Fort Lauderdale, FL – In the legal annals of Broward County and the often furious back-and-forth between people suing one another for supposed lying, swindling, cheating and other misdeeds, this may be a first.
The director of one of South Florida’s most generous foundations, the Lillian Jean Kaplan Foundation, believes he is the Messiah and has been spending the foundation’s millions to bolster his image, a lawsuit filed by his uncle claims.
The alleged Messiah wannabe, Guma Aguiar, dismisses his uncle’s assertions as nonsense. If he truly believed he was the savior, he said, he would belong in a mental institution.
Aguiar’s rabbi says the businessman is exceptionally giving, donating millions to improve the world.
“He is a person who has a heart that is not matched by anybody,” said Rabbi Moshe Meir Lipszyc of Chabad Lubavitch of Fort Lauderdale
But Aguiar’s uncle, Thomas Kaplan, wants a Broward County judge to remove his nephew as director of the foundation created to honor Kaplan’s mother, and to which Kaplan says he has contributed more than $40 million.
The Lillian Jean Kaplan Foundation, in existence for seven years, handed out nearly $4.9 million in 2006 to causes ranging from Jewish charities to the digging of water wells in Africa, according to the last federal tax return available online.
It’s not those gifts Kaplan is objecting to, but to the more than $7 million he says his nephew, 31, doled out last year to advance what the lawsuit calls his “claim that he is the Messiah and to promote his messianic mission.”
Kaplan’s attorney, Harley Tropin, declined to comment on the case, saying the Jan. 9 lawsuit speaks for itself.
At the root of this unique court action may be a family falling-out over a business deal. Aguiar and Kaplan have dueling lawsuits involving a company they founded, Leor Exploration & Production LLC, which was sold for $2.55 billion after discovering huge natural gas reserves in East Texas.
The nephew is demanding an accounting of where the money from the 2007 sale went, saying he is owed at least an additional $17.6 million. The uncle is accusing Aguiar of misappropriating Leor’s assets for personal expenses and demanding his nephew pay back nearly $200 million.
In an interview, Aguiar said that since the sale of the energy company, he’s been dedicated to using his newfound wealth to promote good deeds. Last year alone, he gave more than $30 million to charitable causes, one of his attorneys, Greg Miarecki, said.
As for the Messiah business, Aguiar said he’s never told anyone he’s the Messiah. He does say, though, that he feels very blessed.
“People have said what an amazing accomplishment it was that I started a company at 26 from nothing and built it up to be so successful,” Aguiar said. “When I sold the company I gave credit to God.”
Aguiar says he was largely responsible for Leor’s success, having moved to Houston from Florida at age 26 and immersing himself in the world of oil and gas exploration. Leor ended up tapping into what turned out to a multi-trillion-cubic-foot field of natural gas. In 2007, he was named Executive of the Year by Oil and Gas Investor magazine.
While Aguiar portrays his uncle as having a minimal role in the company, Kaplan maintains he guided the business every step of the way. Before Leor, Kaplan already had made millions in the mineral and energy industries.
Kaplan alleges in a Fort Lauderdale federal suit — filed the same day as the Broward complaint involving the foundation — that his nephew stole Leor’s office equipment, filtered money to other family members without authorization and charged personal expenses on a Leor credit card.
Aguiar said he’s done nothing wrong and hasn’t stolen a penny. He said he will ask for Broward Circuit Court Judge Robert Rosenberg to dismiss the Messiah lawsuit.
“They are trying to distract and intimidate me from going on with my life,” he said.