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Trustees' fees are talk of San Antonio's elite

Like the imposing bronze sculpture that dominates his gravesite, Robert L. B. Tobin, the flamboyant arts patron, still looms large over San Antonio, three and a half years after his death. And not just because Tobin bequeathed his fortune to a private foundation that is among the community's largest benefactors.

For two years now, there has been chatter among San Antonio's elite over the size of the trustee fees collected by J. Bruce Bugg Jr. and Leroy G. Denman Jr., the prominent attorneys who together control the Tobin Endowment's $58 million in assets.

Last year, Bugg, who manages the foundation's assets, and Denman took fees of $295,580 each for awarding $1.67 million in grants. But in a 1999 document, Tobin instructed his trustees to take only reasonable fees like those charged by the Frost National Bank of San Antonio. Last week, the bank's senior trust official said in an interview that Frost's charges for the same services would be $292,000 -- half what the two trustees were paid.James R. Dublin, a spokesman for Bugg and Denman, said that since there are two trustees, they are entitled to twice what the bank would charge as the sole trustee. Bugg, who has other business interests, and Denman, who is 84, both say they work 40 hours a week on foundation business. In a letter to the Globe, both lawyers said their fees are justified.But the fees are only part of what the two lawyers are collecting.According to court records that have, to date, received no public notice, Tobin signed documents in the two years before he died -- including one signed just seven weeks before his death -- that awarded Bugg a percentage of the sale price of assets in the estate. The assets are being sold by Bugg, with the goal of building the foundation's assets to $100 million.In 1998 Tobin, in what would not be an unusual move, granted both men fees for managing several entities that held his assets. As part of that, Bugg received a substantial share of the investment income from the Tobin Group Inc.But Tobin also approved a much greater benefit for Bugg, whom he entrusted in his will with the job of selling off assets to endow the foundation. Tobin signed papers giving Bugg a commission on sales from a tract of land he owned in downtown San Antonio -- a 9 percent commission on any sales of commercial property and 4 percent for residential property. On March 9, 2000, bedridden and so ill he could not attend his own birthday party, Tobin signed one more document. It gave Bugg a 4 percent commission on the sale of all the other assets of the estate, with the exception of marketable securities. And it authorized an immediate $50,000 bonus for Bugg.

Days after Tobin's death on April 26, 2000, two Park Avenue, New York, townhouses Tobin owned were listed for sale. Both sold quickly, for a total of $10 million, according to real estate sales records. At the 4 percent rate Tobin authorized in March, that sale alone would have meant $400,000 for Bugg.

Under Tobin's will, Bugg, as executor, is also entitled to collect executor's fees, which by themselves can amount to a percentage of the estate. It was unclear whether those fees would be in addition to the commissions for asset sales that Tobin approved. A probate judge approved the fee schedule in June, 2000, because Tobin had agreed to them and no one objected.

Since then, Bugg has been granted 11 extensions, an extraordinary number, to the requirement that he publicly file an inventory of the estate. Last week Ann Tobin Maessen, the daughter of a first cousin of Tobin, said she is convinced Tobin was not competent to make decisions about estate fees in the last months of his life.

"They presented these papers to Robert to sign when he was very ill and very depressed," Maessen said. "If he was in his right mind, he never would have signed them." She now says the two attorneys are using the assets "to enhance their own social and personal standing in San Antonio."

In 2003, the Tobin Endowment pledged nearly $1.25 million to a cancer research center where Bugg is chairman of the board and $500,000 to San Antonio's public television station where Bugg is a board member. In a written response to questions from the Globe, Bugg and Denman said Maessen's assertion is "uninformed, completely without truth, and despicable to imply."

Just how much Bugg and Denman have been paid is unclear. Dublin, who at first insisted that the two lawyers received nothing other than foundation trustee fees from any Tobin entity, later said he would not answer any question about their estate-related fees. In their letter, Bugg and Denman wrote: "The assets under estate administration are a private matter."

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