Archive for Saturday, December 7, 2002

Photos reveal elaborate work at Wittig house

December 7, 2002


— Forget about "This Old House."

David Wittig's home renovations, long the subject of rumor and speculation, look like something out of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

The lavishly decorated rooms with expensive antiques, collectibles and original paintings were done while Wittig was overseeing the downward fiscal spiral of Westar Energy Inc., the largest electric utility in Kansas.

A glimpse into Wittig's renovation of the former Alf Landon mansion was provided by Wittig's interior decorator Marc Edward Charbonnet of New York, who posted photos of the work on his Web site.

Contacted about the renovation, Charbonnet said it was a "great project" and that he loved working with Wittig and working in Topeka.

"My client is a great client," he said.

But Charbonnet, who has decorated for the likes of actor Michael J. Fox, declined to talk further about the Wittig renovation and said he was going to take the photos off his firm's Web site.

Bank fraud

Renovations to the mansion, which sits on 14 acres in west Topeka, figure in the criminal charges against its resident.

Wittig, 47, resigned last month as president and chief executive office of Westar after a federal grand jury indicted him on charges that he and former Topeka bank president Clinton Odell Weidner II concealed the purpose of a $1.5 million bank loan. Both have pleaded innocent to the charges. A trial has been scheduled for April 23.

As part of the indictment, federal officials allege Weidner falsified a $1.5 million loan proposal by saying the money would be used by Wittig for personal business and the home renovation. But according to the indictment, both Wittig and Weidner knew the proceeds were invested by Weidner in an Arizona real estate development.

Renovation of Wittig's home has long been a sore point with those unhappy about his leadership at Westar. Consumer advocates often pointed to the mansion and the use of a corporate jet as examples of Wittig's excesses at a time Westar sought to increase rates and the value of its stock was plummeting. They said ratepayers were footing the bill for Wittig's renovations.

Recently, state regulators ordered a restructuring of Westar, and state and federal officials are looking into details of Wittig's compensation agreement with Westar.

Neighbors curious

In Wittig's Topeka neighborhood, residents often wondered about the renovation project as an army of electricians, carpenters and others worked on the house.

"It was a source of awe and amazement," former neighbor John Marshall said. Marshall, now the editor-owner of the Lindsborg News-Record, said neighbors were glad the property was being renovated by a single owner but, "We were just scratching our heads at the expense involved."

A carpenter who worked on the renovation but declined to be identified called the expense of the renovation "unbelievable." A family theater constructed in the home probably cost about $400,000, he said.

The chairs in the theater were upholstered in ox-blood and gold leather, according to Charbonnet's Web site. The carpeting was milled at the same mill as carpeting in the U.S. Capitol building.

The interior photos also show a gymnasium and locker room with custom-designed wood lockers and colored tile floor; and a billiard room featuring a 19th-century table, fireplace and mantle.

In addition there is an exercise room near the master bedroom, a breakfast room, huge reception room, library and numerous antiques and paintings throughout the house.

The carpenter said the Wittigs were great to work for, occasionally giving workers a catered break.

"I've worked for wealthy clients before who wouldn't give you a glass of water," he said.

Wittig has declined to speak with reporters in recent months as Westar's and his own legal problems have accumulated.

The house is appraised by Shawnee County at $1.8 million. During its extensive remodeling, Wittig had an agreement with Westar that it would purchase the home if he left the company for a new job, paying his original cost, plus costs of improvements.

That contract provision with Wittig and other top Westar executives was removed in September when the company's board revised compensation packages in response to what spokesmen said was the national concern about corporate accountability.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.