Sterling goes on attack in court hearing

Los Angeles TimesJuly 10, 2014 

LOS ANGELES_Donald Sterling railed on the witness stand Tuesday against the doctors who deemed him mentally incompetent, the executives who bounced him out of the NBA and the opposing lawyer who struggled to get him to answer a question.

Sterling was consistently combative during his hourlong testimony that came as he fights to keep ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers. He briefly cried when he professed his devotion to his wife, Shelly. He predicted he would win a $9-billion judgment in an antitrust case he filed against the pro basketball league and that one day sell the team for as much as $5 billion.

That would be 21/2 times the record $2 billion the Clippers brought in a late May sale conducted by Shelly Sterling, which her husband wants to void.

"Just be patient for another two years," Sterling, 80, vowed as his time on the stand neared a close, "and you are going to see things you never saw."

Many in a packed courtroom in downtown Los Angeles alternately laughed and shook their heads as Sterling unleashed his fury. He suggested that the two doctors who found him mentally incapacitated were directed to do so and that one was drunk when she examined him. He berated his inquisitor - Bert Fields, the renowned Hollywood lawyer representing Shelly Sterling - as incompetent and possibly guilty of fraud.

Sterling testified on the second day of a Los Angeles County Superior Court trial, in which Judge Michael Levanas will determine whether Shelly Sterling acted legally when she seized control of the Sterling Family Trust on May 29 and sold the Clippers to former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

After the hearing, lawyers for both sides agreed on one thing: Donald Sterling had been himself. His lawyers deemed him appropriately feisty.

"He's got a lot on his chest and he used this opportunity to get some of it out," attorney Bobby Samini said.

Fields said he wouldn't comment on Sterling's mental competency, then added: "Is this a guy that you would employ to sell hamburgers?"

The day began with the testimony of a neurologist and a psychiatrist, who described how they had examined Sterling at his Beverly Hills home in May and found him to have Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Meril Platzer and Dr. James Spar first reviewed scans of Sterling's brain, then interviewed him and conducted a battery of tests. They reported that he had trouble spelling the word "world" backward and counting backward, by sevens, from 100. (As in 100, 93, 86, 79, etc.) His mental deterioration made it impossible for Sterling to continue as a trustee of the family trust that controls the Clippers, they concluded.

Sterling walked into the court just before 2:30 p.m., dressed in a dark suit and sunglasses, wearing dark socks and sandals. He sat impassively as Spar described his May 22 examination and finding of incapacity.

When Sterling took the stand about an hour later, he wasted no time in trying to take control. He suggested that he could not remember Fields' name. After Field's first question, Sterling retorted: "Is that a compound question?"

Levanas encouraged Sterling to let his lawyers lodge objections. But Sterling spent a fair amount of his time berating Fields and his inquiries. He also said repeatedly that he could not hear. The combativeness and the avowed trouble hearing his interrogators are tactics Sterling has used over the years while under oath.

Sterling's harshest words were directed at Spar and Platzer, the neurologist who examined him first. Sterling's probate specialist, Gary Ruttenberg, had conceded that both doctors had impressive credentials that he would not challenge.

But Sterling slammed both as hired guns who did what they were told to do rather than performing legitimate examinations. He accused Platzer of interrupting the exam to join him and others for drinks at the Polo Lounge. He accused her of being intoxicated. Platzer testified Monday that she was having dinner with Shelly Sterling when Donald Sterling and his lawyer insisted on joining them. She said she drank half a glass of wine.

Levanas said he would strike Sterling's claims about Platzer's intoxication.

Fields took Sterling through his previous statements about the sale of the Clippers - some opposing it and others approving. He asked Sterling to acknowledge a June 10 statement he issued in which he called NBA officials "despicable monsters."

"There is no evidence whatsoever that I said that," Sterling said. He also repeatedly fumed that he shouldn't be questioned about statements reported in the media.

"He keeps referring to different media organizations," Sterling complained of Fields. "I don't read NBC News and I don't rely on them.... I don't remember saying it." CNN, The New York Times and others also faced his scorn.

Sterling signed a letter May 22 saying that he would sell the Clippers and authorized Shelly Sterling to talk to the NBA in connection with a sale "She said she was going to have a percentage of the team after the sale and I felt that if she is going to have something and it's important to her....then I was going to sell it," he testified.

Sterling said he subsequently learned that she would not get to keep a piece of the team. "The way they presented it to her was not accurate.... I did not want the sale to go through," Sterling said. "Why is that so hard for you to comprehend?"

Sterling sarcastically referred to the NBA as "this great, wonderful organization" and said the league had not followed through on one settlement offer. "I remember thinking just to myself, 'I am not going to do it with them because they are not to be trusted,'" he testified. "The only one I know and trust is my wife."

Sterling frequently referred to his devotion to Shelly Sterling, his opponent in the probate trial. He called her "beautiful and wonderful and intelligent," while his wife of 58 years sat in the second row of the gallery.

Comparing her to the NBA, he began to choke up as he said: "My wife would open 10 windows rather than kill a fly. She is a good person. But they are not good people."

He also suggested he was still very much in charge of "five corporations" and an empire worth billions but that his wife was far removed from important business decisions. "It's ludicrous to think she could run a corporation that has $1 billion in liabilities with different banks," he said.

When Fields tried to ask whether Sterling's cancellation of the family trust would affect outstanding loans, the witness suggested his opponent was merely "trying to be a smart ass." He asked if Fields was "trying to perpetrate a fraud" based on a settlement offer the opposing lawyer allegedly made, though he did not elaborate.

Field told the court it was "absolutely false" he had any such discussion with Sterling, then said he would "waive privilege" to discuss the matter more.

"For God's sake, stand up and be a man," Sterling snapped. "For God's sake, don't waive privilege. Stand up and be a man!"

Sterling became newly agitated at Fields' suggestion that he wanted to kill the sale and restore himself to power for his own aggrandizement. "I am trying to generate as much success for my trust as I can," Sterling asserted. "What do you think I am doing this for, my ego?"

"Yes," Fields responded.

"Then you're wrong, just like you've been wrong on every question you've asked today," Sterling said.

The Clippers owner, who made most of his fortune through real estate, said his opponents were not seeing what he saw - the huge growth in television revenue for sports teams in Los Angeles. He predicted that in the not too distant future, customers would be paying $1,000 a month to watch TV and "content creators" like sports teams would reap much of the benefit.

Sterling is scheduled to return to the stand Wednesday afternoon.

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