By Brad Hamilton
New York Post
May 18, 2003
A group of highly paid experts, whose testimony has helped decide hundreds of child-custody cases in the city, is under investigation over whether they disclosed to the court and clients that they had gone into business together, The Post has learned.
Sherrill Spatz, the matrimonial court's inspector general for fiduciary appoint-ments, is looking into whether any conflict-of-interest rules were broken when 37 supposedly independent shrinks and child guardians became affiliated through an Internet venture, yet were sometimes on opposing sides of custody wrangles.
The experts under examination include some that made big bucks in custody battles involving former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Revlon CEO Ron Perelman and publishing queen Judith Regan.
The experts were recruited by a company called Soft Split LLC and were promoted on a Web site that offered tips on how to negotiate divorce and custody fights. Some experts also participated in online chat rooms accessed through the site.
That business link was never revealed in court when some of the experts were assigned by judges to at least eight known cases, according to a group of parents who pushed for the probe.
Members of the parents group suspect many more cases were affected.
One member of the group, who asked not to be named, was shocked to discover that her ex-husband's lawyer was part of Soft Split - along with all four experts assigned by the court to her case.
The woman's lawyer demanded a conflict-of-interest hearing in February, during which three Soft Split experts admitted that they had hoped to make money from their affiliation with the Web company.
Manhattan matrimonial Judge Judith Gische denied the conflict-of-interest motion after three Soft Split members testified they had not, at that point, profited from the venture.
But after that hearing, the company's Web site, www.softsplit.com, was closed down.
Prior to then, experts listed on the Web site as Soft Split "team members" included some of the biggest names in the divorce business - law guardian Jo Ann Douglas, psychiatrist Stephen Herman and psychologist April Kuchuk, all of whom can get six-figure paychecks from their court appointments.
Soft Split was launched in 2000 with half a million dollars in investments from various individuals, according to the company's former lawyer Peter Corrigan.
Former real-estate developer Richard Pink, the brains behind Soft Split, could not be contacted for comment. Attempts to contact other Soft Split officials also were unsuccessful.
The company is still an active corporation according to the state Department of State.
Financial agreements between Soft Split and its experts have not been released, but some Soft Split "team members" interviewed by The Post said they believed that they would eventually make money once the company took off.
But the company floundered when the dot-com bubble burst, and it seems Soft Split is not widely known in the legal world.
In an interview with The Post last week, Justice Jacqueline Silbermann, the administrative judge for the state's matrimonial courts, said she had never heard of Soft Split even though she officiated at the marriage of high-profile lawyer Robert Dobrisch, who was listed as a Soft Split "team member."
After the Gische ruling in February, members of the parents group decided to take their beef to Spatz.
Spatz wouldn't comment, but sources familiar with the complaint said her office was hoping more parents would come forward to help with the probe, which began 10 days ago.
The parents group has launched a Web site, www.familyjustice.com to find other cases.
"The fact that these people are in business together just isn't right," said Beth Cockrell, a financial consultant and member of the parents group.
INSIDER 'CLUB' GETS DIBS ON SPLITSVILLE $POILS
New York Post
May 18, 2003
-- Critics of New York's scarred matrimonial courts say the Soft Split probe will only scratch the surface of a troubled system.
Fee gouging, shoddy work and an insider's mentality have allowed a handful of lawyers and shrinks to cash in on all the top cases, they say.
"It's a little club, and these guys wouldn't consider [Soft Split] a conflict [of interest] because they're all in business together anyway," said civil-rights lawyer Richard Emery, whose bitter divorce from actress Lori Singer cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Several lawyers of matrimonial and custody fights said judges award huge fees to a select number of experts - often without questioning their bills.
"You see the same names over and over," said Howard Benjamin, an expert on legal ethics who has testified that Soft Split members violated conflict-of-interest rules by not revealing that they had formed an online company to market their expertise.
Once an expert is assigned to a case, dueling parents are forced to pay his or her fees.
Psychiatrists can charge $5,000 a day. Guardians can get $300 an hour.
"It's all just ca-ching, ca-ching," said Judith Regan, who spent $100,000 on experts in her divorce and custody fight with ex-husband Robert Kleinschmidt.
But child-custody experts say their work and testimony is vital in allowing judges to decide kids' futures.