Sarofim II: The Next (De)Generation

It's hard to imagine a nastier, more alcohol-and-kinky-sex-soaked divorce than that of Houston billionaire Fayez Sarofim's split from second wife Linda Sarofim Lowe two years ago. It spun off an equally nasty booze-and-sex-permeated suit by Lowe accusing her own attorneys of bilking her out of millions in legal fees.

But get ready to expand your minds. Fayez's 35-year-old son, Christopher Binyon Sarofim, and daughter-in-law, Valerie Biggs Sarofim, 33, seem determined to show the old folks that anything they could do, the kids can do better. The couple are kicking up dense clouds of dirt in Judge Annette Galik's family law court as they prepare for a possible trial to divvy up millions of dollars and determine who gets permanent custody of their five-year-old daughter, Gillian.

This time the script features a coked-up plot line and high-profile paramour, Courtney Lanier, adopted daughter of former mayor Bob Lanier. It shoves the previous family marital spats deep into the River Oaks shade, despite no media mention thus far.

It's a Sarofim Divorce Hall of Fame cast tentatively set for a February trial. The Barons of Breakup, attorneys Earle Lilly and Bob Piro, represent former Tiffany's salesperson Valerie, a Fort Worth native adopted by Houston plastic surgeon Tom Biggs and Adelaide Fuller Biggs.

Chris Sarofim, a Princeton grad who works in his daddy's investment company, is represented by Donn C. Fullenweider. He's the barrister who guided Chris's mother, Louisa Stude Sarofim, to her $200 million divorce settlement from Fayez.

"It's like déj$agrave; vu," marvels Lilly, who represented Linda against Fayez, a proceeding he tagged at the time as "the Divorce from Hell." Lilly and Piro secured a settlement for Linda that they valued at $60 million in cash and property. She then tagged them with a lawsuit when her own incipient romance with Lilly cratered after the divorce deal was finalized. [See "Courtship, River Oaks Style," by George Flynn, July 16, 1998].

A jury found in Linda's favor two weeks ago and ordered the lawyers to pay back $6.2 million to their former client, although that verdict didn't frighten off the latest lady on the outs from the Sarofim camp. Valerie is sticking with Piro and Lilly.

Chris petitioned for divorce from her in June, after moving out of the couple's River Oaks abode the previous month. According to his side, the marriage had been a loveless coupling for at least three years.

In a recent custody hearing, Fullenweider asked Galik to award Chris custody of daughter Gillian, who was then living with Valerie at their residence. As evidence of an emergency, Fullenweider introduced an affidavit from Sarofim nanny-maid Equentlyn Brown, who accused Valerie of often ignoring her child and disappearing for days on party binges. Brown claimed she and other household employees had raised the lonely little girl in Valerie's prolonged absences.

Then came the bombshells. "Quent," as the Sarofims called the maid, claimed to witness nine instances since January of the home's handyman carrying bags of cocaine he said were intended for Valerie. Brown recalled that in August the man showed her a Ziploc bag and said it contained cocaine that he had picked up for Valerie. "Then [he] told me Valerie must be crazy because she told him to mail the cocaine to her in Jackson Hole." According to Brown, the handyman later told her he Fedexed it to the Sarofims' vacation home in Wyoming.

Lilly calls the Brown affidavit and related testimony "speculation and guesswork," and says, "it is absolutely incorrect as well as inappropriate." He claims the nanny had come to believe Gillian was her own child. "It looks like it's her custody case and not Valerie Sarofim's," scoffs Lilly.

Fullenweider counters that Brown "loves this child." He says, "She's devoted to this family, and she is upset that the child isn't getting enough attention. When Valerie fired her, she knew what was going on in the house and just had to step up."

The handyman took the Fifth Amendment in the hearing, and Galik had him taken into custody briefly. Assistant District Attorney Marie Munier says it would be difficult to make a drug case against the man without actual possession of the drug.

Valerie wasn't the only one tagged with allegations of substance abuse. Chris also admitted in court papers that he and Valerie did cocaine and marijuana together, though not more recently than 1996. Valerie countered that she was the one who had sought help for her substance abuse problems. She maintains her husband "has been in total denial of his alcoholic tendencies" and "if there is any danger to Gillian Sarofim, it is indeed while the child is in the presence of Chris, not Valerie."

Valerie also charged that Chris withdrew $200,000 from their joint checking account in an attempt to keep her from hiring good lawyers.

Touted by Lilly as "the paramour" who busted the marriage is Valerie's former friend Courtney Lanier. In response to Chris's request for custody of Gillian, attorney Lilly showed the court vacation photographs of Courtney and Chris.

Chris admitted that after he left Valerie he embarked on summer trips to the south of France and to Las Vegas with 29-year-old Courtney, the daughter of Elyse Lanier by a previous marriage. Courtney, a grad of Columbia University and UH law school, works at Daddy Bob's company, Landar, in real estate acquisitions. According to Lilly, Chris has been on her acquisition list for some time.

"They've been cavorting and having an affair, unbeknownst to Valerie, for a pretty damn good while," chuckles the lawyer. "Courtney was the best friend of Valerie, so she knows some of Valerie's secrets. Valerie now knows that her husband and she and Courtney have something in common, and it's just a big circus."

Courtney Lanier disputed Lilly's comments in an interview with the Insider at the Downing Street cigar bar on the edge of River Oaks. Sitting in and recording the meeting was former mayoral chief of staff Dave Walden, who described his role in the matter as "domestic relations adviser."

Courtney says she has known Valerie since the seventh grade and met Chris seven years ago. She attended the couple's wedding reception at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1993. She says Valerie told everyone about her marital problems, and Courtney denies scheming to break up the twosome. In fact, says Courtney, there was no marriage to disrupt.

"Their marriage had been over for some time, and it was common knowledge," she observes. "They were living at the same house in name only. She was out of town quite a bit. Not with her husband, not with her child."

She and Valerie grew apart after Valerie starting running with another crowd, Courtney says. "Our interests had diverged, definitely."

Meanwhile, Courtney and the short, plumpish Chris were just good buddies, she says.

"We'd join together in social situations, Rockets games, parties, hunting trips. Never had a romantic relationship, just a friendship." Mutual interests gradually drew them closer.

"We had a ton in common. He's real interested in the real estate business, and I'm interested in what he does. He's a professor kind of a geek who loves to sit and talk about economics. And we would sit and talk about that."

Courtney says they found romance in March, two months before he moved out of his home, and "have a meaningful, loving relationship." "We're not living together at all," she says. "We really aren't seeing much of each other right now." Courtney did try to find Chris an apartment at her parent's condo, the Huntingdon, after Galik awarded him temporary custody of Gillian.

Courtney says she and Chris are trying to weather the legal storm and do what's best for his child. Chris has temporary custody and agreed to allow Valerie to keep her during the daytime, while he has her at night. One rule in the custody order is that Chris keep any of his female companions away from the little girl.

"I have not spent one moment nor talked one moment to Gillian, his daughter, since this whole process has begun," Courtney declares. "His primary concern right now is his daughter."

As for the future, Courtney notes that Chris has hit it off with her parents, who often accompany them to dinner.

"They get along great," enthuses Courtney. "Christopher and my dad spend four hours talking about business. And what mother doesn't like a man that's nice to her daughter?"

The Laniers don't seem concerned that the rest of River Oaks is buzzing about L'Affair Sarofim. "They're only concerned to the extent they don't want me to feel bad," says Courtney.

At press time the divorce lawyers were still negotiating over permanent child custody. If there's no agreement, Lilly predicts "a knock-down-drag-out custody hearing" within a few weeks. Lilly and Fullenweider both say they are hopeful that a trial can be avoided.

"As the heir to a billionaire, does he want his dirt in the street?" asks Lilly rhetorically. "I doubt it. Does she need any more publicity on some errant behavior on her part for a short period of time?" His answer sounds a bit like a threat.

"I believe that these people will settle this case, because of the dirt that will not inure to the benefit of anybody."

Maybe so, but that reasoning sure didn't stop the previous generation of Sarofims from letting it all hang out.

Early Poelemics from the Right

District Judge Ted Poe is considered the strong favorite to win the GOP nomination to replace retiring District Attorney Johnny Holmes Jr. [see "Shame, Shame, Shame," by Richard Connelly, November 11]. But the longer Poe hangs on to his bench and holds off declaring for the race, the more restless the Republican natives are becoming.

In a signal that the contest might not be so open-and-shut, a consultant affiliated with westside political kingmaker Steven Hotze is claiming the good doctor will back veteran prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal.

According to consultant Allen Blakemore, Hotze will endorse Rosenthal, with or without Poe in the contest. Asked why Hotze would go with an early underdog, Blakemore took a few shots at Poe's media grandstanding with so-called shame sentencing.

"That's Ted Poe's claim to fame -- he makes folks wear sandwich boards and walk around the street. That's not what the D.A.'s office does. It prosecutes criminals."

Previewing Rosenthal's campaign strategy, Blakemore snipes, "Poe made it clear that's not what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to get out of the D.A.'s office. By contrast, Rosenthal wants to stay."

Poe has told associates he'd like Hotze's support if he runs but believes he can win regardless.

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck