Lawsuits and Real estate deals and Carl Brizzi and Law and Real Estate & Retail

Brizzi contributor Epperly no stranger to controversy

February 6, 2010

Harrison Epperly, the Indianapolis businessman entangled in a controversy over campaign contributions to Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi, is a wildly successful self-made man with a penchant for finding trouble.

Epperly, 78, came to Indianapolis a half-century ago to own and run a service station. He later launched a brake shop and expanded it into a 23-store chain before selling the business in 1986 for $11.1 million.

Then, in the depths of the early ’90s real estate slump, Epperly poured cash into golf courses in Florida and industrial properties and downtown office buildings here—bets that appeared to pay off when the economy improved and he cashed out.

But Epperly also left a trail of litigation and business associates who felt shortchanged. And in 2000, a federal judge sentenced him to a year of home detention after he pleaded guilty to improperly removing asbestos from 41 E. Washington St., a building he later sold that now houses IBJ Media. Prosecutors said workers removed the dangerous material with a sledgehammer and saw, violating the Clean Air Act.

Donations preceded release

The latest flap involves $29,000 he gave Brizzi from 2006 to 2008. During the same span, an attorney for his daughter, who’d been convicted in a murder-for-hire scheme, was negotiating a sentence modification with Brizzi’s office—an effort that succeeded last year.

The story, reported first by IBJ’s news-gathering partner, WXIN-TV Channel 59, is a new headache for Brizzi, who’s already taking a political drubbing over his friendship with Indianapolis businessman Tim Durham, the subject of federal securities fraud investigations. The Republican last month decided against seeking a third term.

Epperly’s daughter, Paula Epperly Willoughby, was sentenced to 110 years in prison in 1991 after her husband was gunned down outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. An appeal shrank the sentence to 70 years. The modification cut it to time served, and Willoughby was freed in July.

WXIN reported that Epperly also donated $2,500 to Brizzi’s chief trial deputy, David Wyser, who’s running for Hamilton County prosecutor. That contribution came in May, a month before the filing of the sentence modification in court.

Both Brizzi and Wyser recently returned their donations, many of which came through Epperly’s company EMSP LLC. Wyser told WXIN the donations had no role in the modification, which he argued was justified based on Willoughby’s rehabilitation and family issues. One of Willoughby’s sons had been killed by a drunken driver in 2005, leaving another son with no immediate family members other than his imprisoned mother.

The making of a millionaire

For Epperly, who could not be reached for comment, the campaign donations represent a drop in the bucket. A decade ago, when he was facing the asbestos-removal charge, his net worth was estimated at more than $20 million.

Much of that stems from his success with United Brake Systems Corp. In 1976, Epperly opened his first location outside Indianapolis. A decade later, he sold the entire chain to Connecticut-based Echlin Inc., at the time a Fortune 500 company.

The deal, while a bonanza for Epperly, also spawned ill will. Kenneth Jarrett, who managed the company’s second location, in Nashville, Tenn., sued, charging Epperly reneged on an oral agreement to make him 49-percent owner of that operation if he managed it for 10 years.

Court records say the promise played a key role in luring Jarrett away from his previous employer. After the sale, Epperly initially promised to pay him the part of the purchase price representing the stake but never did, according to a U.S. Court of Appeals decision upholding an $812,000 judgment against Epperly.

“In fact,” the ruling says, “when another employee asked Epperly about his promise to Jarrett, Epperly replied, ‘Forty-nine percent of what? Of nothing?’”

Another business associate, Fred Johnson, sued Epperly in 1995 after getting cut out of a deal to buy a Florida golf course.

Court papers say Johnson learned the course was for sale and contacted Epperly because he didn’t have his own money to invest. The suit said Epperly orally agreed to loan Johnson $150,000 as Johnson’s 25-percent share of the down payment. But he never made the loan, and instead Epperly and his partners bought the course without him.

A jury awarded Johnson $1 million in actual damages and $2 million in punitive damages. The Indiana Court of Appeals in 2000 threw out the punitive damages, but let the other award stand.

Epperly contends that he didn’t have to live up to the agreement because Johnson’s attorney never presented him with a loan agreement—an argument the appeals court did not find persuasive.

Johnson testified that after the purchase closed, he approached Epperly and asked him to provide the promised ownership interest.

“Epperly laughed, got into his car and drove off,” according to Johnson.•

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