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Menard's fight with Hilberts to surface in trial with Trump

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A skirmish in the ongoing legal war between hardware store magnate John Menard and former business partner Stephen Hilbert will surface in open court on Tuesday, as a trial begins between one of Menard's companies and former model Melania Trump.

The federal bench trial in Indianapolis is expected to last three days, and include testimony from Trump, the wife of real estate investor Donald Trump.

Hilbert, the former CEO of Carmel-based Conseco Inc. and longtime friend of Menard, was CEO of a private equity firm founded in 2005 that was funded by Menard. Its holdings included New Sunshine LLC, a skin-care products company.

Menard’s lawsuit alleges that he sent a letter to Hilbert in June 2012 removing him as CEO, but that Hilbert refused to leave and continued to make unauthorized business decisions for New Sunshine. Big moves by New Sunshine during that period included a five-year licensing deal for products developed by Melania Trump.

In February, Menard won a court battle with Hilbert that allowed him to regain control of New Sunshine. Soon thereafter, New Sunshine sent a letter to Trump canceling a promotional deal for the launch of her skin-care products. Trump filed a lawsuit with an arbitrator, claiming New Sunshine’s actions had resulted in $50 million in damages.

Melania Trump had been scheduled to promote the product line on an April 7 appearance on Donald Trump’s TV show “The Apprentice,” as well as on “The Today Show” and “The View” in the following days. The canceled contract meant she did not have any product samples to help her promotion, her lawsuit stated.

But Menard claims that because New Sunshine entered into the contract with Melania Trump’s company, Melania Marks Skincare LLC, while Stephen Hilbert still managed New Sunshine, the contract was void.

In a brief filed with the court, Melania Trump’s firm counters that the agreement was valid because New Sunshine’s president at the time, Eric Weber, had the authority to sign the agreement.

Menard, Hilbert, and Hilbert’s wife, Tomisue, are entangled on other legal fronts. IBJ broke the story in March that the billionaire hardware king had ousted Steve Hilbert as CEO of his private equity fund.

The Hilberts fired back in June with a lawsuit alleging Menard ditched Steve Hilbert as retribution after Tomisue spurned his repeated sexual advances. The suit said Menard told Tomisue that “no one tells me no” and that if he “did not get sexually what I want, there will be financial consequences.”

Menard has countersued Tomisue Hilbert for “abuse of process,” saying she filed her lawsuit only after companies controlled by Menard removed the Hilberts as managers and sued to recover millions of dollars in fees paid to the Hilberts.

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