A lawsuit levied by daughter of the late Nancy Pfister alleging self-dealing and racketeering by a prominent Aspen law firm and other defendants is scheduled to go to a jury trial in November.
Pitkin County District Judge Chris Seldin this week scheduled the trial to not exceed seven days; it is set to begin Nov. 8 pitting Juliana Pfister against Aspen attorney Andy Hecht and his son Nikos, the law firm Garfield & Hecht PC, and real estate investor Steve Hansen, in a legal dispute over two sales of properties formerly owned by members of the Pfister family. Six jurors will be selected for the panel, along with two alternates.
During a pretrial conference held virtually Tuesday, Seldin implored parties on both sides to refine their arguments in the lead-up to the trial, which originally had been scheduled Nov. 8 through Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving.
“Figure it out,” Seldin said. “Trim down your cases. You’ve got two transactions that are essentially left at issue in this case. To take up 10 days on the district court’s calendar and to ask a panel of eight jurors, because I’m going to have two alternates, to sacrifice their Thanksgiving week to hear your case is not realistic.”
Pfister’s attorneys are suing under the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act. The premise of the suit, which was filed in November 2016, is that Andy Hecht ran an enterprise with the intent of cheating the Pfister family out of millions of dollars through a string of property deals involving his business associates and son. Juliana Pfister is suing as an heir to her family fortune.
The suit alleges Hecht used his clout as the Pfister’s family attorney and trustee to facilitate transactions whereby he would sell his clients’ real estate for below fair-market value to members of his enterprise — which included Nikos Hecht and Hansen. Hecht’s law partner, Ron Garfield, also was named as a defendant but was formally removed from the case Tuesday.
The original suit targeted nine property transactions as questionable. Now, two transactions remain in dispute.
One of those concerns a deal in 2005, when Andy Hecht is alleged to have sold the Pfister family’s private retreat above Ruedi Reservoir — known as the Woods Lakes property — to Nikos Hecht for $800,000. That happened when another offer was on the table, for between $2 million and $3 million, Juliana Pfister’s legal team has alleged.
Hecht’s attorneys have argued the Pfister family turned down the higher offer because they wanted to package the sale of the Pfisters’ Katie Reed building in downtown Aspen, also to Nikos Hecht, so that they had a “more efficient tax structure.”
A similar transaction also is in dispute over the sale of Nancy Pfister’s two lots at the Maroon Creek Club, which Juliana Pfister’s attorneys allege was sold at below-market value to Nikos Hecht and Hansen.
There are outstanding issues before Seldin ahead of the trial, including defense motions for summary judgment. The judge, however, said parties should be ready for trial.
“While it’s possible that there may be some narrowing of issues that will arise out of those summary-judgment motions, I think you should all continue to assume that you’re preparing for trial on schedule,” Seldin said.
The defendants have denied the accusations and have maintained that the real estate deals were above board and done with the Pfister family’s consent. And if they weren’t, Juliana Pfister has no legal standing to carry out such claims because she wasn’t directly impacted.
“You’ve got a plaintiff with zero personal knowledge of any part of her claims, and she’s suing about transactions that happened when she was a child that she wasn’t involved in,” argued Michael Robertson, counsel for Andy Hecht, during this week’s pretrial conference. “Her mother and her grandfather were the two primary parties that carried out these transactions.“
As well, defense attorneys said Nancy Pfister, the late mother of Juliana, led a lifestyle not conducive to maintaining a clear picture of her personal finances and assets. That led to an unconventional style of financial reporting and transaction disclosures to Nancy Pfister via Andy Hecht.
“Nancy Pfister, it’s in the record, it’s not controverted, she had substance abuse issues; she lived a lifestyle in which she was traveling a lot and a typical form of accounting was not practical, so the system that was in place was an oral form of reporting,” said Robertson, noting Andy Hecht provided sworn affidavits to the lawsuit concerning his arrangement with the Hecht family.
New York attorney Ron Rossi, who represents Juliana Pfister, countered that Hecht is changing his story to fit his defense.
“Now for the first time on summary judgment, he’s testifying that Nancy Pfister — and frankly in a disparagement of a person who is not here to defend her own name or reputation any longer — had such a substance-abuse problem her whole life that he (Andy Hecht) set up a reporting regime whereby he would tell Betty Pfister, and then Betty Pfister would tell Nancy Pfister, and then Nancy Pfister would then revert back her consent either expressedly or tacitly,” he said. “There are plenty of questions for the jury to resolve in respect to Andy Hecht’s credibility, just to the issue of consent for Ms. Pfister on the 46 and 47 (Maroon Creek lots) transactions.”
Robertson argued that Hecht’s affidavits, along with other testimony corroborating his statements, provide ample cause for the judge to dismiss the suit on summary judgment.
Judge Seldin noted that the three Pfisters who are key figures in the lawsuit — Art, Betty and Nancy — are no longer living and cannot speak to their business relationship with Andy Hecht. As such, the judge said he can’t dismiss claims based on sworn affidavits from one of the defendants.
“There is no one who can execute an affidavit today to countermand Andrew Hecht’s affidavit because Art, Betty and Nancy are all deceased, so there is no way for them to provide an affidavit contradicting what Andrew Hecht testified to,” Seldin said. “Those affidavits (from Hecht) are self-serving and can’t serve as a basis for entering summary judgment.”
Art and Betty Pfister helped develop Buttermilk Ski Area and the Maroon Creek Club. Art Pfister died in March 2007; Betty Pfister, who also had a storied career in aviation and as a female pilot in World War II, died in November 2011. Both are enshrined in the Aspen Hall of Fame.
Nancy Pfister was murdered at her West Buttermilk home in February 2014; Juliana Pfister is now in her mid 30s.
Seldin expressed confidence a jury can be selected even with pretrial media coverage and the names of the plaintiff and defendants being locally familiar.
“At this point, not withstanding the fact some of the people in the case are known in the community, I don’t have a significant apprehension about being able to pick a jury in a day and get opening statements, frankly,” he said.