Bill Gross seeks to end dispute over lawn sculpture. His neighbor is having none of it
After hours of testimony and weeks in the spotlight over an argument about lawn art, billionaire bond investor Bill Gross has had enough.
Soon before testimony was set to continue Monday in a dispute over a $1-million glass sculpture outside his Laguna Beach home, Gross called for an end to hostilities.
In an open letter to neighbor Mark Towfiq, the Pimco cofounder — who has been accused of playing the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song on a loop to annoy his neighbor — contended that their disagreement had gotten out of hand amid the ongoing pandemic. Both sides are seeking civil harassment orders and have filed lawsuits against each other.
“Those who know me and my history also know I do not willingly back down from a fight,” Gross wrote. “But this situation has escalated far out of proportion to the actual issues at stake, which are petty in comparison to a world in which thousands are dying and suffering every day, while many more are out of work and desperate to pay the rent and feed their families.”
Gross requested both sides “calculate all our respective legal fees and court expenses that we have already spent and will spend on this multifront battle, agree to end all hostilities, and instead donate the proceeds to Orange County food banks and other charities providing critical assistance in this time of need.”
The offer will not be accepted, one of Towfiq’s attorneys said.
“This is just billionaire Bill Gross trying to buy his way out of accountability for his horrible behavior. He is losing the trial badly and is literally on the eve of being cross-examined about his harassment and lies, which he is desperate to avoid,” attorney Jennifer Keller said in an email to The Times.
A dispute between bond king Bill Gross and a neighbor over an outdoor sculpture has devolved into police calls to their Laguna Beach mansions.
Gross and his partner, former professional tennis player Amy Schwartz, installed the 22-foot-long statue last year. The piece features cobalt-colored reeds stretching nearly 10 feet in height, swimming marlin and globes inspired by traditional blown-glass Japanese fishing floats.
In a trial that has been held on and off since last month, Towfiq has testified that he had no issues with the lawn sculpture by blown-glass artist Dale Chihuly. However, he testified that he was annoyed when a protective netting went up this year and rarely, if ever, came down. That prompted him to lodge a complaint with the city of Laguna Beach, which sent Gross a letter saying the sculpture and netting lacked permits.
Towfiq has testified that the letter to the city appeared to set off Gross, who proceeded to harass him by playing loud music at all hours, including and especially the theme song to the classic TV show “Gilligan’s Island.”
Attorneys for Towfiq are still putting on their case in Orange County Superior Court and have called on Laguna Beach police, who responded to complaints of the loud music, to testify. Attorneys for Gross, meanwhile, on cross-examination, have attempted to paint Towfiq as a peeping Tom, pointing out cameras he has installed at his home and iPhone recordings he made of Gross, Schwartz and the music.
The offer from Gross to end the dispute does not spell out any terms regarding the protective netting. Keller called the offer a “self-serving press release” and “stunt to stem the tide of negative press the public exposure of Gross’ actions has produced.
“If he really wanted to settle the case he’d agree in writing to stop the illegal harassment, remove the illegal ‘art installation’ and soccer-goal-like netting, apologize to Mr. Towfiq for his awful lies about him, and compensate Mr. Towfiq for the attorneys fees Gross has forced him to expend,” she said.
Gross later responded that despite what he called Towfiq’s “vindictive and self-serving” rejection, he intended to donate the equivalent of his expected legal fees to Laguna Beach and Orange County charities by Friday.
“My offer to Mr. Towfiq was never intended to ‘buy’ my way out of this case. It is to reserve court time for more important litigation, and to provide something of value to our community, not to benefit one side or the other except to cease hostilities,” said the statement by Gross.
An audio expert testified for Gross on Monday that the iPhone used by Towfiq to record the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song and other loud music was not a reliable sound measuring device. But before he could be cross-examined, the case was halted when an attorney for Gross and Schwartz said she had just learned that the couple may have been exposed to the coronavirus by a “certain individual in close proximity” to them.
The trial will resume Thursday with remote testimony from a real estate agent and a former neighbor of Towfiq. Gross and Schwartz will not testify until they have been tested for the coronavirus and have completed quarantine. Even if they don’t test positive themselves, it’s not certain the case will wrap up by the end of the year because it’s not being held every day and the remaining testimony will be given in person.
The case has attracted wide media attention due to Gross’ wealth and reputation. He retired last year with a net worth estimated at $1.5 billion, according to Forbes. He made his vast fortune at Pimco, the Newport Beach bond house he co-founded in 1971, but left in 2014 in an acrimonious split as returns fell and investors left. Gross also went through a contentious divorce with his second wife, with both sides obtaining restraining orders.
Towfiq, 56, is an Orange County entrepreneur who has worked in the tech industry. He endured a lengthy legal battle to build his home after buying the property on a tony stretch of South Coast Highway in 2009. A neighbor opposed the project, citing its proximity, effect on coastal access and other issues. That case has been raised in the current trial by Gross’ attorneys in an effort to prove that Towfiq is litigious with neighbors.
Gross and Schwartz bought the property next door to Towfiq for a reported $32 million in 2018, just a month after buying another seaside Laguna Beach property for nearly $36 million.