6:02pm PT by Alex Ben Block
'Happy Days,' 'Step by Step' Producer Sues Ex Manager for $6 Million
Television producer William S. Bickley and his production company filed a lawsuit Friday claiming his longtime business manager and friend stole at least $6 million while committing fraud and unjustly enriching himself.
The suit from Bickley, whose producing credits include Happy Days, The Love Boat, Perfect Strangers and Step By Step, was filed against Kenneth Cleveland and his company, Recome Financial. Cleveland, who worked as Bickley's business manager for 23 years, had also been a friend for more than 50 years.
“As a result of the long-standing friendship between (Bickley) and Cleveland, (Bickley) trusted Cleveland in all respects and believed the truth of the representations set forth in his periodic status reports which he provided to them (Bickley and his wife),” according to the lawsuit filed in L.A. Superior Court. “In fact, said representations were materially false and misleading and were used to hide (Cleveland’s) fraud, breaches of fiduciary duty, conversion and breach of contract."
The suit says Cleveland was, at one point, an accountant, a business manager and licensed investment advisor -- but Bickley says he had no idea until mid-2011 that his childhood manager's license to act as an investment advisor had been revoked in 2005, and his certification as a CPA had been taken away by the state of California in 2009.
In 1988, when his career was still active, Bickley had hired Cleveland as business manager for his personal affairs and for two companies he had formed. At the time, he says he knew Cleveland as a business manager for entertainment and sports clients. Cleveland paid his personal bills, did his accounting, handled his taxes and invested his money.
They had a written agreement that paid Cleveland 5 percent of the gross annual income, capped at $37,500 per year. That agreement gave Cleveland the right to sign Bickley’s checks, and access all of his bank and investment accounts. Bickley would receive periodic statements from Cleveland.
But at some point, Bickley now charges, Cleveland “embarked on a scheme” to take funds without permission and transfer the money to his own accounts.
In November 2010, Bickley and his wife Melanie met with Cleveland at his office as they prepared to retire. Melanie had taken over paying some personal bills and says she was shocked to learn that Bickley had a low credit score, because bills weren’t paid on time -- and that the IRS had put a tax lien on them. They also learned that their home was on an interest-only loan, while they thought it was fully amortized. But worst of all, they were nearly broke.
The suit claims Cleveland had paid himself at least $100,000 from their accounts the prior year. The Bickleys removed Cleveland from their accounts, but later found profit-sharing account they thought was intact had been drained as well by a company Cleveland owned.
Cleveland was evasive about providing information or returning records, so the Bickleys went to his office and found more than 60 boxes of records, which they dragged to their car. Those records showed checks written over the 20 years by Cleveland that totaled over $6 million. They believe he took other money from their checking and savings accounts but are unable to determine how much.
Now the Bickleys are trying to recover their money and damages. A call to Cleveland’s office went to an answering machine and there was no response to his business email seeking comment.