Friday, June 1, 2012 | 6 p.m.
Over the years, I’ve watched Wayne Newton perform in any number of Las Vegas showrooms.
Thursday, I saw him in a courtroom.
I prefer the showroom.
Trudging into a courtroom for an early morning legal tussle is never a pleasant experience. There is no orchestra, smoke machine, no overhead water effect to make fake rain during a show-closing cover of “MacArthur Park.”
Instead, it was just a dark-suited Newton and his wife, Kathleen, accompanied by their legal team, fronted by Las Vegas attorney Stephen Peek. The stage scenery at the Regional Justice Center courtroom was plastic pitchers of water and yolk-yellow legal pads.
At the adjacent table marked with a “Plaintiff” nameplate was the legal team representing the Newtons’ business partner in the would-be Casa de Shenandoah entertainment attraction, Steve Kennedy. Wearing a western-cut jacket, Kennedy was seated at that table, representing the company he manages and the Newtons’ partner in the Shenandoah project, CSD LLC of Blanco, Texas. Las Vegas attorney Charles McCrea Jr. represents CSD.
Also named in the countersuit (but not present Thursday) are CSD partners Lacy and Dorothy Harber, who live in Grayson County, Texas. Lacy Harber is the owner of American Bank of Texas, with an outcropping of 16 branches across Texas and assets surpassing $1 billion. Court documents list the Harbers as owners of the investment company DLH, which conducts real-estate business in Las Vegas.
For years the Harbers have been big fans of Wayne Newton and also happen to be avid hunters. One of Kennedy’s holdings in Blanco is a commercial, exotic game-hunting ranch. The Harbers actually hold majority interest in CSD LLC, which now owns Shenandoah, with a 70 percent stake. The Newtons are 20 percent partners, with Kennedy and his ex-girlfriend and business partner, Geneva Clark, equally splitting 10 percent.
So many personalities. So much on the line. For disclosure purposes, it’s not exactly a secret that I’ve been friends of the Newtons for a long time, about 13 years. Tricia McCrone, sister of Kathleen and sister-in-law of Wayne, has co-hosted the interview show “Kats With the Dish” with me for more than a year. This has developed as an old-Vegas kind of dispute in its small-town collection of cast members; one of the Newtons’ attorneys is Thomas Standish, whose sister Jane has for years worked for the Newton family. Practically everyone listed on both sides of the crisscrossing complaints have hung out socially at one point or another.
The issue being argued in court now is the status of the latent Newton museum project, which – if you roll back the clock to the fall of 2010 – was originally planned to be open by the end of last year.
The concept was peppered with cool stuff: A theater across Sunset Road that was to be designed after Newton’s favorite Vegas showroom, the Copa Room at the Sands; a museum filled with artifacts collected over the years by Mr. Las Vegas; a gift shop; a museum housing Newton’s collection of antique cars; and shuttle tours of the grounds for viewing of the dozens of champion Arabian horses, African penguins, peacocks and wallabies that make their homes on the property. A gift shop was envisioned. Even Newton’s tricked-out private jet, the oft-publicized Fokker F-28, is parked just inside the walls of Shenandoah and was to be spruced up for public tours.
But those grand designs never made it off the page.
In what will likely prove to be the zenith of Wayne Newton’s Casa de Shenandoah tourist attraction, Clark County commissioners approved development of the project during a meeting in November 2010. But since that go-ahead was issued, construction at Shenandoah has inched along at a pace seemingly set by Newton’s pet sloth.
On May 17, Kennedy laid the blame for the absence of activity at Newton’s Shenandoah doorstep, filing a lawsuit claiming Newton would not move out of the mansion he’s lived in for more than four decades to allow renovations to turn the house into a museum. There were other nuggets of allegations in that complaint — talk of neglect of the horses and tall piles of manure littering the grounds, claims of rabid Rhodesian Ridgebacks attacking workers on the property, even a still-anonymous former employee threatening to file sexual harassment charges against Newton (a suit that hasn’t materialized).
As expected, the reaction from the Newtons’ attorneys was swift. The family filed a countersuit and a motion to have the case dismissed and sought a temporary restraining order against Kennedy, which is what led everyone into court Thursday. In their countersuit, the couple say it was Kennedy’s own inaction and unauthorized conduct that prompted the chronic delays in the project and that he never intended to see the project to fruition. How were they to move out of the mansion at Shenandoah, they argued, when there was no construction on the new $2 million residence on the property, as was promised in the original development agreement?
Kennedy’s complaint accused the Newtons of playing hopscotch around the Shenandoah acreage, unwilling to decide where they wanted their new home to be built. As that claim was made, Kathleen Newton’s eyes went wide and she exhaled in exasperation. The Newtons’ legal response: If CSD was so serious about building a $2 million home on the grounds of Shenandoah, why haven’t representatives of the company sought the proper permits from Clark County officials to start construction?
Clark County District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez asked that question herself Thursday morning.
“Hindsight is 20-20,” was the response from a CSD attorney.
CSD notes in its lawsuit that in 2010, the company purchased the Shenandoah property from the Newtons for $19.5 million and has invested another $20 million in improvements, acting as a landlord for the Newtons and charging a lease fee of $1 a month until the new home is built. But the Newtons say they have nowhere to relocate without that completed house, and the architect who was originally enlisted to work with the Newtons on the design of the home was abruptly fired two years ago.
In their counterclaim, the Newtons have dug into Kennedy’s conduct on the property, saying he threatened to shoot the family’s Rhodesian Ridgebacks (through counsel, Kennedy denied he ever said that) and claiming he entered the main house and even the master bedroom without permission (Kennedy says he was inspecting a water leak inside the home). The Newtons, too, had been locked out of the horse barn on the property and not provided keys for entrance, and the computer storing all of their business files had been taken from its home office.
There is more, so much more, to wade through. The Newtons have decried the emptying of the natural artisan well at the main house, used as a meditation enclave as well as a design effect (the CSD claim is that the water source had been filled with backed-up sewage that is responsible for the death of a trio of penguins). The 55 Arabian horses need to be properly cared for, a $40,000-a-month outlay that still needs to be formally resolved. Since the CSD suit was filed, the family has not been able to drive into the property from the gate facing Pecos Road, where they have entered and exited for decades. Instead, the family has been entering Shenandoah from the far-west side of the property, along Tomiyasu Lane, but access to the primary entrance is to be restored.
Also, the Newtons were saddened by the uprooting of red rose bushes planted on the property. A thorny issue in every way, the rose-bush excavation led Newton to cry during an interview conducted by Newton family friend Alicia Jacobs to be aired this evening on KSNV Channel 3.
In his courtroom appearance, Peek noted the bushes were a family heirloom, planted in 1965 as an ode to Newton’s hit song “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.”
There is far more than property and planning in dispute, of course. Much of what is being debated legally is inherently personal. Clark, an artist and interior designer, refuses to take part in the suit and has issued her own motion to dismiss the case. She is a close friend of the Newtons, though she is listed as a partner in CSD Management, which under Kennedy’s direction is suing the family.
What the Newtons gained from Thursday’s proceedings is a temporary restraining order against Kennedy, specifying he must stay 50 feet away from the family and their house. The sides are due back in court June 15 for a preliminary hearing, and a July 6 date is set to hear the Newtons’ motion to dismiss the case. The battle should be costly for whomever is stuck with attorneys’ fees, which Judge Gonzalez estimated would exceed half a million dollars for each side if the matter goes to trial.
The ruling means the Wayne Newton Casa de Shenandoah project, under its original partnership, is dead. Maybe it can be revived with new investors, but Newton says it can’t go forward with Kennedy as manager. When asked if he regretted entering into the business deal, Newton said, “Totally.”
The future of Shenandoah is at stake. The ranch that was to serve as a public attraction celebrating Newton’s life and career is now a battleground, and the feeling is this fight is just beginning.