Lawyers Behaving Badly: Mark Briggs Ducks and Dennis Wilenchik Skates

It would not be entirely accurate to say that attorney Mark Briggs "stole" $810,000 from a client. "Stole" is such a harsh word, so direct, so ugly. If you believe Briggs and his lawyers, the situation is simply more . . . complicated.

Sure, Briggs, then a lawyer at Quarles & Brady, took $810,000 from a client's account. But he always intended to repay it. And even though he used the money to help his own brother buy a nightclub, he wasn't trying to enrich himself. It was an investment — an investment on behalf of his client.

And so what if Briggs never exactly told his client about the "investment"? He documented it in writing. Yeah, he created the documentation months after "borrowing" the money, as his clients were starting to question its whereabouts. But the timing was pure coincidence.

Right . . .

I first wrote about Mark Briggs — and the lawsuit he was facing from a local mystery novelist, Sylvia Nobel — more than a year ago. In a series of lunch meetings, I sat wide-eyed as Nobel walked me through the entire tawdry tale. How an elderly fan had donated $1 million to back a film adaptation of one of Nobel's novels. How Briggs, a young partner at one of the town's most respected law firms, had been brought in as the production's lawyer — only to systematically transfer almost all the money out of the film production's accounts and into accounts he controlled. How Nobel eventually learned that the money had been used to purchase Sugar Daddy's nightclub in South Scottsdale.

That part of the story was shocking enough. But what happened next is even worse. When Nobel discovered the transfers and started asking tough questions, Briggs blamed her for not understanding his "investment" strategy. And though he ultimately returned the $1 million, instead of giving it back to the production company, Briggs returned it directly to the elderly investor, suggesting the project was dead. Even if it hadn't been, that surely did the trick.

And here's the kicker: After Briggs effectively killed Nobel's dreams of filming anything, he had the audacity to send her a bill — for $350,000.

At the time I wrote about this case, Nobel's wounds were still fresh. The novelist had filed a complaint with the State Bar of Arizona, but it was still pending. She'd also filed a lawsuit, but it was unclear whether it would go anywhere.

And Briggs seemed to be maintaining his status in the community. Briggs' wife, Wendy, is arguably the premier female lobbyist in the state, and he himself is a member of the commission that chooses appellate court judges. Despite Nobel's allegations, he was still a partner at Quarles & Brady. And though a second lawsuit was filed in late 2008, alleging he'd defaulted on the loan he signed to buy Sugar Daddy's, Briggs and his partners still owned the nightclub.

That was then.

One year and two months later, everything looks different. Briggs and his wife have defaulted on three more loans, court records show, all involving real estate investments. They're being sued by three different banks for a total of $662,000. Briggs has also left Quarles & Brady. (It's unclear whether he quit or was forced out.) He's now set up a one-man firm out of his wife's office and reports a monthly income of only $417.

Last month, the couple filed for bankruptcy — and not just a Chapter 13 reorganization. This was Chapter 7: a complete liquidation of debt. They're walking away from their real estate investments, their one-year-old Toyota Highlander, and an estimated $11.5 million in debt.

Wendy Briggs spent nearly $15,000 on political contributions in 2009. But the couple now claims to have just $845 in the bank.

Even as Briggs' financial world is crumbling, Sylvia Nobel is still waiting for justice. Her lawsuit is still pending. Her Bar complaint is still open. And Mark Briggs, incredibly, is still on that committee that chooses appellate court judges.

In a brief phone call Monday, Briggs declined comment, other than to say he denies "all" of Nobel's claims — and is looking forward to his day in court. He also directed New Times to the statement his lawyer provided when I first wrote about the case, which paints the dispute as an issue of control. It also notes that he returned the elderly fan's entire investment at her request.

I frequently write about skullduggery and financial fraud. I hear enough sad tales to be numbed by tragedy.

But Sylvia Nobel's story really stuck with me, and not only because I found Nobel to be so warm and sympathetic. It frightened me, frankly, that someone could do everything right — hire a lawyer from a respected firm to handle the legal aspects of their life's dream — only to be victimized so badly. You hire a lawyer to make sure you don't get ripped off. You don't expect your lawyer to do the ripping!

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske