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Suit Settled on Unfulfilled Pledge to Arts Plaza

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attorneys for the fund-raising arm of the Civic Arts Plaza have settled their legal dispute with reclusive millionaire Charles E. Probst in exchange for his agreement to pay the balance of a promised $2-million donation to the performing arts center.

Under the settlement announced Thursday, Probst will deliver the remaining $1.75 million through an accelerated payment schedule, and Alliance for the Arts will drop its breach of contract lawsuit against Probst and his wife, Florence.

Alliance officials said the agreement ensures that Probst, who has failed to make payments on the promised donation in almost two years, will deliver on his pledge this time. They expressed confidence that there will be no more delays in payment.

The case is currently pending in Ventura County Superior Court, but lawyers plan to move for dismissal next week.

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Meanwhile, the Civic Arts Plaza’s performing arts center will continue to bear Probst’s name in glittering gold letters outside its entrance, as stated in the original fund-raising pact between the alliance and the mysterious millionaire.

“I’m extremely happy that the dispute with Mr. and Mrs. Probst has been resolved on terms satisfactory to all,” said alliance Chairman Bob Lewis. “We value our relationship with the Probsts, and look forward to many years of collaboration and cooperation with them.”

The Probsts could not be reached for comment Thursday, but said in a statement that they were pleased to settle the lawsuit.

“They believe that it’s a satisfactory settlement,” said Probst’s attorney, Paul Stansen. “They were eager to see this come to an end.”

Thousand Oaks leaders were also happy to see the controversy surrounding the city’s landmark building come to a close after months of gossip.

“It was a contract, and it was a contract that needed to be honored,” said Councilwoman Judy Lazar. “I’m delighted they were able to come to an agreement, because this was an issue all of Thousand Oaks was concerned about.”

Probst, 52, was an unknown figure in the city until 1994, when his $2-million plan to plant more than 900 trees, grass and shrubs below his $8-million hilltop mansion stirred up a fracas in the ritzy North Ranch neighborhood.

In addition to its perceived gaudiness, the landscaping proposal drew fire because Probst scraped almost all native vegetation from his land--a violation of a development agreement between the city and the property’s previous owner--and because Probst wanted to build an unusually large underground bunker for maintenance equipment.

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An angry Planning Commission rejected Probst’s plans. Then--days before the City Council was set to consider his appeal--Probst toured the still-unfinished Civic Arts Plaza with then-Councilman Alex Fiore and land use attorney Chuck Cohen and decided on the spot to donate $2 million to the complex.

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When the City Council voted 3 to 2 to overturn the Planning Commission’s decision shortly afterward, critics charged that the timing and size of Probst’s gift created a conflict for the council. Former Mayor Larry Horner publicly chastised the council, calling the decision an act of municipal prostitution.

In the fall, Probst made his first $250,000 payment toward his pledge. He was welcomed into the arts community, feted at the Civic Arts Plaza’s grand opening and named to the center’s board of governors. He and his wife also entered the political scene, making several large campaign contributions to candidates in the November 1994 City Council elections--candidates who said they had never even met Probst.

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“He was the largest single contributor in that campaign, and one really wondered what his impact would be on the city,” said Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski, who did not receive money from Probst. “We never had anyone like that, donations of that size.”

Then, as quickly as they rose to the top of Thousand Oaks’ social strata, the Probsts retreated. Probst failed to appear at a press conference he had scheduled at the Civic Arts Plaza. He never attended board of governors meetings and eventually resigned from the post.

Probst became embroiled in another homeowner dispute when he erected a large iron fence on his property next to Westlake Boulevard--a violation of city codes. The few people in Thousand Oaks who knew him said he felt hassled and betrayed by the city’s establishment.

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Last year, Probst failed to make the two $175,000 installments that were due on his pledge. After negotiations proved fruitless, the alliance decided it had no choice but to sue him in January, said the group’s attorney, Daniel Grunfeld.

But taking Probst to court was not an easy task: Process servers tried 19 times to serve the millionaire with the suit, but never got past his intercom. They finally served a man claiming to be Probst’s son as he was leaving the estate.

When asked Thursday if he ever spoke to Probst directly, Grunfeld only offered “no comment.” Stansen declined to comment on whether Probst still lives in Thousand Oaks, saying, “I don’t want to get into any of that.”

Although Probst and the alliance may not have been communicating, their attorneys had been negotiating before the suit was filed. Earlier this month, the lawyers delayed several conferences in Simi Valley Municipal Court, working on a compromise to avoid trial. On Monday, they reached a tentative agreement, and after the alliance’s board of directors approved the settlement terms Tuesday, the agreement was finalized late Wednesday.

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“I’m very, very glad that this is behind us,” said Patricia Eisele Moore, who became the alliance’s new executive director last month. “We have to move forward now in our efforts to become a world-class facility. It does bog you down when you have a big lawsuit hanging over your head.”

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Neither the alliance members nor the attorneys would discuss the details of the settlement, which are confidential. But Grunfeld said the alliance will receive the final installment of the pledge well before August 1999, the final date under the original contract.

And he and alliance members said that although they could not reveal specifics, the settlement includes a mechanism that effectively ensures Probst will make the payments--fully and on schedule.

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“I can’t discuss the terms, because this is no different from our relationship with any other donors,” Lewis said. “But no, I am not concerned. I believe there is no doubt that Probst will make the payments.”


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