10.19.09

Patricia Cornwell's Latest Mystery

How did the acclaimed crime novelist lose $40 million? She’s suing her accountants and business advisers to find out.

Murder victims have met grisly ends for less obvious reasons in Patricia Cornwell’s bestselling Kay Scarpetta novels.

But—after suffering estimated losses of $40 million due to the alleged negligence of her accountants and business advisers—Cornwell is taking the nonlethal approach, and simply suing.

The famed crime writer claims that Anchin, Block & Anchin LLP—a blue-chip New York financial-management firm that specializes in “privately held businesses and high net worth individuals,” including such celebrities as Robert De Niro—mishandled not only her own money, but that of her spouse of two years, Harvard neuroscientist Staci Gruber. Their home state of Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004.

“Patricia has found this process to be very distracting and upsetting, but I think she has some level of comfort knowing that the lawsuit has been filed and is now in the hands of the court,” said Joan Lukey, Cornwell’s Boston attorney.

“Patricia has found this process to be very distracting and upsetting, but I think she has some level of comfort knowing that the lawsuit has been filed and is now in the hands of the court,” Cornwell’s Boston attorney, Joan Lukey, told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview, noting that Cornwell has just launched a book tour for The Scarpetta Factor, her 17th novel in the hugely successful series. As for Cornwell and Gruber, “I think this has been a very difficult time for both of them.” Cornwell declined to comment.

Her complaint, filed in Boston federal court, singles out Anchin executives Ira Yohalem and Evan Snapper for special attention.

She claims Yohalem, who oversaw Cornwell’s investments at his previous business management and accounting firm, brought her along as a client in 2005 when his company merged with Anchin, where her assets have dropped significantly in value—just how much, she isn't sure. She alleges that Anchin’s financial managers apparently disregarded her stated wish to “invest conservatively.” Yohalem—who was sanctioned last December for “improper professional conduct” by the Securities & Exchange Comission for putting his own money in a restaurant that his accounting firm was auditing—didn’t respond to my detailed voicemail message.

Cornwell accuses Snapper—who once allegedly told her that Anchin would “do everything for its clients including buying and delivering their toilet paper”—of a variety of misdeeds. These apparently include everything from purchasing goods and services on her behalf from favored Anchin clients, to mishandling rental properties, construction jobs, and tax returns, to cutting a check for $5,000 as a bat mitzvah gift for his daughter (“whom Ms. Cornwell has never met,” the lawsuit notes dryly).

“Where did you find it?” a surprised Snapper demanded repeatedly when I asked him for a response to Cornwell’s lawsuit. “I have no comment at this point… We have lawyers,” Snapper continued, declining to identify them, “and I’ll ask them if they want to say anything.” Anchin’s attorneys had not called by late Monday afternoon.

The 53-year-old Cornwell claims that until she severed her relationship with Anchin in July, the firm had power of attorney to write checks on her bank accounts and even file tax returns without her specific approval—apparently an arrangement that is not all that unusual among wealthy celebrities.

“Ms. Cornwell is a bestselling crime novelist whose ability to write is dependent upon the ability to avoid distractions,” the lawsuit contends. “A quiet, uninterrupted environment, free of the distractions of managing her business and her assets, was essential to her ability to write and to meet her deadlines. Further, Ms. Cornwell openly acknowledges her diagnosis with a mood disorder known as bipolar disorder, which, although controlled without medication, has contributed to her belief that it is prudent for her to employ others to manage her business affairs.”

Cornwell’s lawyer told me she ruefully recalls a conversation she had several years ago with Oprah Winfrey, when both found themselves sitting together on a dais. “They were chatting about various things, and Patricia was inquiring about Oprah’s business practices. And Oprah said to Patricia, ‘I have one guiding principle: Always sign your own checks.’ Patricia says she wished she had lived by that advice. She will from now on.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.