In a Kentucky court trial interrupted for two days by a paralyzing ice storm, jurors returned to hear chilling testimony that a manager was fired from her job with an equine insurance agency because she terrorized her staff, and not because she was on the verge of discovering an international scheme of fraud.
Witnesses testified against former Bluegrass Bloodstock Agency manager Paula Singer and in support of owner Rick Trontz and former executive Richard Vimont in Woodford County Circuit Court Jan. 30. The civil action was launched by Singer in 2001 as a wrongful-termination lawsuit after she was fired in August of that year, but has grown through the years to include allegations of fraud against her former employers.
The scheduled four-day trial began Jan. 26 with the bulk of Singer’s case against the defendants, but was postponed after two days of testimony when a wicked winter storm shut down much of Kentucky with a combination of snow and ice. During Jan. 30 proceedings, the trial had to be transferred to a nearby district court annex when water began leaking from the ceiling of the third-story main courtroom, and some jurors reported their homes were still without electricity.
Defense attorney Frank Becker put Trontz back on the stand to relate his version of the employment tenure of Singer, whom he had hired in 1995. Trontz said he had “no choice” but to fire Singer after the manager had run off two workers.
“She would have absences where she would have tantrums and just walk out, or she would go into her office and close the door,” said Trontz, who founded Bluegrass Bloodstock in 1984. “She was rude to clients. Mr. Vimont recommended that we terminate her.”
“And was there any other reason for terminating Paula Singer other than what you have just said?” Becker asked. “No,” Trontz said.
Trontz during his Jan. 30 testimony reaffirmed his claims that payments of $125,000 he had given to English insurance underwriter Peter Trend in 2000 were loans, and not the bribes Singer contends was given to induce favored benefits -- such as the alleged $75,000 policy written in 2001 on a dead foal owned by Nick Bentley.
“Were you expecting any favors from Mr. Trend, or his employer, ACE (Global Markets)?” Becker asked. “No, I was not,” Trontz replied.
But former Bluegrass Bloodstock bookkeeper Judith Strickland, who wrote the $75,000 and $50,000 checks to Trend, earlier testified that Trontz had told her he never expected the loans to be repaid. Strickland told Singer’s co-counsel, attorney Michael J. Cox, she quit the agency primarily because she felt uncomfortable about the transaction.
“I started looking for a new job toward the end of 2000,” she said.
Job-leaving was a recurring theme of Jan. 30 testimony, as the defendants produced two witnesses who claim they left Bluegrass Bloodstock because of Singer’s alleged heavy-handed ways.
“I quit because of Paula,” said Meiling Williams-Reese, who exited Bluegrass Bloodstock without notice shortly before Singer was fired in August of 2001. “She was derogatory; very demeaning. I didn’t know what to expect on any given day: There was the ‘mean Paula.’ There was the ‘I don’t care about you Paula.’ There was the ‘nice Paula.’ She did not like me. She did not want me to succeed."
Williams-Reese, who previously worked in Vimont’s law office, was asked why she didn’t give notice to Bluegrass Bloodstock. “I was not going to wait two more weeks,” she replied. “It was bad enough that I waited six months.”
Another former employee, Kim Privett, told a similar tale. “There is a level of humanity that did not exist in that office,” she said of her seven-month tenure under Singer. “I remember her throwing things on my desk saying I didn’t have a brain.”
Bentley, a Lexington-area real estate agent who helped Trontz find the Hopewell Farm property that houses his commercial breeding operation, took the stand to tell jurors he had instructed the insurance broker to place the $75,000 policy on his filly foal by Peaks and Valleys. Singer contends the policy was actually for $25,000, and that her employers pocketed the $50,000 difference.
“We talked about the fact that (Peaks and Valleys) was a second-year stallion, averages, and the breeding of the mare -- it was a nicely bred mare,” said Bentley, who claimed he asked for the balance to be escrowed for tax purposes, and later reinvested the $50,000 in another weanling. “You trust people that you’ve been doing business with for than 20 years.”
But a New York attorney that represents ACE, which is part of the Lloyd’s of London syndicate of insurers, testified that Trontz did not have binding authority to place insurance on the filly. The Bentley foal died two days after birth, and 16 days before documents were properly placed with the insurer.
Attorney Harvey A. Feintuch claimed Trontz had a form of binding authority, but only to alter existing insurance policies.
“For this binding authority contract to be applicable to the foal, it couldn't have been a new insurance risk, which this foal was,” said Feintuch, who claimed to have “authored” the standard mortality policy for horses used by Lloyd’s of London since 1999.
Trontz was linked to alleged Trend misdeeds during a 2003 civil trial in England in which the one-time ACE broker was sued by his former employer, an action with which Feintuch helped investigate. The allegations surfaced in Singer’s lawsuit as reasons she was fired.
Trend, who never admitted to the allegations involving Trontz, a longtime friend and business associate, in 2004 agreed to a settlement in which ACE was awarded more than $800,000. The allegations were investigated by the Kentucky Department of Insurance, which in 2007 found no fault by Trontz, who has been licensed by the state since 1981.
The trial is expected to conclude Jan. 31 with final testimony and closing arguments in a rare Saturday court date.