Was There Madness To His Method?

A big time lawyer says he's insane... And saves his career

Charlie Hoover seemed to be at the top of his game in early 1984.
The big-money Phoenix attorney had just concluded a massive deal on behalf of First Federal Savings and Loan (now MeraBank). It was the bank's largest deal ever--a $400 million loan to the Marriott Hotel chain for construction of a New York City hotel. Hoover's work--and his $275,000 in billings--had made his partners at the blue-blooded Phoenix firm of Jennings, Strouss & Salmon extremely pleased.

But Charlie Hoover had become a thief. He had used his firm's VISA card in late 1983 to buy thousands of dollars of personal items--camera equipment, cigars, shirts, a globe.

Then, Hoover stole more than $61,000 from his firm's trust account. He paid off a personal loan, made an investment for a son, gave his secretaries a bonus and pocketed the rest.

Hoover--then 54--resigned from his firm after his partners confronted him in September 1984. Still, he maintained his innocence for a time after the State Bar brought allegations against him a year later.

The thefts didn't make sense. Hoover didn't have problems with drugs or alcohol. He was making $350,000 a year, and he didn't appear to have financial woes. What's more, his miserly spending habits were the stuff of legend.

Whatever his motives, it appeared that Hoover would be disbarred. Prison wasn't out of the question.

Theft is theft, isn't it? Not when you're Charlie Hoover, the former chairman of a committee that considers the "character and fitness" of Arizona's lawyers.

Five years after his thefts, Hoover successfully dodged everything but a perfunctory slap on the wrist, thanks to several things that went his way: the secret process by which the State Bar of Arizona disciplines its attorneys; an imaginative insanity defense aided by one of Phoenix's most respected psychiatrists; and the self-protective instincts of the old-boy network that operates among many of Phoenix's attorneys.

Hoover's only punishment was a six-month suspension from practicing law, a verdict soft-pedaled by the comments that accompanied it.

"Disbarment or a long suspension would accomplish nothing more than the needless destruction of [Hoover's] career," Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman wrote for the 3-2 majority in the July 28 ruling.

Even before the high court's ruling, lawyers at the County Attorney's Office had decided not to prosecute Hoover.

"We thought the Bar would be doing more with Hoover than it did," says county prosecutor Howard Schwartz, explaining his office's reluctance. "You take on that kind of high-profile individual like Hoover, you'd better have a very good case, or you'll look bad."

Some familiar with the little-publicized Hoover case can't believe he got away with it.

University of Arizona official Richard Salvatierra, for instance--not a lawyer--was a member of the state Disciplinary Commission that considered Hoover's case. During the proceedings, Salvatierra expressed a feeling about lawyers no doubt common among the public.

"Here's a lawyer," he angrily told Hoover's attorney, "who involved himself in what the record shows to be a series of complicated false billings. This then leads to some treatment that suddenly makes this gentleman well. You're suggesting that all this be washed aside, that the man simply be put on probation.

"The public, if it had the record, would conclude that here we have a bunch of smart lawyers who have found a way to get around what you keep talking about as being due process. If there's any vendetta going on, it's a vendetta by you and your people against the general interest and the general public."

IN THAT NETHERWORLD where Valley lawyers roam, Charlie Hoover long had been a moneymaker among moneymakers, a tireless and skilled litigator.

Corporate lawyers early in their careers sometimes take a whirl at defending the downtrodden before they start stalking dollars. Not Hoover. From the moment in 1957 that he took his law degree with distinction at the University of Arizona, the Oklahoma native rarely sided with the little guy. For three decades, he represented mostly big-shot clients--the E.F. Huttons, the Shamrock Dairies, the MeraBanks, the Salt River Projects.

(Hoover declined an interview with New Times on the advice of his lawyers. The information for this story comes from interviews and court records.)

Hoover and his first wife, Ann, moved to Phoenix after he graduated from law school. The law firm of Jennings, Strouss & Salmon--then the state's largest with fifteen attorneys--hired him to look after antitrust and securities clients.

Hoover's reputation as an able and insatiable worker soon grew and earned him a partnership in the Phoenix firm as he turned thirty.

As the Hoovers raised a family (the last of their three children was born in 1963), it also became common knowledge that Hoover was a cheapskate.

When his peers were buying Mercedes, Hoover continued to drive a Volkswagen bug.

MeraBank chairman Gene Rice says of his long-time friend: "If there were ten of us who went to dinner somewhere, Charlie wasn't the first guy to pull out his credit card and want to pay for dinner."

Paul Beer, Hoover's lawyer, describes him as "the kind of guy who would spend thirty minutes trying to balance a six-cent error in his checking account."

At the same time, Hoover was gaining repute as an honest man.
"Charlie is one of the few people I know that I would trust with my wife or my wallet," Gene Rice testified in 1986. "He has an impeccable reputation."

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