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Send In The Clowns

Jan Pottker and husband Andrew Fishel
Jan Pottker and husband Andrew Fishel have waged a seven-year court battle against Kenneth Feld, head of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus empire. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

But as he read on, the business mogul grew livid. The article also unearthed family secrets that had been whispered about in Washington for decades:

Feld's late father, Irvin -- a legendary impresario, a man he revered, and from whom he'd inherited the circus -- was a closeted homosexual, the article claimed. ("An absolute lie," Feld would later say.) It implied that his mother killed herself because she couldn't change Irvin's sexual orientation and viewed herself as a failure, "both as a woman and as a wife." It portrayed Ken Feld himself as a tightwad who callously cut his only sibling, Karen, out of the family fortune.

The aggrieved CEO could have picked up the phone and complained to Bill Regardie, publisher of the now-defunct, 60,000-circulation magazine. They traveled in the same elite social circles and shared a nodding acquaintance. Regardie says he would have happily given Feld a couple of pages of space to vent in the next issue. But Regardie never heard from him; neither did any of the magazine's editors.

Feld also could have called Pottker and chewed her out. He could have threatened a lawsuit. He didn't.

Instead Feld, who once described himself to a reporter as "very much the kind of person who wants to be in control," took another approach. A covert one. Court papers allege that Feld, at an estimated expense of $2.3 million, authorized master spy Clair George to carry out a CIA-style operation to make sure the circus knew what Jan Pottker was doing and writing.

It lasted more than seven years.

Epic Legal Battle

Feld, 57, who is worth $725 million by Forbes magazine's 2004 estimate, also lives in Potomac, in a mansion not far from Pottker and Fishel's more modest neighborhood. But it's unlikely they would ever speak to one another -- except in court. Today they are intractable adversaries joined in an epic legal battle that began in 1999 and has consumed the energies of four consecutive D.C. Superior Court judges.

In a lawsuit, the couple portrays Feld as a malicious, vindictive man who ordered wiretapping, bugging and surveillance in a scheme to "destroy" Pottker because he hated the magazine article she'd written about him. Feld planted a mole in her life, a "false friend" who posed as her business partner, torpedoed her career and steered her away from writing a book on the circus, the suit alleges.

Claiming invasion of privacy, fraud and infliction of mental distress, Pottker and Fishel seek more than $60 million in actual and punitive damages. Feld declined to comment for this article, but his attorneys call the allegations "outlandish" and "baseless."

Feld's legal filings do acknowledge that the circus paid operatives to monitor Pottker from 1990 to 1997 -- and also set up two non-circus book deals to distract her from reporting on Feld's enterprises. But they say nobody did anything illegal. And in their view, the ruse helped, not hurt, her career.

It's not the only time Feld has been accused of spying on his perceived enemies. Allegations of illegal surveillance, theft of documents and infiltration are part of a suit against Feld filed in Fairfax Circuit Court by the activist group PETA, which has long opposed Ringling Bros.' use of animal acts. Feld's attorneys are contesting the suit, but details of their position are under seal and not publicly available.

A corporate attorney, Julie Alexa Strauss, told The Washington Post: "Mr. Feld will wait for the cases to be resolved in the appropriate forums in accordance with the courts' legal processes, and he expects to prevail completely."

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