Barn storm: Farm manager not guilty in Bronfman case
It was the case of a billionaire versus a farm manager, what a friend of the accused describes as a steamroller attempting to crush a gnat. But when the jury rendered its verdict on embezzlement charges October 27, the gnat– actually a towering former UVA linebacker– walked tall from the Albemarle County Courthouse amid grateful sobs from his daughter.
The 82-year-old patriarch of the family enriched by the Seagram liquor fortune, New York-based Edgar Bronfman Sr., had accused 52-year-old Michael Nemeyer of illegally enriching himself with bank accounts and credit cards that should have been devoted to Georgetown Farm, Bronfman's sprawling weekend retreat near the northwestern county village of Free Union.
Trial testimony indicated that after Bronfman announced his intention to sell the property about two years ago, Nemeyer expressed an interest in settling what he claims he thought were loans. That acknowledgement, says jury foreperson Ellen Schmidt, was a key factor in the jury's view that there was no criminal deception.
"When the owner said he was selling," recalls Schmidt, "Michael said, 'Well, I still you owe you money.' There was no evidence that he went out of his way to hide anything."
Yet the court file indicates that Nemeyer once penned a letter to the farm's bookkeeper (who separately stands accused) in the billionaire's name. And one of the exhibits introduced at trial was a letter Nemeyer sent Bronfman and his wife, artist Jan Aronson, that seems stark in its admissions.
"I have not only stolen from you, but I have betrayed a deep trust that you had in me," wrote Nemeyer. "I am embarrassed and ashamed."
"That was quite a letter," says Schmidt, who works as a legal librarian with LexisNexis. "But I can see it in multiple lights."
Although Nemeyer declines to discuss the letter beyond saying it's a "long story," friend and former employer Jack Masloff of Lynch Roofing postulates that it was written under duress when Nemeyer was simply trying to get Bronfman to hear him out. But after 24 years of near-constant contact, that didn't happen.
Although about 97 acres have already been sold, Georgetown Farm (now listed for sale as several houses and barns upon 545 acres at $10.3 million) was once a thriving beef and bison operation.
"It was one big happy family out there," remembers Masloff. "[Bronfman] and Mike were peas and carrots; and then this happened, and there was no contact."
As Nemeyer put it during a taped interview with investigators last year: "When Mr. Bronfman is finished discussing a thing, it's pretty clear, and you know it."
The court file indicates that Nemeyer went to work at Georgetown back in 1987 as a farm hand, moved onto the property two years later, and in 2004 assumed the reins as the farm manager. Along the way, the 1981 UVA graduate became exercise buddy to the billionaire as well as a friend. Or so he thought.
The interview indicated that in addition to a six-figure salary Bronfman lavished a swimming pool, a house addition, and educational trust funds for the children on Nemeyer, to whom he sold a 10-acre tract for just $25,000. Nemeyer told investigators that the bulk of the improperly spent funds– about $80,000– came from his effort to build a barn on that property.
"That was all conversations and handshakes," Nemeyer told investigators. "And sometimes not even a handshake."
As Nemeyer would also tell investigators, the "creative and unusual compensation" allowed for Farm employees helped him stumble. For instance, he told investigators, he allowed Grelen Nursery to plant a half dozen sugar maples by his barn, because he thought the mature trees, billed to Georgetown, would be steeply discounted as past their prime. That bill came to $15,000.
Last spring, when forensic accountants and private investigators intensified their probe, Nemeyer appeared eager to simply give back the barn property. However, he concluded, as he told Bronfman in the letter, that tapping his retirement account and obtaining a loan would consume less time and raise more repayment money.
Such efforts were rebuffed, says Nemeyer's friend Masloff, who heard that the Nemeyer family– including his wife and three kids– were ordered, once Bronfman decided he'd been robbed, to vacate the house they'd inhabited for over two decades in less than an hour.
"It seemed like a David and Goliath kind of thing," says Masloff, "kind of a witch-hunt."
Neither the prosecutor, Elliott J. Casey, nor Bronfman (according to assistant Vivienne Hylton), would comment on the case, but defense attorney Lloyd Snook said after trial that Bronfman's treatment of Nemeyer constitutes a piece of a pattern to which the last Georgetown Farm manager, as well as Bronfman's longtime deputy at the World Jewish Congress, an international organization that fought for Holocaust reparations during Bronfman's time at the helm, could likely attest.
"The Bronfman folks have a history of charging embezzlement against people they're firing," says Snook.
Snook contends that Bronfman– whose wealth Forbes estimates at $2.6 billion– spent "many times" the $115,000 that the prosecutor told the jury that Nemeyer had taken just to bring the case to trial. Such efforts included hiring a pair of New York-based private investigators billing $980 an hour. Trial evidence indicated, said Snook, that while Nemeyer's laptop computer lay in the hands of the private eyes, about 6,000 files were erased, and that half of the videotaped interview likewise disappeared.
"I'm sure they spent double the amount to pursue Mike than the money they were pursuing," says Snook. "Whatever this was about, it was about something other than money."
Juror Schmidt agrees and says the evidence showed lax oversight and that loans to employees were "just s.o.p.," standard operating procedure.
Perhaps the most salacious part of the case was an allegation that Nemeyer purchased pornography with Georgetown credit cards. Nemeyer, however, reportedly testified that it was Bronfman who directed such purchases.
"It was he said-he said," says Schmidt, noting the jury didn't know who to believe. But the disputed videos, allegedly viewed during exercise workouts, were just unclad female dancers. "To me," says Schmidt, "that's not porn."
After three days of trial, the five women and seven men returned to the courtroom last Thursday night around 10:30pm. As the words "not guilty" rang through the courtroom eleven times, sobs became audible from the family section as the prosecutor's face turned bright red.
The Thursday night verdict doesn't mean that Nemeyer doesn't owe Bronfman some money. Even as Nemeyer's moist-eyed supporters were consoling each other, Snook said the former farm manager still wants to settle up– even though no civil case has yet been filed.
Juror Schmidt says she doesn't believe the matter should have made it into the criminal justice system.
"I felt like telling them to take it down to Lee Park," says Schmidt, who says that while money was misused at Georgetown, Nemeyer didn't possess the criminal intent the jury instructions required for a guilty verdict.
"It seemed like something that was snowballing out of his control," says Schmidt, "like Lucy and Ethel on the chocolate line."
Correction: The opening paragraph of the story originally pluralized the word "daughter." Nemeyer has one daughter.Read more on: edgar bronfman