On the surface, Estate Motors in Goldens Bridge was a successful car dealership. But beneath the surface, troubles were brewing in a family feud over a different kind of estate.
Father, son and stepmother were battling for control of the Mercedes-Benz dealership in an estate planning process.
On March 17, Estate Motors owner Charles Buonanno sued his former estate attorney, Michael J. Hausman, and accountant, John W. Noonan, for $24.5 million. He claims they schemed with his estranged son, Christopher, to loot the business.
Last year, Christopher sued his father, stepmother, Nancy Buonanno, and Estate Motors for $31.5 million, claiming they had schemed to snatch back assets in family trusts to enrich themselves.
The bickering also ensnared former employees. A minority partner and a sales manager filed separate lawsuits in the past year-and-a-half, saying they were unjustly fired as they were caught between warring factions.
Estate Motors was located in Mount Kisco when Charles Buonanno bought into the Mercedes dealership around 1967. The business was moved to a hillside on Route 22 in Goldens Bridge and Buonanno became sole owner in 1974.
Last year, he sold Estate Motors for $21.5 million to New Jersey luxury car dealer Tom Maoli, who renamed it the Celebrity Motor Car Co.
The dispute can be traced back to a better time, 2010, when Charles was preparing to retire and he turned over control of the company to Christopher.
Hausman and Noonan, according to Charles’ lawsuit, worked on his estate plans, including trusts that were established for the benefit of his son and two grandsons.
The objective was to freeze the value of Estate Motors and other assets by transferring them to trusts. Stock was exchanged for a $6.66 million promissory note.
The expectation, according to Charles’ lawsuit, was that the assets would appreciate in value and he would avoid capital gains.
He said he expected that assets also would go to his
wife “for her care and welfare.”
From 2010 to 2015, family relationships deteriorated. Christopher said his father distrusted his daughter-in-law, believing that she had married him for his money. He said his father blamed him for a “lack of a relationship with his grandchildren.”
Christopher blames Nancy, his stepmother, of poisoning the relationship with his father. He claims she intercepted phone calls, accused him of being a spendthrift and asked him to take a paternity test to prove that he was Charles’ biological son.
Charles fired Christopher near the end of 2015.
By then, Estate Motors was under tremendous outside pressure. Mercedes-Benz USA was threatening to terminate the dealership agreement unless the facilities were expanded and modernized, and various plans to rebuild in Goldens Bridge or move to another location had fallen through or not progressed.
At one point, Christopher said in his lawsuit, Santander Bank cut off Estate’s line of credit and the company was unable to buy vehicles from Mercedes or deliver vehicles that had been ordered.
In Charles’ telling, his son had siphoned off millions of dollars of assets. Estate Motors had become financially troubled and he had to return to save the business.
He is accusing his former lawyer and accountant of structuring the trusts to favor Christopher and harm Nancy.
Hausman and Noonan have not yet filed answers to Charles’ allegations.
In Christopher’s telling, he had increased Estate’s value but his father and stepmother imperiled the company’s relationship with Mercedes-Benz. He claims they contrived a default to undo the trusts and enrich themselves.
The bad blood touched employees, too.
In 2010, the good times, John N. Galanin, a 20-year-employee, was promoted to chief financial officer and given a stock bonus worth 5 percent of the company. But as conditions deteriorated, he said, his access to company information was cut off, he was demoted and finally, in September 2016, he was fired for cause.
The “cause,” Galanin said in his lawsuit, was trumped up charges of receiving unauthorized payments. He is suing Charles and Nancy for $1 million, based on a 5 percent interest in the company when it was sold.
Robert Cinelli rose to general sales manager in 2010 but was fired six months later in what he describes as retaliation for revealing
He claims that a previous sales manager who had been twice convicted for grand larceny and fraud was selling unregistered cars to an exporter without proper paperwork. He said another manager was rolling back mileage on odometers on cars that had been returned at the end of leases.
He reported his concerns to Christopher and Charles, he said, and five weeks after his last report he was fired on a false accusation of sexual harassment.
He is suing for $38,000 in unpaid commissions.
Charles and Nancy Buonnano and Estate Motors denied Cinelli’s accusations and countersued him for $50,000, claiming fraud, unjust enrichment, negligence and breach of fiduciary duty.