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Millionaire lawyer jumps into Melvin Simon will fight

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One of the principal attorneys in the headline-grabbing court fight over the late billionaire Melvin Simon’s fortune is a millionaire in his own right accustomed to the spotlight.

Minneapolis lawyer Mike Ciresi, who’s representing widow Bren Simon, helped win a $6 billion settlement for Minnesota against the tobacco industry, yielding millions in fees that he used to help launch forays into Democratic politics.

He also represented the government of India against Union Carbide Corp. in the Bhopal catastrophe, which killed thousands of people and ranks as the biggest industrial accident ever. And he has represented women killed or rendered infertile by defective intrauterine devices.  

ciresi mike Ciresi

It’s not clear how Bren Simon, herself a Democratic activist who’s contributed more than $2 million to party candidates and committees over the past decade, got to know Ciresi. Neither returned phone calls from IBJ. Campaign finance records show she’s contributed thousands of dollars to Minnesota’s Democratic Party, but don’t list her as giving specifically to Ciresi, a two-time candidate for the U.S. Senate. In 2000, he lost in the primary; in 2008, he dropped out before the primary.

Ciresi, whose net worth is estimated at $26 million, is known for laser focus. The Minneapolis Star Tribune said he’s fond of telling his legal team, often in the wee hours, “Our clients can rest easy at night because we don’t.”

He and David Beehler, a fellow partner at Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis, are squaring off against attorneys at Ice Miller, Indiana’s third-biggest law firm. Partners Richard Smikle and Andrew Vento are representing Melvin’s daughter Deborah, who sued in January. She’s contesting changes to Melvin Simon’s estate plan executed in February 2009, seven months before he died at age 82.  

The legal battle, which is playing out at the Hamilton County Government and Judicial Center in Noblesville, has huge stakes. Melvin Simon, co-founder of Simon Property Group Inc., amassed a fortune that might top $2 billion.

Deborah contends her father didn’t understand what he was doing when he overhauled his estate plan, boosting the share going to Bren, her stepmother, from one-third to one-half. The changes also wiped out a portion that was to go to Deborah and his two other children from his first marriage—Cynthia Simon-Skjodt and David Simon, the chairman and CEO of Simon Property. Bren contends the changes fully reflected Melvin’s wishes.

It’s the biggest estate fight in Indiana history, and it’s sure to be bruising. Plenty of acrimony already has surfaced, and the case isn’t even set for trial until March 2011.

In one filing, Deborah seeks to oust Bren from overseeing a trust that holds Melvin Simon’s fortune. She called the move necessary to protect the interests of all beneficiaries in light of “the level of distrust and animosity that exists” between Bren and Deborah, Cynthia and David.

Bren, 66, who wants to remain trustee, doesn’t deny tension. In court papers, she said the revisions in her husband’s estate plan stemmed partly from his realization “that the children might not be fair or equitable to Bren Simon if the children were left with an ability to impact Bren’s financial situation or business interests.”

State economy sputtering

The worst is over. But good times are a long way off.

That was the message executives at Evansville-based Old National Bancorp, the largest bank based in Indiana, hammered home during a conference call with analysts this month. Old National’s calls provide a front-line assessment of the Hoosier economy, including in Indianapolis, where the bank has a large presence.

CEO Bob Jones set a somber tone, saying he sees “a continuation of a very soft loan demand in our markets, as our clients wait to see if the economic recovery is real.” Chief Banking Officer Barbara Murphy said loan demand held up longer in Indianapolis than it did in Evansville, but now “has fallen just as sharply.”

Cummins keeps climbing

Shares of engine maker Cummins Inc. marched higher over the past week, as investors bet that strong overseas sales would offset sluggish saleshome.

The Columbus, Ind., company’s shares popped 7.2 percent on one recent day, after a Citigroup analyst said the manufacturer would benefit from “significant exposure to fast-growing developing economies,” particularly in China and India.

Cummins shares now are trading for about $56.50, up $10.60, or 23 percent, on the year.•

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