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Fairbairn filed suit against Merrill on Stant's and Smith's behalf, charging negligence, misleading his clients on facts pertinent to the case and overcharging; he notes the possibly improper solicitation, the possibly fraudulent motorcycle sale. He demands a minimum of $50,000 in damages and repayment of monies from the media deals.
"Merrill's divulged some information he shouldn't have," Fairbairn continues, referring to the allegations of Stant's steroid use and drug trafficking, which appear to have nothing at all to do with the dispute over Merrill's ethics.
@body:Fredrick Merrill, 46, has the cool and easy manner of a small-town lawyer. His office is hung with hunt prints. He lounges back in his desk chair while he takes questions as to his law practice; he answers in a sincere tone. David Robert Silvert, 40, is edgier and flashier. He wears ostrich-skin cowboy boots and designer jeans. Like Merrill, he's a six-footer. Looking out from beneath hooded eyelids, he ardently proclaims his innocence--and has reason to worry if that innocence is questioned.
Shane Stant and Derrick Smith are not the first people to accuse either Merrill or Silvert of taking their money. "Every single lawyer I talked to knew someone who had had the same experience with Fred Merrill," says Stant. "When I called the lawyer referral line [while looking for someone to consider his claims against Merrill], they laughed when I said it was Fred Merrill."
Merrill has been sued several times since 1986, at least four times successfully, and many of the suits, successful or not, concerned clients or business contacts who felt he had not delivered what had been paid for.
"How does anybody get into these situations?" he offers as explanation. "I've been in practice since 1978, and I think when you're out there doing things like this, there's always people who are going to take a shot at you. There may be people out there who say, 'Mr. Merrill, we believe you may be an active participant in this, therefore, we're going to sue them, and you're going to be sued, too.' Should that stop me from representing those people?"
Late last month, the Arizona Supreme Court handed Merrill a 90-day suspension from practice for failing to account for $10,000 he'd taken from an elderly woman who had retained him for estate planning; $4,000 was allegedly taken to have some of the client's paintings appraised, and the rest comprised two loans that Merrill failed to memorialize. He paid the money back when the bar began making inquiries.
Silvert's court record is overwhelming: Between 1984 and 1988, he was sued for thousands of dollars of merchandise and services he had purchased but allegedly never paid for.
In 1986, he was successfully sued for $5 million for obtaining fraudulent loans. He was never charged in more than 30 real estate deals in which he was alleged to have acted improperly. Most of those cases were dismissed or written off when Silvert declared bankruptcy.
Silvert then started over again. In 1990, he was convicted of fraud, was sentenced to seven years of intensive probation that forbids him to leave Maricopa County and ordered to pay nearly $4 million in restitution. The next year, he spent two months in jail for passing bad checks.
Now he swears he's changed his ways, that the spending and deal-making are behind him.
"When I got out of college, I got involved with individuals that were in real estate," he says in his own defense. "I was with a group of people who were doing business in a sort of fast-and-footloose-fancy method, and it was wrong. I agree with the conclusion that it is wrong, and I'm not doing that anymore. I was hoping that chapter of my life is over."
And as for any wrongdoing that may be determined regarding Stant's and Smith's claims, he pleads subservience to Merrill. "Do you understand that I'm an employee of Fred?" he asks. "This is not my business. I'm working as hard as I can to support a family. I'm making monthly payments, as the judge ordered me to make."
In explaining his employment of Silvert, Merrill offers only that Silvert works long, diligent hours. "What Bob did was wrong in his past activities," Merrill says. "He was charged with crimes, and he is in the process of serving his time."
As for Stant and Smith, Merrill sadly says, "I had genuinely thought up until a couple of weeks ago that these were nice people. I thought they were drawn into a situation where they were naive. Right there at the last, when they could see their worth declining, a real hostile attitude started developing."
An outraged Silvert dismisses Stant's allegations as "complete bullshit, and they are alleged for the sole purpose of monetary gain. And they're the same conduct that resulted in him smacking a skater on the knee. It was for money."
Stant claims that he doesn't want money from Merrill; he wants justice.
What is truth, and what is merely perception? Stant and Merrill and Silvert all strike sincere and offended poses--and may actually believe their own claims.
And what is legal, regardless of how cynical or greedy the underlying motives may be? In the end, it comes down to the signatures on a contract and the word of a suspended lawyer and a convicted swindler against the word of another convicted felon. The lawyer, in this case, has signed contracts and documentation in his briefcase. And so Stant may be left with nothing but amazement at how so much money was generated because of his own bad judgment, and how so little was left for him when the smoke cleared and the mirrors were taken down.
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