Did You Hear the One About Victor Borge's Boat?
Throughout his long and distinguished career, Danish pianist and comedian Victor Borge has strictly avoided the tabloids. Unlike today's music stars, the onetime Broadway luminary has not been accused of drug abuse, or child abuse, or even keyboard abuse. Despite his advanced age, Borge keeps his 85-year-old fingers nimble with regular performances. But the aging entertainer has sold off at least one trapping of fame: his 45-foot, 700-horsepower speedboat, the Akvavit III
Unfortunately, the sale of this deluxe vessel has triggered a small war in Miami, where a pair of recently filed lawsuits reveal accusations of diplomatic skulduggery, theft, and slander. At issue is the alleged theft of the Akvavit III by Danish Honorary Consul Anne-Lise Gustafson.
Back in 1990, Borge, through his Danish attorney, requested that a local company help him sell the boat, which was docked in Miami. That outfit, Scandic Trading Inc., had trouble finding a buyer. Still, Borge did finally agree to sell the Akvavit III to a second company, Miami Yacht Charter. Borge's attorney even forwarded an authorized bill of sale to Miami Yacht Charter. Subsequently, Lars Melbye, president of both Scandic and Miami Yacht Charter, turned over Miami Yacht Charter to an associate, Walter Jernigan, as repayment of a $15,000 debt. According to Jernigan, the deal included the Akvavit III.
Honorary Consul Gustafson says she heard about the situation in July of 1991, when she received a letter from Borge's Danish attorney asking that she help track down the boat. Coincidentally, she says, Jernigan called her office that same day to ask that she notarize documents, in her consular capacity, thus allowing him to register the Akvavit III as his. After speaking with Borge's attorney, the Danish consul refused Jernigan's request. "It turned out that no one had ever paid for the boat," Gustafson recalls. "Melbye had promised Mr. Borge $110,000, in writing, but the deal never closed. So it was still Mr. Borge's boat."
Jernigan had the boat registered in the State of Texas. Gustafson, a member of the Florida Bar, was put on retainer by Borge's attorney and instructed to locate and reclaim the Akvavit III. She says she spent more than a year engaged in fruitless negotiations with Jernigan, through his attorney. "My primary concern was that we get insurance for the boat," Gustafson says, "because if there had been any accident, Mr. Borge would have been held liable."
Gustafson's concerns appeared prophetic after Hurricane Andrew raged through South Florida. The storm washed Akvavit III ashore along with dozens of other boats docked at Dinner Key Marina. Apprised of the craft's location, Gustafson and Borge's attorney presented documentation of their client's ownership to local authorities, who allowed them to move the damaged craft to a Hialeah shipyard. A few weeks later, when Jernigan arrived at the marina to retrieve the boat, it was nowhere to be found.
Jernigan reported the boat's disappearance as a theft to City of Miami police officers. When he discovered that Gustafson had helped relocate the boat on Borge's behalf, he contacted Bernard Weksler, a prominent attorney based in Coral Gables. Jernigan says that after they spoke at length about the squabble, Weksler revealed that he was a friend and associate of Gustafson, whom he offered to call with the aim of amicably settling the boat dispute. After conversing with the Danish consul, however, Weksler told Jernigan he had no legal right to the boat because Melbye had not paid for it. (Gustafson and Weksler both say that as far as they know, Melbye left the country after selling Miami Yacht Charter. He has not been heard from since.)
Jernigan left Weksler's office in a huff. This past summer he retained a second attorney, Arthur Halsey Rice, who sent Gustafson a letter demanding she return the boat or pay triple its value: $450,000. "I am somewhat puzzled as to how a member of the Florida Bar could become involved to the extent that you have in the taking of this vessel," Rice wrote. "I would strongly suggest that you obtain a lawyer to represent your interests in this case."
The boat, however, had already been sold by Borge's Danish attorney. (Owing to storm damage, the Akvavit III, which was once valued at more than $300,000, was unloaded for a paltry $28,000.)
This past September Jernigan filed a civil lawsuit against Gustafson. Among other claims, the lawsuit states that "Gustafson knowingly and with felonious intent, initiated, organized, planned, financed, directed and managed and supervised the taking of the Akvavit III and trafficked in this stolen property."
As a result the Danish diplomat did, finally, retain an attorney: her old friend Bernard Weksler. Jernigan filed a complaint with the Florida Bar and entered a motion to have Weksler disqualified, on the grounds that the conversation they had in Weksler's office constituted the beginning of an attorney-client relationship and created a conflict of interest for Weksler. The Bar doesn't comment on pending complaints, but presiding Judge John Gordon disqualified Weksler from serving as Gustafson's counsel last month.
Though he was officially removed from case, Weksler remains indignant. He says Jernigan's claim to ownership is spurious, and points to a letter apparently written by Lars Melbye to Borge's attorney, clearly admitting that his bill of sale for the Akvavit III is of "no commercial value." As for the conflict-of-interest complaint, Weksler asserts that his discussion with Jernigan was not an attorney-client meeting.
Jernigan's lawsuit implies that Gustafson abused her role as honorary consul by "representing herself as some sort of agent of the Danish government" in order to seize the Akvavit III. In fact, Weksler's initial motion to dismiss the lawsuit contends that "it may very well be the intention and action of the defendant to answer a proper complaint with a defense of diplomatic immunity for her actions pertaining to the motor vessel owned by Victor Borge." Honorary consuls cannot be prosecuted for any acts carried out as part of their consular duties. But Weksler admits that Gustafson was acting as an attorney for Victor Borge, not a consul, when she assisted in reclaiming the Akvavit III. Weksler now insists that Gustafson never had any intention of using diplomatic immunity as a defense.
He also maintains that the consul's good name is being sullied by this entire nasty affair. "Jernigan has portrayed her as a thief and a fraud, and nothing could be further from the truth," Weksler fumes. "She is not going to be held up to this ridicule."
Indeed, Weksler's last action before removing himself from the fray was to file a million-dollar defamation suit against Jernigan. The suit claims that Jernigan knowingly and maliciously made false statements "with intent to destroy [Gustafson's] professional and consular reputation and career." Jernigan, through his attorney, declined to comment on either case.
Neither lawsuit has been set for trial. According to court records, Victor Borge was scheduled for deposition this past December 7, but he was never served with a subpoena, and thus did not appear.
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