HEIR OF OPTIMISM
Cinthia Gannett says she's "still waiting for justice for my grandma." She may not have to wait much longer.
Sources say the state Attorney General's Office is about to take a huge step toward Gannett's goal of "justice" with criminal indictments against prominent Mesa attorney Wayne Legg and Webber Mackey, a private fiduciary who worked closely with Legg.
A New Times investigation of Legg and Mackey, published in September (As Helpless As Children"), uncovered a pattern of fiscal abuses that cost Cinthia Gannett's deceased grandmother, Grace Gannett, and more than two dozen East Valley senior citizens and their heirs untold dollars and grief. Through their respective attorneys, Legg and Mackey have denied any wrongdoing.
But those denials ring hollow for people whose loved ones were bilked by the pair. Grace Gannett, for one, lost most of her $120,000 in assets before she died last year because of excessive--and apparently illegal--billings by Legg and Mackey.
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
In addition, Mackey is unable to account for priceless family heirlooms entrusted to him, including Grace Gannett's wedding rings.
"We know most of the truth about what happened because of the New Times story and what we've seen for ourselves," says Cinthia Gannett from her home in Durham, New Hampshire. "Now we'd just like your system out there to work against the bad guys. These men just stole from elderly people who couldn't protect themselves."
In June 1992, Gannett and other far-flung relatives flew to Arizona after Grandma Gracie--as everyone knew her--died on her 93rd birthday. Upon arrival, they learned of a revised will that Legg and Mackey had convinced Grace Gannett to sign a few years earlier; it favored Legg and Mackey.
The story revealed that legally "incapacitated" Grace Gannett--a "protected" ward of the Maricopa County Probate Court--had scrawled her name on the new will at a Mesa hospital within hours after suffering a stroke.
The Attorney General's Office announced after the New Times story appeared that it was investigating the Legg/Mackey case. Cinthia Gannett and several family members--as well as others familiar with Legg and Mackey--say they have been interviewed at length since then by AG investigators.
"They told us it is a very 'high-profile case' for them, that was the exact phrase," says Cinthia Gannett, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire. "They do seem very serious about bringing these men to justice."
The state grand jury has yet to issue criminal indictments against Legg or Mackey, and prosecutors are prohibited by law from discussing pending investigations. But sources outside the Attorney General's Office indicate felony charges against Legg and Mackey are imminent.
"I've been told it could be any time now," says Anne Lindeman, the executive director of the Governor's Advisory Council on Aging. "The New Times story gave the AG a road map to follow, and I hear they've been going strong on it. It's a very important case, but it has to be very time-consuming to put together."
About 500,000 elderly Americans currently are wards of a court, unable anymore to handle their financial affairs. Courts routinely appoint a guardian-conservator--usually a family member or private fiduciary--to be responsible for almost every aspect of a ward's life. A guardian-conservator usually works in concert with a probate attorney, ostensibly to monitor and preserve an elderly person's assets and well-being. Wards are among society's most vulnerable citizens.
Additional findings in the New Times story:
Legg and Mackey double-billed and levied questionable charges against estates, shrinking them in some cases from hundreds of thousands of dollars to practically nothing.
Mackey purchased a new Dodge van with funds from the estates of two aged wards who apparently didn't know each other. He then charged the van's owners and elderly wards thousands of dollars in questionable "service fees." Legg, meanwhile, used the van on out-of-state vacation trips without permission from or compensation to its owners.
Elderly, legally incapacitated wards signed revised wills that meant more money for Legg and Mackey. In one case, a 90-year-old woman signed a new will in 1990 that named Mackey as the estate's sole beneficiary. But the woman signed the document after her doctor wrote that she was "unable to make any decision and unable to take care of her financial affairs." Someone cut off the bottom part of the new will, where two witnesses normally attest that they saw the person sign the document. That should have rendered the will illegal, but didn't, because Probate Court Commissioner Elizabeth Yancey approved it.
Maricopa County's Probate Court judges and commissioners--most often Yancey, Michael Jones and Stephen Ventre--rubber-stamped outlandish, unsubstantiated fees submitted by Legg and Mackey.
Legg and Mackey used a feeble ward's estate assets to operate a for-profit group home for the elderly, all of whom were under their financial control. In a five-year period, that woman's estate shrunk from $654,000 to a few thousand dollars in liquid assets. Meanwhile, Legg's mother stayed at the group home, at no cost, for months before she died in April 1991.
The revelations also have piqued the interest of Arizona legislators, who are looking for ways to curb abuses by private fiduciaries.Currently, there are no academic, legal or other credentials necessary to become a private fiduciary. The profession is unlicensed and self-regulating, though a group called the Arizona Association of Professional Fiduciaries has created a set of "rules" for fiduciaries to follow.
Webber Mackey served as president of that association as recently as 1990.
Anne Lindeman says a bill to be introduced in the Arizona Senate during its upcoming session would require private fiduciaries to register with the Arizona Supreme Court. County probate judges and commissioners would then be obliged to report serious problems concerning a fiduciary to the high court, which would in turn alert other counties.
While the new law would fall short of forcing private fiduciaries to face a licensing process, the statewide monitoring system would be a good step, Lindeman says.
"Even the honest private fiduciaries agree some regulation is a good thing," she says. "At least, they won't be able to hop from county to county when things happen to go bad for them."
State senators Patti Noland, a Republican, and Chuck Blanchard, a Democrat, plan to sponsor the private fiduciary bill. Blanchard says he and Noland contemplated sponsoring such legislation before the Legg/Mackey story broke, but they weren't sure how it would fly.
"No one wants to go out of their way to regulate," Blanchard says, "but the story made many, many legislators far more interested in probate abuses than they had been previously."
Attorneys representing the Maricopa County Public Fiduciary--which represents 25 estates allegedly plundered by the two men--are scheduled to appear tomorrow before presiding county Probate Court Judge Robert Myers. Among those also slated to appear at the status conference are attorneys for the surety companies which bonded Mackey's fiduciary practice. The Public Fiduciary is demanding that the companies pay nearly $1.1 million to the estates of 14 senior citizens under Mackey's control.
On November 23, Judge Myers ordered Legg's former law firm--now called Killian, Nicholas, Fischer, Wirken, Cook and Pew--to refund $31,833 to the estate of the late Eula Snyder Wager. Myers issued his order after lawyers for the county Public Fiduciary objected to the fees as unreasonable, and noted the Mesa firm never had produced proof or justification for its billings.
No one from the firm appeared for the hearing, though court records show Judge Myers notified Killian partner Charles Wirkin and William P. French, who is representing the firm's legal interests.
"The law firm has known that the Public Fiduciary objected to the approval of the payment of the fees," Judge Myers wrote in a court memorandum, "and has done nothing to justify [them]. . . ."
The Wager estate is one of nine Legg/Mackey accounts not covered by surety bonds; Legg's ex-law firm and Mackey will be asked to make restitution in those cases.
While Judge Myers won't comment directly on Legg or Mackey, he did tell fellow judges shortly after his appointment in October 1992 that he was "appalled, saddened and distressed at the cruelty and inhumanity which . . . have been heaped upon the helpless [wards]."
Now in his early 60s, Wayne Legg was a longtime partner in the venerable Mesa firm founded by former congressman John J. Rhodes and C. Max Killian, father of current Arizona legislator Mark Killian. Legg has served as chief counsel for Arizona State University, was the onetime Maricopa County chairman of the Republican party, and was widely considered one of the East Valley's most powerful barristers.
In June 1992, Legg's law firm took his name off its sign on Center Street in downtown Mesa. At the time, according to sources cited by New Times, Legg's partners gave him two options: If he promised never to practice law again, they'd pay him about $175,000 under a previous partnership agreement; if he continued his legal career on his own, they'd pay him about $125,000 under the agreement.
Legg is said to have promised to quit the practice of law. But he hasn't gone into retreat at his plush Scottsdale residence, located near the Phoenician resort.
On a rainy Saturday morning in October, Legg was seen hobnobbing with mostly elderly folks at an estate auction of a modest home in Sun City. Legg was present as trustee of the estate. (It is not necessary under Arizona law to be a lawyer to serve as an estate's trustee.) Legg flew in two auctioneers from rural Kentucky, where he has substantial land holdings, to conduct the half-hour-long sale.
State Bar of Arizona officials say Legg has voluntarily promised not to practice law, possibly until bar complaints pending against him are resolved.
But chief bar counsel Harriet Turney is prohibited by Arizona Supreme Court rules from even acknowledging bar complaints against Legg at this stage of the proceedings. (Two sources have told New Times they filed complaints against Legg with the State Bar.)
Turney says it takes a minimum of four months to determine if "probable cause" exists that any complaint is valid. If the bar determines a complaint merits further scrutiny and an attorney fights the charge, she adds, the process may take a few years to complete.
Turney also can't say whether bar complaints are pending against the Maricopa County commissioners and judges who gave Legg and Mackey free rein.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.