Attorney Jynell Berkshire says her clients feel they were scammed by former “Fox & Friends” host Clayton Morris.
Mykal McEldowney, IndyStar
INDIANAPOLIS – Ex-Fox & Friends co-host Clayton Morrishas left the country amid more than two dozen lawsuits from investors who say he defrauded them in real estate deals involving properties in Indianapolis.
Morris, who previously resided in a $1.4 million home in New Jersey, has moved with his family to a coastal resort town in Portugal, according to his wife’s Facebook post.
In an email to IndyStar, Morris’s wife and business partner, former MSNBC anchor Natali Morris, said they plan to continue fighting the lawsuits from abroad. They have denied responsibility for investor losses, instead blaming their Indianapolis business partner Bert Whalen and his company, Oceanpointe.
“We have and continued to take responsibility for all of our legal challenges that came from our relationship with Oceanpointe. We have answered all of our attorney general requests in all states. We have answered all lawsuits,” Natali Morris said.
“We have not run from anything,” she added. “We continue to show up for this until the last lawsuit is dismissed and it is clear that we neither had the money from Oceanpointe investors nor did we defraud anyone.”
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But investors and their attorneys expressed concern about the move. They worry it could make it more difficult to serve Morris with legal notices and could complicate efforts to retrieve any damages if a judge finds in their favor.
“In my clients’ opinion, innocent people don’t flee the country,” said Jynell Berkshire, an Indianapolis real estate attorney who is representing several investors.
No criminal charges have been brought against Morris or Whalen. Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies in Indiana and New Jersey declined to confirm or deny any investigation.
In a lengthy post Thursday on her website, Natali Morris said the legal problems, animosity from investors and negative news coverage drove the family’s decision to leave the country.
“I am not one of those who rejects America,” she wrote. “We had a good life there. But my husband and I have had a hard few years in our business and this collective soul challenge forced us to question everything.”
She said her husband was unfairly blamed because of his “residual ‘fame’ from his former career as a news anchor.”
“But America is polarized and if you can write a headline about a Fox News guy doing something wrong, it will get clicked on in order to reinforce people’s conviction bias, one way or another,” she wrote.
She said her husband has taken accusations and media coverage particularly hard.
“Watching him endure this has felt like what I would imagine it is like to watch him endure chemotherapy,” she said. “I wish I could take it from him. I wish I could fix it. I wish it were me instead. I carry a pain with me knowing that he is in pain and it is with me always. His health began to suffer. He began to withdraw emotionally and it was hard on our family. We both knew that we had to make a change if we wanted to survive.”
IndyStar reported in March that investors were accusing Morris of running a Ponzi scheme with Whalen’s help. Together they sold at least 700 homes in some of Indianapolis’s most troubled neighborhoods.
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Investors suing Morris — mostly out-of-state real estate novices — claim he sold them houses with a promise to rehab them, find tenants and manage the properties. All they had to do, according to a video on his popular YouTube channel, was sit back and collect the rent checks.
But those rehabs didn’t happen or were superficial, the investors claim. They accuse Morris and Whalen of covering their tracks by providing fake leases and sending rent checks even though the properties were vacant. Many of the investors say they only discovered the truth when they began receiving code violations and condemnation notices from the city.
Some investors say the scheme turned them into unwitting slumlords. An IndyStar investigation published last month found tenants who said they suffered through dangerous and disgusting conditions in properties bought, sold or managed by Whalen’s companies.
Morris has denied the fraud allegations, saying he merely referred investors to Whalen. He claimed he was not responsible for managing the properties and has said he was sickened to learn of tenants living in abject conditions.
Whalen has also denied any wrongdoing.
Jennifer Drobac, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, said moving out of the U.S. does not absolve a defendant in a lawsuit of their legal responsibility.
But it also is true that Morris does not have to return to the country to defend himself if he has an attorney here representing him.
However, if he simply tried to ignore a lawsuit and not engage local counsel, she said the plaintiff could win a default judgment against him.
And because these are civil cases, rather than criminal, a court would not take action to extradite a defendant to bring them to trial.
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