A protracted court battle over one of the country’s largest charitable trusts took a bitter twist Wednesday when a public-interest lawyer accused a fellow plaintiff of offering a “sweetheart deal” to opponents.
Sidney Wolinsky of Public Advocates Inc. said the San Francisco Foundation has offered to relinquish control of the $420-million Buck Trust and withdraw from a lawsuit over its use in exchange for millions of dollars in legal fees and other payments.
Wolinsky alleged that such a deal would leave the foundation’s fellow plaintiffs, 46 nonprofit groups, to fend for themselves in the costly and complicated legal fight over how and where the trust will be spent.
Other lawyers in the case declined to discuss details of the settlement offer but rejected Wolinsky’s comments as premature.
The Buck Trust was created in 1975 when Ross, Calif., philanthropist Beryl H. Buck left $12 million in her will to help needy residents of Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
Oil Company Stock
But the bequest was in the form of stock in a small oil company, the value of which ballooned when Shell Oil Co. bought the firm in 1979. Complicating matters is the nature of Marin, the nation’s second-wealthiest county, which has relatively few needy people.
Faced with large numbers of needy people in other counties nearby, the San Francisco Foundation, which administers the fund, filed suit seeking to challenge the Marin-only clause in Buck’s will. The foundation argues that if Mrs. Buck had known that her trust would be worth so much, she would not have limited her largess to affluent Marin.
The foundation was joined in its suit by the other nonprofit agencies from the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area and by Public Advocates. Opposed to the move were Marin County and several Marin charities.
The foundation suffered a strategic setback when Superior Court Judge Homer Thompson ruled that the foundation could not bolster its case by listing the social needs of nearby counties. The judge also agreed to a second trial, at which Marin County could seek to remove the foundation as the trust fund administrator.
Shortly after that, settlement negotiations began. Public Advocates pulled out of the talks because, Wolinsky said, his firm was not allowed to hear and perhaps rebut some of the contentions made by others.
The foundation’s settlement proposal, according to Wolinsky, includes a request for $3.2 million in legal fees and another, unspecified, sum to help it to adjust to the loss of more than 70% of its assets and to cover the lease on its big office.
In exchange, the foundation would relinquish control of the fund in 60 to 90 days, withdraw from the lawsuit and agree not to oppose the use of an additional $5.7 million in Buck Trust money for legal fees. Control of the Buck Trust would pass to a new foundation composed of Marin County residents, presumably to benefit Marin County.
“The settlement deal isn’t a settlement deal at all,” Wolinsky said. “It’s an offer to take a dive in exchange for a payoff of $4.3 million.”
“The trial has become such a procedural nightmare . . . that there is no way it can survive on appeal, so they (foundation representatives) have decided to . . . save what they can,” Wolinsky charged.
Carol Piasente of the San Francisco Foundation would not discuss specifics, but she did say that a settlement offer was made July 1 and contended that the type of financial conditions Wolinsky described were “normal” in probate disputes.
Piasente added that Wolinsky’s complaints are premature.
“The settlement negotiations have been continuing, but there has been no deal at this point,” the San Francisco Foundation spokeswoman said. “It is difficult at this point to tell when--if and when--the settlement will be agreed upon.”
Marin County Counsel Douglas J. Mahoney, who is fighting any changes in the trust, declined to discuss settlement negotiations.