- Billionaire claims threat to his privacy was play for payoff
- Developer confronted with alleged bank statement discrepancy
The property developer who accuses Mark Zuckerberg of breaking a promise to introduce him to Silicon Valley’s elite lost the lawyer who got him to the brink of trial and told a judge he needs time to find a new one.
Attorney David Draper, who shepherded developer Mircea Voskerician’s claims in a case challenging the Facebook Inc. founder’s integrity, won a judge’s permission Thursday to bow out of the lawsuit after citing rules of professional conduct. Whoever takes his place will face an escalating effort by Zuckerberg to undermine Voskerician’s credibility.
Zuckerberg’s attorneys have alleged the developer’s proposal to build a 9,600-square-foot house with a view into his bedroom was just a bluff to get a payoff from the 31-year-old billionaire. In his latest offensive, Zuckerberg is contesting the authenticity of a bank statement showing Voskerician had $3.9 million to support his cash offer for the property.
Patrick Gunn, a lawyer for Zuckerberg, told the judge Thursday he thinks claims about the “fraudulent” bank statement that he raised in a Sept. 17 filing precipitated Draper’s request two weeks later to leave the case.
Draper has declined to comment on the allegations about the bank statement or why he wanted off the case.
In his written request to withdraw from the case, Draper referred to an unspecified conflict with his client. One of California’s rules of professional conduct that he cited forbids an attorney to litigate a matter “that is not warranted under existing law” or is “for the purpose of harassing or maliciously injuring any person.”
A lawyer representing his firm at Thursday’s hearing, Martin Dioli, said during a break in the hearing the judge made “the right decision” to let Draper withdraw, while declining to comment on Gunn’s speculation that it was related to the bank statement.
Voskerician told Superior Court Judge Patricia Lucas that while he’s been shopping for a lawyer to replace Draper, he hasn’t found anyone willing to sign on with a trial scheduled just weeks away. The judge directed Voskerician to huddle with Zuckerberg’s lawyers to discuss putting the case on hold.
Gunn said in an interview afterward that he told Voskerician that he wasn’t willing to postpone the Nov. 9 trial. Voskerician declined to comment outside the hearing.
The court battle grew out of Zuckerberg’s agreement in 2012 to pay Voskerician $1.7 million for rights to buy the house behind the CEO’s home in Palo Alto, California. The developer claims he gave Zuckerberg a 40 percent discount based on promised introductions and referrals in Silicon Valley that never materialized.
Zuckerberg’s lawyers have failed to stop the case from advancing toward trial even as they have challenged almost every aspect of Voskerician’s role in the deal.
The lawyers allege Voskerician lied about competing offers for the property, including one on behalf of an unidentified African prince. He grossly misrepresented his homebuilding experience and lacked financing to buy the property in question, let alone take on a multimillion-dollar construction project, they said in court filings.
They questioned the legitimacy of Voskerician’s funding after he said in a deposition that he made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling medical equipment from his previous employer on eBay under a different name.
In court filings, Draper argued his client’s alleged misrepresentations were irrelevant because Zuckerberg didn’t rely on them in his decision to buy the property rights.
Zuckerberg’s lawyers contend the Wells Fargo bank statement raises “particularly troubling questions” because one copy of it, turned over by Voskerician in January to prove his financing was solid, shows that as of Sept. 30, 2012, the developer had $3,886,680.03 in his account. Another version, disclosed last month by a lender who worked with Voskerician, shows a balance of $79,522.05 on the same date.
“Whether plaintiff has the financial means to actually fund such a project is thus an issue at the heart of this case,” Zuckerberg’s lawyers wrote.
If proven to be fabricated, the bank statement may have driven Draper from the case, said David Min, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine who’s been following the lawsuit.
“Zuckerberg was throwing a bunch of arguments at the wall to see what would work,” Min said. While hints of specious funding from the African prince and sales of used medical equipment were colorful, “you can make a much stronger case with the bank account,” he said.
If the bank statement is found to be falsified, “even your classic ambulance chaser would hesitate to take it on, and at the very least would want to know what’s going on,” the law professor said.
The judge has rejected most of Zuckerberg’s requests to have individual claims decided in his favor without need of a trial.
Min said Voskerician was in “great shape” after the judge last week cleared the final hurdles to presenting his case to a jury. The developer claims Zuckerberg used him to get the neighboring property as cheaply as he could, and then walked away from his obligation.
Among the evidence cited by the judge in her decision to let a jury decide fraud claims against Zuckerberg was a November 2012 e-mail to his financial adviser, Divesh Makan, leading to a meeting the next month in which the CEO and Voskerician closed the deal.
“Feel free to use meeting me as a negotiating carrot with them,” Zuckerberg wrote to Makan, according to the ruling. “That likely has real soft value to them and may make them more likely to want to give us a good deal.”
Lucas also referenced an e-mail from Makan, who the judge ruled must face conspiracy claims in Voskerician’s lawsuit. Sara Petersen Graves, a lawyer for Makan, declined to comment Thursday.
“We are trying to ‘wow’ these schmucks so they will accept an offer for the home that is reasonable,” Makan wrote. “The plan is to have [Zuckerberg] spend 15min with them, make them feel special etc. Perhaps you can prepare 2 goodie bags as well.”
The case is Voskerician v. Zuckerberg, 114CV264667, Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara (San Jose).