The Prince, the PI, and the On-Again-Off-Again Lawsuit

Financial machinations and palace intrigue in the tiny principality of Monaco are at the center of a lurid lawsuit that was filed last month—and then withdrawn a few days ago—by an American author and private eye against Prince Albert II, the reigning monarch. Robert Eringer, who once wrote a novel about a coup against Monaco's ruling Grimaldi dynasty, claimed in the lawsuit that he was hired by Prince Albert, then Monaco's heir apparent, to serve as his private intelligence adviser. He claims his duties mainly involved investigating alleged spies and crooks who were trying to make inroads in Monaco or ingratiate themselves with the prince. During the course of his work, Eringer says, he also ran across information about alleged questionable dealings by international notables like Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Mark Thatcher, son of Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. While many of his claims appeared outlandish, in the brief time between the lawsuit's filing in October and its dismissal a few days ago, evidence emerged to substantiate parts of his tale, and a lawyer for Albert confirmed that Eringer had worked for the prince in the capacity he claimed.

While acknowledging that Albert and Eringer did have a business relationship, lawyers for the prince, son of the late movie-star Grace Kelly and the late Prince Rainier, denounced the lawsuit as an overblown blackmail attempt: "Basically, Eringer's lawsuit couches a modest breach-of-contract claim in a complaint replete with grandiose, scurrilous and largely irrelevant allegations, redolent of a crude 'shake-down' or blatant extortion," said Stanley S. Arkin, a New York lawyer who is representing the prince, in a written statement. In a phone interview, Arkin said that after the case was filed in state court, he applied for it to be transferred to federal court, where he argued that it should be dismissed because Albert was a foreign head of state. He said that in the wake of this move, Eringer a few days ago consented to having the case dismissed. "Right now the case is gone, " Arkin said. He acknowledged, however, that "for a time" Eringer really was an intelligence adviser to Albert, though he said many of the specific allegations by Eringer about information he collected while working for the prince were untrue.

Eringer said that he decided to withdraw the lawsuit because when the prince asserted sovereign immunity, Albert in effect chose "not to contest the merits" of the allegations made by Eringer. Eringer says that he "stands by the veracity" of the allegations he made. "Due to the prince's use of immunity to evade engagement," Eringer said, he had "no choice but to withdraw his complaint and seek redress through other means." He did not explain further what other means of redress he would pursue.

Eringer included as appendices to his lawsuits copies of numerous statements documenting large payments to him by the Royal Palace in Monaco between 2003 and 2007. He also appended what appears to be a spiffy credential identifying him as Agent 001 of the "Monaco Intelligence Service." However, Eringer acknowledged in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK that the ID card and the Monaco Intelligence Service are both something of a confection: "Prince Albert's lawyer announced that the Monaco Intelligence Service had no legal (official) existence. That is correct. It was created as a private entity for the prince. It did not officially exist--probably the best definition for a spy service."

Money was at the heart of the dispute between Eringer and the prince. Eringer says that between 2002, when he first signed on as the prince's personal gumshoe, and early 2008, when the prince stopped paying him, he received fees ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 euros per quarter. But after the prince failed to make his first scheduled payment for 2008, Eringer claims, he stopped working for Albert. He later had a Washington, D.C., law firm send the prince a claim for 360,000 euros in fees and severance payments. Eringer's lawsuit, filed in state court in Santa Barbara, California (which can be read in full here), alleges that by not paying Eringer, the prince committed "breach of contract" and "misrepresentation." Neither Eringer nor Arkin indicated that any financial settlement was reached between the parties before Eringer withdrew his claim.

Eringer said in his lawsuit that Prince Albert hired him as his personal "intelligence adviser" in June 2002 because he was preparing to become ruler of the tiny French Riviera mini-state as his father aged and because he wanted to root out "corruption, money laundering and organized crime" in Monaco, long known as both a playground for the rich and as a tax haven. Among Eringer's earliest missions, the lawsuit says, was to block a Russian businessman who resided in Monaco from acquiring the local professional soccer team. Soon, Eringer claims, he also succeeded in establishing relationships with the CIA and Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (otherwise known as MI-6). He claims he persuaded MI-6 to give Prince Albert advance briefings before he embarked on foreign trips, and that he also arranged a secret meeting with FBI Director Robert Mueller in April 2003. (A CIA spokesman declined to comment on a matter in litigation; a British government official said, "It's long-standing government policy not to comment on intelligence issues"; an FBI spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)

After Albert's father Rainier died and the prince became Monaco's ruler, Eringer investigated, among other things, the disappearance of a Joan Miró painting from Monaco's Red Cross. He says he also tried to involve Monaco in an "intelligence club" composed of spies and financial investigators working for other European mini-states, including Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Andorra, and that he investigated various corruption schemes among Monaco's rich and powerful. According to Eringer's account, a paid informant provided him intelligence that Vladimir Putin, then Russian president, was "apparently behind a number of real-estate investments paid for with money siphoned off from Russia's energy sector." The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a phone message and an e-mail requesting comment.

At one point Eringer learned that Mark Thatcher, a figure in several U.K. and international controversies, had obtained a Monaco residency permit; he says Prince Albert then ordered Thatcher thrown out of Monaco. Lord Tim Bell, a spokesman for the Thatcher family, said that while Thatcher was not thrown out of Monaco, it is true that Monaco authorities denied him a permit to reside in the principality. Bell said he believed this decision was related to problems Thatcher was having with U.S. tax authorities.

Eringer alleges that he later found himself entangled in some of the more messy aspects of his patron's personal life. In late December 2005, for example, Eringer claims he played host to Albert's 13-year-old illegitimate daughter and her mother; he says that Albert rejected his pleas for a personal meeting between the child and the prince. Included in exhibits to the lawsuit is a lengthy letter from Gavin de Becker, a prominent Hollywood security consultant and author. In the letter, de Becker describes himself as the girl's "trustee" and encourages Albert's lawyers to envision the girl giving interviews to Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Time, and NEWSWEEK "not about Albert but about a girl's experience when her father elects to un-know and invisibilize [sic] her." The letter goes on to discuss various proposals which Albert had made for financial support for the girl and urges the Prince to meet with daughter. Reached by Newsweek, de Becker said:Albert's lawyers didn't respond to requests for comment about the child, but it has been widely reported that the prince, through one of his lawyers, acknowledged three years ago that he was her father.

In an e-mail exchange with NEWSWEEK, Eringer denied that the lawsuit was a blackmail ploy: " If Stanley Arkin believes this is extortion, he should call the police instead of slandering me. The prince was offered the opportunity by Winston & Strawn over 18 months ago to resolve this straightforward employment dispute. Instead, the prince chose to do what he does best when the going gets tough: hide out." Describing his background, Eringer stated: "I have been in the information business for over 30 years, first as an investigative reporter, then private-sector intelligence, leading to FBI Counterintelligence (as an independent contractor). For a few years I lived in Monaco and I met Prince Albert. He needed an intelligence adviser to know the truth about what was going on inside his principality. The prince told me he wanted to crack down on corruption, organized crime, and money laundering, and promised to do so once he succeeded his father as sovereign. It posed a challenge hard to resist. I believed in this princely mission, so I made it my own, in his exclusive service."