An attorney and long-time employee of the company, Sue Ann Hamm once held the title of "vice president, crude oil marketing," according to a 1997 letter she wrote to the Minerals Management Service, a former unit of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The same year, she testified to Congress as Continental's emissary, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of U.S. energy markets.
Still, a Reuters review of Securities and Exchange Commission filings by Continental since 1996 reveals neither a reference to Sue Ann Hamm as an executive nor as a related party—the wife—of the chief executive.
Three former Continental employees say her job was never clear. "Sue seemed to play a minor role. I never quite understood what she did," said Kendra Ognibene, Harold's personal assistant at Continental from 1996 to 2000.
While Harold's profile has grown in oil markets over the last decade, Sue Ann faded from the scene publicly. She has listed herself as a "homemaker" in political campaign contribution documents since 2010.
Jon Hester, an attorney for Sue Ann Hamm, would not comment on her roles at Continental and when she left the company. Continental would not comment on her role either.
Now, Judge Haralson must decide to what degree the nearly 500 percent increase in the value of Continental's shares was due to the hard work of Harold and the support of Sue Ann, and to what extent it was the product of outside forces.
A 1995 Oklahoma Supreme Court decision in another divorce case could prove pivotal, say family law experts.
In the case, Thielenhaus v Thielenhaus, the court found that "enhanced value" of a spouse's property can be divided between the couple if it stemmed from "efforts, skills or expended funds of either spouse." But that value cannot be divided if it derived from an investment managed by third parties or "appreciation, inflation, changing economic conditions, or circumstances beyond the parties' control" - in other words, from dumb luck.
If the judge found that outside factors inflated the value of the Hamm estate, Harold would keep the lion's share of the enhanced value. Paradoxically, this means one of America's savviest entrepreneurs would benefit by persuading the judge that much of his multi-billion-dollar fortune just fell into his lap.
Harold Hamm owned the vast majority of Continental's stock before he married Sue Ann in 1988. By 1999, he still owned 91 percent, and today directly owns 68 percent, according to SEC filings. In 1988, U.S. oil prices averaged $16 a barrel, compared with $95 in May 2012, when the Hamms agree they separated, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures.
Harold could argue that the meteoric growth in Continental's value during the marriage was largely due to market forces, not to his own work, and therefore should be excluded from the marital capital pool, say family law experts.
But the vast majority of Hamm's wealth has accrued since Continental went public, and such an argument could be undermined by a look at Continental's peers. Since their May 2007 market debut, Continental shares have soared 463 percent. Over the same time, a popular exchange-traded fund that invests in dozens of independent U.S. drillers—the iShares U.S. Oil & Gas Exploration and Production ETF—has risen just 31 percent.
Hamm's own public statements highlight his role in discovering the Bakken oil field, the core of Continental's wealth. He and his engineers have said that their 2004 Robert Heuer well in Divide County, North Dakota, was the first commercially successful well in the Bakken.
"This one proved that a Bakken well could be a commercial success," Hamm told the Bakken Oil Report, a trade publication, in 2011. "It helped usher in a new era in the American oil industry by unleashing the development of the enormous Bakken oil field."
Continental's public filings underscore Harold Hamm's outsized role. In its 2013 proxy, the company wrote, "Mr. Hamm is one of the driving forces behind the Company and its success to date. Over the course of the Company's history, Mr. Hamm has successfully grown the Company through his leadership skills and business judgment."