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Byline: Michael Joseph Gross
Over many years, in the five households the couple shared, the wife hired scores of servants to help take care of her rich husband. Then, in 2005, she hired someone to tail him. Margaret Ritchie Rhea Battle Scaife (whose friends call her Ritchie) suspected Richard Mellon Scaife (whose friends call him Dick) of committing adultery, so she enlisted the services of an investigator. It was a private act that would have very public consequences. Richard Mellon Scaife is the best-known living member of Pittsburgh's storied Mellon clan, whose eponymous bank made the family a 19th-century fortune, which grew steadily with diversified investments, including major coal, steel, and real-estate interests, and Gulf Oil Corporation. Scaife, who owns several newspapers, is a major backer of conservative causes; his political donations fueled the rise of the New Right and its moral crusade against Bill Clinton, making Scaife the central figure in Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy." In the 1990s, his gift of $1.8 million to The American Spectator funded investigations into Whitewater and Bill Clinton's personal life, including David Brock's notorious "Troopergate" expose, which led to Paula Jones's sexual-harassment suit against the president.
In December of 2005, the private detective proved Ritchie's fears to have been well founded: he took pictures showing the reclusive 75-year-old billionaire with a woman named Tammy Vasco, a tall, blonde 43-year-old whose criminal history includes two arrests for prostitution. The pair was photographed at Doug's Motel, a roadside establishment near Pittsburgh, where rooms rent for $49 a night, or $31 for three hours.
Dick and Ritchie's relationship, which began when they were married to other people, was always unconventional. During their decade-long courtship, Dick bought Ritchie a house in Pittsburgh's wealthy Shadyside neighborhood, a few blocks from his own-a domestic arrangement that didn't change when they were married, in 1991. Yet they moved easily back and forth between the homes until, the week after Ritchie discovered Dick's betrayal, a servant refused to let Ritchie enter her husband's Georgian mansion-and Ritchie saw Vasco's Jeep parked in the garage. Ritchie demanded to be let in, banging on windows and doors. Dick called the police, who told Ritchie she was trespassing and had to leave.
She got in her car, drove to a neighbor's driveway, then crept back to Dick's dining-room window (inside, the table was set with candelabras for a "romantic dinner"), hoping to document her husband's dalliance by using the camera on her cell phone. But when she set off the security lights in the yard, the police handcuffed her and charged her with "defiant trespass." The 60-year-old socialite spent that night-three days before Christmas-in a holding cell at the Allegheny County Jail, where her fellow prisoners passed the time by petting the fur collar of her coat.
Ritchie was released the next morning, and the defiant-trespass charge was eventually dismissed. But as her lawyer announced several months later in a divorce filing, "The marriage was over!"
Some details of the Scaifes' split were reported in local newspapers (the first account appeared in Richard Scaife's own paper the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), but the legal filings were sealed by the court. Then, last August, owing to an apparent clerical error, the filings were posted on a court Web page. Poring over them, Dennis Roddy, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette-the city's oldest newspaper, and the liberal rival to Scaife's conservative Tribune-Review-disclosed previously unknown financial details about Richard Scaife's $1.4 billion fortune and about Ritchie's jaw-dropping, court-ordered interim support payments of $725,000 a month. (This stream of income, Scaife's lawyers noted, "produces an amount so large that just the income from it, invested at 5%, is greater each year than the salary of the President of the United States." Unconfirmed reports suggest that Ritchie's interim monthly payments have since increased, to more than $1 million.) The Post-Gazette posted the court documents on its own Web site; locals took rooting interest in the story's many subplots (alleged hair-pulling fights with the help, dognapping, and battles royal over a 94-page itemized list of art and objets, from a million-dollar Magritte to an $1,800 set of asparagus tongs), which almost make one pray for Aaron Spelling's resurrection from the dead.
What, exactly, is at stake in the war of Scaife versus Scaife? Money, to be sure. Astonishingly, the Scaifes were married without a pre-nuptial agreement, so Pennsylvania statutes automatically entitle Ritchie to 40 percent of Dick's net monthly income, but only until the divorce is final. Ritchie won't have any legal claim on the core of Dick's inherited wealth-but she is entitled to claim part of the appreciation in value of most of the assets he held during their marriage. According to Pennsylvania law, "marital misconduct" does not affect the equitable division of property in a divorce. Instead, settlements are determined by factors such as length of marriage, income disparity between spouses, employability, and "liabilities and needs of each of the parties." Ritchie, who spent the better part of 14 years running Dick's households, has a comparatively minuscule income of her own (and, as a 60-year-old, has less than stellar employment prospects), which might incline a judge to give her a hefty settlement. State guidelines for distribution of assets in a divorce are so broad, though, as to make it impossible to predict such decisions. Albert Momjian, a leading Philadelphia divorce lawyer, says that out-of-court settlements are usually preferable where fortunes are in play. In a case like Dick and Ritchie's, he says, "so much depends on the reasonableness of the parties."
Reputations are also at stake, and Ritchie, Dick, and their respective defenders are squaring off with …