Aging steel magnate's family fights over care for Berkman

| Thursday, July 7, 2011

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- A family squabble over the care and finances of a 102-year-old steel magnate went public on Wednesday during a hearing to determine who should oversee the affairs of Ampco-Pittsburgh Corp. founder Louis Berkman.

Testimony from the industrialist's granddaughter Ellen Berkman amplified a family strain that dates back decades, as she told a judge that her aunt and uncle had cut off family contact with Louis Berkman, fired his longtime physicians and took advantage of his failing mental state to steer him to invest money into interests they support.

"The circumstances between our families are quite ugly, and I wanted (Louis Berkman) to live out the remainder of his life in peace," said Ellen Berkman, 47, a Harvard attorney from Brookline, Mass.

She filed a court petition in Steubenville asking for the appointment of a new guardian for Louis Berkman and his estate. He splits his time between a home in Steubenville and an apartment in Pittsburgh and until just two years ago was still going to the office a few days a week to work.

The petition application is sealed. The hearing that began yesterday in the Jefferson County Courthouse is expected to last six days. Attorneys for both sides declined to comment.

Ellen Berkman says Donna and Robert Paul of Squirrel Hill, trustees of the Louis Berkman estate, are not providing "good care" for her grandfather. Donna Paul is Louis Berkman's daughter, and her husband, Robert, is the chairman and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Ampco-Pittsburgh, which manufactures forged and cast rolls for steel mills and air and liquid processing equipment. He also is president of the Louis Berkman Investment Co.

The Pauls could not be reached for comment.

Ampco-Pittsburgh is publicly traded and had revenue of $327 million in 2010. The Louis Berkman Investment Co., based in Steubenville, is privately held and made up of numerous small companies. Securities filings show it holds a 13.96 percent stake in Ampco-Pittsburgh, worth $33.9 million based on yesterday's stock price of $23.41 a share.

Louis Berkman and Donna Paul share ownership of Louis Berkman Investment Co., with Paul owning 99.4 percent and her father the remainder, filings show.

Ellen Berkman's father, Marshall Berkman, died in the 1994 crash of US Air Flight 427 near Pittsburgh International Airport. All 132 people aboard the jet were killed. Five years later, the Berkman family agreed to the largest settlement ever awarded to a commercial airline crash victim -- $25.2 million. Marshall Berkman was Ampco-Pittsburgh's CEO at the time of his death.

Attorney Richard Gurbst, who represents the Pauls as trustees of the Berkman estate, presented documents from Louis Berkman indicating he believed there was a significant "distancing" between the Pauls and Ellen Berkman's side of the family after Marshall Berkman's death. Ellen Berkman said her grandfather did not attend her 1999 wedding, and she believed it was because he did not approve of her husband, who is black.

She admitted it would be "fair to say" she doesn't like her aunt, Donna Paul, but she kept in touch with her grandfather by telephone and tried to see him once or twice a year when she would visit her mother, Deborah Levy Berkman, in Pittsburgh. Ellen Berkman said things got worse in September 2007 when her grandfather was admitted to the hospital with a heart condition, and Donna Paul told her not to visit him in the hospital.

"She was screaming at me on the telephone, telling me, 'You don't know what will happen if you come here,' " Ellen Berkman testified.

She said she believed that was when her grandfather began losing his grasp on daily activities. She said his trust was amended in 2008, and the same year there was a transaction involving the redemption of a chunk of Louis Berkman's company stock at a price she believes was below value.

She said her grandfather regularly contributed small amounts to the campaigns of Republican political candidates, but those contributions rose significantly in recent years. Also in 2008, the Pauls became minority owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a business transaction Ellen Berkman says her grandfather "never would have supported" because he is not an avid sports fan.

"No one is instructing my grandfather on anything right now, because he's not capable of taking an instruction," Ellen Berkman said. "But you're putting papers in front of him that he isn't capable of understanding."

Attorneys discussed a series of letters between lawyers for the Pauls and Ellen Berkman, most detailing offers Donna Paul made to Ellen Berkman to visit her grandfather, as long as certain conditions were met, including that the visits be supervised. Ellen Berkman rejected that offer and this spring filed the petition.

She said that she believes the letters were "unreasonable" and that Donna Paul would "cut me, my kids and my sisters out of my grandfather's estate" if she did not cease the guardianship petition.

Ellen Berkman conceded that her grandfather "did not like family fights."

"(Louis Berkman) absolutely abhorred, hated the notion of anyone fighting over something like this," Gurbst said. "He would be horrified by this."

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