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Lawyers Argue Over Simpson’s Financial Worth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Moving from alibis to assets, lawyers laid out O.J. Simpson’s finances to civil trial jurors Thursday and argued very different bottom lines: The plaintiffs contended that he is worth $15.7 million, while the defense insisted he was $850,000 in debt even before this week’s crushing verdict ordering him to pay $8.5 million in compensatory damages.

Although they quibble over accounting practices, the major dispute separating the two sides is the estimated value of Simpson’s name and image and how much money he will be able to make selling himself.

Jurors must determine Simpson’s net worth to help them decide how much--if anything--he should pay the families of slaying victims Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman in punitive damages.

Marketing expert Mark Roesler testified Thursday that Simpson could cash in on his name.

Even with the pummeling he has taken for 2 1/2 years, Simpson can still command $60 for an autographed photo, Roesler testified. That’s more than any other living athlete except baseball greats Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, basketball superstars Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, and boxer Mike Tyson, whose market value has only increased since he was convicted of rape, Roesler said. Simpson shot up to that elite range within days of his arrest and has remained there ever since, Roesler said.

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Roesler, chairman of an Indianapolis firm that represents dozens of big-name sports and entertainment celebrities, acknowledged that Simpson is unlikely to win many endorsements or movie deals. Still, he insisted that official O.J. Simpson coffee cups could be a hit. And he suggested that Simpson could make substantial sums by auctioning off his clothing, his trophies, even his lamps or other furniture from the now-infamous Rockingham Avenue estate.

“He’s very recognizable throughout the world, and there are people who want a part of that,” Roesler said. “His value has almost tripled since the murders in terms of autographs and memorabilia.”

But lead defense counsel Robert C. Baker told jurors that his client cannot make a dime these days off the charm, the fame, the winning ways that made him so popular for so many years. He cannot peddle a book deal. He cannot sell autographs. He cannot even get permission to sell his memorabilia alongside other NFL greats at the Super Bowl. He is a pariah.

“Mr. Simpson has been blackballed,” Baker said.

Or as Simpson’s longtime business lawyer Leroy “Skip” Taft testified about Simpson’s marketing prospects: “There is zero.”

In his brief opening statement, Baker told jurors that they have already punished Simpson enough. Strapped with legal bills, tax bills, mortgage bills and more, Simpson will never dig himself out of debt now that the jury has ordered him to pay Goldman’s parents $8.5 million in compensation for their loss, Baker said.

“Punitive damages,” he added, “are totally inappropriate.”

But the plaintiffs argued that Simpson has considerable wealth. And they implored jurors to slap him with a punitive damage judgment that would punish him for a good, long time, while making an example of him “to make sure something like [these murders] never happens again.”

In his subdued opening remarks, lead plaintiff attorney Daniel M. Petrocelli told jurors that they had a duty to impose punitive damages to finish the job they started Tuesday, when they unanimously voted to hold Simpson responsible for the killings. “We don’t have the power to take away a person’s freedom or liberty in this courtroom,” Petrocelli said. “All we can do is make him pay money.”

Through the testimony of accountant Neill Freeman, the plaintiffs unveiled balance sheets assessing Simpson’s net worth. Various estimates of Simpson’s assets have circulated for months, but the actual documentation had been sealed until Thursday. The financial statements disclosed, among other things:

* Simpson’s insurance company bought out his policies for $1.75 million after denying his claim for coverage of his civil trial legal fees. The insurance company, CNA Financial Corp., has no obligation to pay any of the judgments assessed against Simpson in the civil case.

* Simpson has set up pension funds through his own companies worth $4.1 million. In addition, the National Football League’s retirement plan will provide him with a guaranteed income of $22,920 annually for the rest of his life, starting when he turns 55 in five years.

* Simpson recently sold his stake in Honeybaked Ham franchises--held through his corporation Pigskins Inc.--for about $1.2 million. He used most of the money to pay overdue federal and state taxes. The rest went to expert witnesses, court costs and some personal and business expenses.

The balance sheet also lists several other major assets. Simpson’s Brentwood house, which has tennis courts and a swimming pool, is appraised at $3.7 million, although most if not all of that value is pledged to repay a bank loan and attorneys fees. He also has a car valued at $64,000, half a million dollars’ worth of furniture and art and a $250,000 house in San Francisco that he bought for his mother after his rookie season in the NFL.

On top of that, of course, there’s his name.

Roesler estimates that Simpson will rake in $2 million to $3 million a year by exploiting his celebrity--or rather, his notoriety. He pegged the current value of Simpson’s name and image at nearly $25 million. In other words, he testified, a “reasonable person” would pay that much for the exclusive rights to O.J. Simpson for the next quarter-century.

Roesler acknowledged that he would not take on Simpson as a client for fear it might offend the other big names he represents. Still, he told jurors: “I think if someone could buy Mr. Simpson’s complete package--name and likeness and trademark rights--for [$25 million], that would be a bargain.”

Baker, looking incredulous, shot back: “Well, you go sell it and we’ll give you a commission.”

The defense plans to call two vendors as witnesses today to testify that they cannot make a profit on Simpson merchandise since his good name has been destroyed. Anticipating that argument, the plaintiffs put on their own evidence Thursday suggesting that Simpson has made more money since the murders than most people could earn in a lifetime.

Accountant Freeman testified that Simpson has signed 19 contracts since he was arrested in the slayings. He has collected more than $2.8 million on ventures that capitalized on the publicity surrounding his criminal trial, including a book deal that netted nearly $1 million.

Even from his jail cell, Simpson made money, selling autographs and memorabilia such as bronze statues of himself for more than $1 million, Freeman said. His commercial ventures started bringing in dollars as early as July 8, 1994--less than a month after the killings.

What’s more, Roesler told jurors that Simpson has applied for trademarks on six variations of his name, including “The Juice,” “O.J.” and “Team O.J., Justice for All.” His applications, all filed after the murders, spelled out his intent to produce up to 500 items bearing those trademarks, from clothes to toys to jewelry to sporting goods.

And Simpson has moved aggressively to protect those trademarks, even before the government officially registers them. He has filed two lawsuits against vendors of unauthorized products. In one, he argues that since he is “one of the most famous people in the world today,” merchandise bearing his name enjoys a “lucrative market.”

Dismissing that premise as ludicrous, Taft testified that demand for Simpson’s name has shriveled over the last year “to the point where it is [worth] virtually nothing.” He said Simpson has earned just $30,000 in the last six months, and said “we’re lucky” if Simpson makes $5,000 a month selling autographs. “He can’t pay his bills,” Taft said.

Jurors, who will probably get the case tomorrow, will have to weigh the conflicting accounts of Simpson’s wealth. But analysts suggested that the defense will have a hard time convincing them that Simpson is truly impoverished.

For one thing, Taft may not be a credible witness because the plaintiffs attorneys skewered him for changing his testimony to aid Simpson during the first phase of the trial. In addition, jurors have already shown through their unanimous verdict Tuesday night that they do not buy Baker’s arguments.

“The jury didn’t believe O.J. and I don’t think they will believe anything that comes from the defense,” said Loyola Law School professor Victor Gold, who sat in on Thursday’s testimony. “Also, I think one of them is going to ask during deliberations, ‘If he doesn’t have any money and he isn’t going to make any money, then why is he fighting [to hold down the punitive damage award]?’ ”

Considering the enormous sum that jurors awarded as compensatory damages in the first phase, Gold said “they’re going to sock it to him” in the punitive phase. “That’s not a technical legal analysis,” he added. “But it’s common sense.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

O.J. Simpson’s Balance Sheet

Both defense and plaintiffs agree on these figures unless otherwise noted. Balances of January, 1997.

Current Assets

Banks accounts: $6,137

Legal defense fund: $471

Loans receivable: $265,967

Includes $265,726 from his own company, which defense contends will never be paid back

****

Assets tied up in corporations or partnerships

Orenthal Productions: $1

Pigskins, Inc.: $242,500

May Medical Building: $42,000

****

Fixed Assets

Total pensions: $4,297,071

Personal furniture and art: $500,000

Rockingham home: $3.7 million

San Francisco home: $250,000

Defense says Simpson’s mother is beneficiary, so value is $1

Chevrolet Suburban car: $64,000

Value of name: $24,880,568

Defense contends value of name should be $0

****

Liabilities

First trust deed on Rockingham home, which was collateral for loan from Hawthorne bank: $2.3 million

San Francisco home, first trust deed: $1,959

Attorneys fees, custody case: $188,968

Simpson has to pay children’s lawyer as well as his own

1993 federal taxes: $7,811

Attorney fees, civil and criminal cases: $2,893,685

Capital gains, other taxes that defense says Simpson would owe if he liquidates his assets: $4.1 million


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