Courts - New York Brunei's Prince Jefri testifies in NYC lawsuit over $12M legal fees Judge: Mention of erotic statues is off limits

By Jennifer Peltz

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Brunei's flamboyant Prince Jefri Bolkiah told his side of a dispute with some former lawyers to a court Thursday, a star witness in a multimillion-dollar money fight with a royal pedigree and a salacious tangent.

Jefri testified matter-of-factly in a Manhattan courtroom, attentive but succinct during hours of questioning about his business arrangements with ex-attorneys Thomas and Faith Zaman Derbyshire.

The prince says the married couple stole about $7 million from him by doing everything from siphoning off proceeds from a real estate sale to charging his corporate credit cards for personal plums. The Derbyshires say they had his permission for everything they did, and he owes them $12 million or more in legal fees.

The judge has made it sternly clear that the trial won't delve too deeply into the doings of the so-called "playboy prince" -- and lawyers can't even mention some erotic statues that have turned the case into a tabloid sensation. Still, Jefri's testimony offered glimpses of life as a royal and member of one of the world's richest families, though at times a prodigal son.

Jefri acknowledged that he would summon the Derbyshires from London to, say, Singapore for a brief meeting and held other sessions in Lugano, Switzerland, and Paris.

His lawyers helped run a stable of properties, including the swanky New York Palace hotel and the Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, for a royal who said he's accustomed to being called "boss."

"Probably because (employees) don't want to call me Prince Jefri all the time," he said.

The youngest brother of the sultan of oil-rich Brunei, Jefri is known for a glitzy lifestyle -- right down to gilded trash bins -- and for allegations that he embezzled nearly $16 billion from Brunei's state coffers while serving as its finance minister. The losses nearly bankrupted the tiny country on the island of Borneo.

He denied any wrongdoing, saying he had authority to use state funds, but agreed in 2000 to repay money to Brunei's investment arm. Years of legal wrangling followed as the Brunei government pressed him to turn over the New York Palace, the Bel Air and other promised assets, ultimately leading to a British court order and an arrest warrant when he skipped a 2008 hearing in London.

Jefri testified that he has reconciled with Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in recent years.

The prince hired the Derbyshires in 2004 to help deal with his legal problems and run his businesses.

"I was impressed" on meeting the London-based duo, he said, wearing a dark gray suit and testifying in English. "They can work as a team."

Jefri said he had no idea, until later, how his lawyers used the broad authority he gave them.

The apartment in the New York Palace that the Derbyshires awarded themselves for a bargain-basement $500 a month? He wasn't aware the flat existed, he said. The hotel credit cards on which his camp says the attorneys bought themselves more than $50,000 worth of jewelry, $18,000 worth of beauty treatments and $1,000 in motorcycle accessories? The prince said he didn't know they had the accounts.

But one of the Derbyshires' lawyers sought in questioning to portray him as a savvy and hands-on employer who made a point of calling "four-eyes" -- face-to-face -- meetings and sat atop a web of companies structured to keep private his interests in various properties.

The Derbyshires say everything they did while working for Jefri was with his authority and for his benefit. Whatever perks they got were a form of payment but fell short of what they were owed, the couple says. The two were fired in 2006.

The case has made headlines largely because of a side note: some sexually explicit, life-size, custom-made statues once kept at an estate Jefri owned on New York's Long Island. The sale of the estate is part of the background of the case.

The judge has barred any mention of the statues during the trial.

Published: Mon, Nov 22, 2010