When Anne McGill Gorsuch married Robert Burford back in 1983, it seemed like a match made in Republican heaven: the Ice Queen and the Marlboro Man, the steely-eyed darling of corporate polluters and the squinty-eyed sagebrush rebel.
Burford, a Western Slope rancher and former speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, had moved from fighting federal bureaucrats to running the federal Bureau of Land Management. Gorsuch, a Denver attorney and one of the "House crazies" of the late 1970s who vowed to get the government off industry's back, was Ronald Reagan's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Ideologically, the Burfords were a perfect pairing, the fun couple of the Reagan administration.
But even politically perfect marriages have their rough spots. Weeks after the wedding, Anne Burford was forced to resign from her EPA post, caught in a toxic dispute with Congress over her refusal to release documents on waste disposal. (The tough-talking, frequently fur-clad ex-legislator also had alienated environmentalists and moderates alike with her haughty management style and wholesale housecleaning at the EPA--hence her icy nickname.) Bob Burford stayed on as director of the BLM until 1990, but the couple continued to be the target of nattering media nabobs--particularly after a 1985 double arrest in Arlington, Virginia, on charges of public drunkenness (Anne) and driving while intoxicated (Bob).
Congress and the press were mere nuisances, though, compared to what lay ahead for the Burfords back in Denver--the battle of Burford vs. Burford. In 1991 Bob filed for divorce. The case has been ricocheting through the courts ever since and has even outlasted its instigator, who died of cancer in 1993. Although Denver District Judge Paul Markson entered a decree of dissolution in 1992, Anne Burford has doggedly opposed that decision and the ruling of a probate court denying her claim to Bob's estate as the surviving spouse.
Last month the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed Markson's decision, holding that the divorce wasn't final at the time of Bob Burford's death. The opinion opens the way for Anne to claim half of Bob's total assets, valued at just under $2 million--more than ten times the amount of the "marital property" that was to be divvied up in the divorce. The appellate ruling also promises to keep the complex case alive for months--possibly years--to come, offering a glimpse of the tangled financial and emotional affairs of the ex-fun couple. For example:
He loves me, he loves me not: According to court filings, Bob first filed for divorce in the fall of 1990 but immediately dismissed the petition. Anne didn't find out about the filing until months later, when Bob served her with a second divorce petition--on Valentine's Day. That action was also retracted within days, and a reconciliation followed. But by April 1991 Bob had moved out of the house, and a third petition was filed a few weeks later.
It's enough to make you sick: In the fall of 1992, after months of discovery procedures, Bob pushed for the divorce to be finalized as soon as possible, pleading ill health. Anne countered that ill health had been a factor throughout the course of their relationship and that considerable questions remained concerning the value of Bob's property. If he happened to die before the property disputes were resolved, she noted, she would end up battling his estate's lawyers and his children from a previous marriage--which is exactly what happened.
Not only sick, but disoriented: In 1993 and 1994 Anne sought delays in her appeal of the divorce decree because of her health concerns. At one point she stated she was unable to complete her legal research "due to illness, including flu-like symptoms of nausea, headache, and disorientation." On another occasion, her research assistant "was taken ill with strong symptoms of stomach flu and/or food poisoning." Culprits blamed for other delays included an ailing word processor and a Denver court clerk suffering from "cumulative trauma syndrome."
His line of credit has expired: Attorneys for Burford's estate contend that the divorce settlement was more than fair to Anne, since she ended up with almost two thirds of the marital property and only a third of the marital debt. But the Ice Queen isn't satisfied. Arguing that she deserved a bigger share of Bob's assets than Judge Markson had awarded her, Anne observed, "In this case the Petitioner died, radically altering his economic needs."
Reagonomics explained: Unlike some of his fellow Reaganauts, Bob Burford apparently didn't make a killing in the go-go '80s. Records submitted in the divorce action indicate that the value of his nonmarital property actually declined from 1983 to 1992, from $1.83 million to $1.67 million. Among the investments that lost money were stocks or other interests in energy and mining companies. Anne has disputed the estate's valuation of her husband's assets, and Judge Markson adjusted the 1992 valuation upward, to $1.93 million, reflecting that one "paper loss" in a land deal was actually a transaction among family members.
Debt? What debt? Although the Burfords entered into a prenuptial agreement, Anne claims the agreement contains numerous "false statements" regarding Bob's true assets and his hidden liabilities. At the time of their wedding, she contends, Bob had outstanding loans and tax liabilities of close to $300,000--most of which she knew nothing about until the divorce proceedings.
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Aha! The trickle-down effect: As their marriage was breaking up, Anne charges, Bob secretly took out a $20,000 second mortgage on their house in southeast Denver and deposited the cash in his checking account for his personal use--sticking her with the debt. "Encumbering the most significant marital asset was clearly `estate planning' for divorce purposes," she complains.
Behind every successful man... Judge Markson found that Bob's income from various sources during nine years of marriage totaled more than $2.1 million, while Anne's earnings amounted to less than $250,000. Anne concedes that she worked only part-time as a consultant and author after leaving the EPA, that she relied on Bob for a $2,500 monthly allowance for household expenses, and that she wasn't able to find full-time employment as an attorney upon her return to Denver. But she also insists the court's characterization of her earnings is misleading, since it failed to take into account her income from nontaxable investments. If the trial court's figures are correct, then the Burford partnership concluded with a net deficit of $57,507; the parties emerged from the marriage with $263,816 in joint assets, offset by $321,323 in marital debt.
...is a pack of lawyers: "The Court cannot recall a case in domestic relations in its twelve years on the bench that was more riddled with discovery dispute than this," Judge Markson wrote three years ago. Since the case began, Anne has run through five lawyers, been awarded a mere $30,000 in legal fees, and is now pressing forward as her own attorney. Court documents indicate that the representatives of Bob's estate have spent in excess of $230,000 on the matter. Each side has blamed the other for the soaring cost of the litigation.
Till death do us part--uh, you first: Last week attorneys for the Burford estate filed an appeal of the Court of Appeals decision, arguing that the court had set a dangerous precedent. If Anne Burford is entitled to half her husband's estate in spite of the divorce decree, that "would create an incentive for a spouse to drag out divorce litigation in an attempt to outlive the other.