Poverty, Phoenician-Style

A resident of the exclusive community claims indigence, is awarded taxpayer-funded defender

Wayne Legg and his wife live inside the gated community known as the Phoenician II at 65th Street and Camelback.

Ordinarily, someone with the 66-year-old Legg's credentials--longtime partner in a respected law firm, former Republican party county chairman, former chief counsel to Arizona State University--would be reaping the benefits of a profitable career.

Since 1992, however, Legg has been consumed with his own monumental legal problems. A New Times story ("As Helpless As Children," September 8, 1993) described how Legg had allegedly stolen more than $1 million from elderly Valley residents, shrinking their estates in many instances to almost nothing.

A state grand jury later indicted Legg, known as the "King of Probate," on numerous theft counts. He retained a pair of topnotch Phoenix attorneys, Larry Debus and Jerry Busby, and resolved to take his chances at trial.

That trial ended earlier this year in a hung jury. (By several accounts, the vote on most of the charges was 11-1 in favor of a guilty verdict.)

Prosecutors from the Arizona Attorney General's Office plan to retry Legg, possibly early next year. But Legg won't have the same defense team fighting to keep him out of prison.

Instead, because of Legg's own shifty financial maneuvers, his new attorney will be a deputy public defender, subsidized by Maricopa County taxpayers.

Under the law, judges may assign attorneys--usually public defenders--to a criminal defendant who is "not financially able to employ counsel."

In a September 16 ruling, Superior Court Judge Brian Hauser said Legg "has proved by preponderance of the evidence that he is indigent." At the same time, the judge ordered Legg to contribute $500 to defense expenses.

Legg had avowed in recent court documents that he's personally broke and deeply in debt. But court records show he transferred his most lucrative assets to his children and wife soon after authorities started investigating him in 1992.

Legg apparently has also overstated what he owes Debus and Busby.
In a handwritten document filed with Judge Hauser on June 24, Legg listed no assets and debts of $866,000. He claims his only income is $863 a month in social security benefits.

In the document, Legg claimed he owes $500,000 to attorney Debus and $200,000 to Busby. (The attorneys say they don't know where their former client came up with those amounts.)

Sherry Stephens, the assistant attorney general prosecuting Legg, argued in court papers filed July 24 that Legg is pulling a fast one.

"After learning that he was being investigated by a myriad of public agencies and private individuals," Stephens wrote in her objection to Legg's indigency claims, "Wayne Legg systematically rid himself of assets in 1992 and 1993 by obligating his real estate and personal property to his children, his wife and his attorneys. After selling his assets, he distributed the records to family members so that he would have no assets which could be attached by any government agency or private litigation.

"Defendant Legg should not be permitted to secret his assets through a complex scheme and then ask the taxpayers of the state of Arizona to pay his legal fees."

When Judge Hauser ordered him to submit more detailed financial information, Legg initially invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Earlier this month, Legg filed new papers with the court, which the judge has sealed.

But public records demonstrate that Legg did shield his assets much as Stephens has alleged.

In February 1992, Legg's financial portfolio listed his net worth as $1.14 million. That year, several agencies--including the Attorney General's Office and State Bar of Arizona--began to investigate the allegations that led to Legg's indictment and trial. (He voluntarily surrendered his law license. After he was booked on the theft charges, he was released on his own recognizance; he hasn't spent so much as a minute in jail.)

That October and November, Legg mortgaged farm properties in Kentucky for about $1.3 million, receiving $285,000 from one of his sons, $250,000 from two other sons and $400,000 from his then-girlfriend, Maria Mann. He also executed liens--$200,000 each--for legal work to be performed by Debus and Phoenix attorney Harry Stewart. The attorneys signed for the liens in October 1992, but paperwork wasn't recorded until a year later, after Legg had used the same properties as collateral to secure bank loans.

On November 30, 1992, Legg executed a quit-claim deed for his Phoenician home to Maria Mann. The residence was valued at about $200,000; he turned over its ownership for $10, and it became her "sole and separate" property.

On December 26, 1992, he married Mann.
About a year passed. In late 1993, Legg started to sell his Kentucky properties parcel by parcel. By February 1994, his court filings show, he had collected about $692,000--$576,200 for land sales and $116,000 for equipment sales.

According to court records, the new Mrs. Legg received $210,000, which was placed into a Smith Barney account called the Maria Legg Revocable Trust. Legg also distributed $126,000 to attorney Stewart, and $124,000 to one of his sons.

In January 1994, a "Full Release of Mortgage Lien" filed at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office stated that Larry Debus had been fully paid by Legg--supposedly the $200,000 listed in the lien.

But when he asked for a court-appointed attorney this June, Legg claimed he still owed Debus about $500,000.

Two investigators from the AG's Office interviewed Debus about the discrepancies last July 16. A report of the meeting indicates Debus said he'd never seen the original lien papers. He said he'd gotten involved in the case as a favor to his mentor, Harry Stewart, and that the $44,000 he'd been paid was all he expected to get.

(Stewart suffered a stroke after taking Legg as a client, and remains incapacitated.)

The AG's Office also interviewed Debus' co-counsel, Jerry Busby. Busby said he was paid about $40,000 by Legg after the sale of the Kentucky properties, though he prepared time sheets that reflect about $98,000 in billable hours.

"I told Busby that Legg claims he owes Busby about $200,000 in legal fees," the state investigator wrote in her July report. "Busby is unaware of where Legg may have gotten that figure."

In an interview with New Times, Debus says he's never totaled up what Legg may have owed him, nor has he billed him.

"Why would I want to?" Debus says, adding he's convinced Legg doesn't have the money available. "The guy probably doesn't have a pot to piss in."

Hardly, says prosecutor Stephens.
"Legg has several hundred thousand dollars' worth of assets which are no doubt available at his request," she alleged in court papers. "Those assets include his equity in his home at the Phoenician, the money he put in Maria Legg's name when the Kentucky properties sold and the money he put in his son's name when the Kentucky property sold. Legg is not indigent . . ."

Whoever represents Legg at his retrial faces another uphill struggle. One juror from the first trial says he remains convinced that Legg is a crook.

"Wayne made a good witness for himself," says the juror, a Phoenix man who requested anonymity. "He was humble and self-assured. His main attorney [Debus] was a really good fighter, and raised some good questions about how Wayne's law firm had behaved. But the firm wasn't on trial. All of us but one person was convinced Wayne was guilty, guilty, guilty.

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