "Trump directed that the effort be terminated entirely," Fields's filings say.
BETRAYAL OR NOT? But Fields says Trump gave him the green light to try on his own. That's backed up by an affidavit signed in August from Mallory E. Horne, a lobbyist hired by Trump. Horne testified that he told Trump and Fields in late 1998 that Florida officials wouldn't budge. According to Horne, Trump replied, "That's the end of it," then told Fields: "If you want to try this on your own, Richard, that's fine, but I'm through with it."
Trump tells BusinessWeek the affidavit is "total nonsense," and insists that when the suit goes to court, he'll produce witnesses to back his account of betrayal. The tycoon charges that Fields gave the Seminoles the impression that he was still working with Trump.
The tribe's leadership has changed since a contract was signed in 2000 to build two Class II casinos, which offer variations on bingo and card games like poker. They didn't require Florida's blessing. Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner declines to comment on the lawsuit. The former tribal chief could not be reached for comment after repeated tries through the tribe and independently.
EDGY NEXT SEASON. Fields insists that he never misled anyone. He brought in Cordish Co., a Baltimore-based real estate developer. Together they built the Seminole Tribe of Florida Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla. Class II casinos are not normally as lucrative as Class III facilities. But the Seminole casinos, opened in March and May, 2004, have been wildly successful: They rake in revenues of $1 billion annually. Earlier this year, the Seminoles decided to buy out Fields and Cordish for a reported $1.2 billion. Talks are ongoing.
After the casinos took off, Trump sued Cordish and Fields. Cordish says in a statement that Trump's suit is "frivolous." Fields's response has been more pointed: He has filed his own round of charges. Fields alleges in court documents that Trump engaged in a "host of questionable insider transactions," using company funds to support a lavish lifestyle.
Trump and his employees say there's nothing to Fields's accusations. "We pay [Trump] a salary and we reimburse him for his documented expenses, and that's it," says Scott C. Butera, chief strategic officer for Trump Entertainment Resorts.
Who's right in this war of words? Barring a settlement, it will be up to Florida courts to decide. In the meantime, the Trump-Fields reality show seems headed into another season just as edgy as anything on the small screen.
With Amy Borrus in Washington and David Polek in New York
Javers is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau