- Lester Munson, Legal Analyst
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As he faced a federal investigation last summer into a dogfighting kennel that he founded and funded, Michael Vick also was looking for help in a fight to preserve a financial empire he had tried to build as one of the NFL's highest-paid players.
Banks in Toronto; South Bend, Ind., and Charlotte, N.C., demanded repayment of more than $6 million in loans used to finance a car rental business, a wine enterprise and other ventures. A sports marketing company that he hired and fired even before he was drafted in 2001 hounded him for another $5 million in lost fees. And he faced breach of contract charges on two other deals.
"Even without the dogfighting case, Michael had been the victim of some very flawed advice by a number of professionals who were supposed to know what they were doing and were supposed to be helping him," observed Peter Ginsberg, the nationally renowned bankruptcy lawyer who is trying to preserve what little remains of Vick's net worth.
Ginsberg might be right. A review of bankruptcy court records and other litigation filed against Vick shows a remarkable series of blunders and thefts that could leave Vick insolvent even if he manages to retain the bonuses the Falcons and the NFL are trying to take back from him.
It's a sad story that begins in his final weeks at Virginia Tech and reaches points of crisis during the dogfighting prosecution and even now during his incarceration in Leavenworth, Kan. It involves two financial advisers who have been charged with major frauds and a sports marketing adviser who charged Vick 25 percent of all marketing fees earned.
With his finances deteriorating, Vick admitted guilt in the dogfighting scheme, hoping to minimize his time in jail. But federal agents demanded nearly $1 million in restitution for rescuing and caring for nearly 60 dogs they found in Vick's kennel. If he failed to pay the bills for the dogs, Vick faced additional prison time.
Despite earning more than $20 million in NFL bonuses, Vick could not find the money. In desperation, he turned to a Falcons teammate, linebacker Demorrio Williams.
Williams recommended Mary Wong, a 40-ish business manager in Omaha, Neb., who had helped Williams manage his money and his accounts.
Wong worked quickly to gather the restitution money, cashing in a retirement investment with Lloyd's of London and persuading a bank to lend Vick more money. That put together just enough money to pay the restitution.
It was a good start for Vick. But, according to papers filed in his bankruptcy, it did not last.
In addition to gathering the restitution funds, Wong used a power of attorney from Vick to "wrongfully remove" at least another $900,000 from his various accounts, according to a document filed by Ginsberg. And, court papers also say, Wong "caused certain business entities owned by [Vick] to be transferred to her."
There could be more bad news to come.
"We are still working on it, and it may well be that what she has taken from him will be well into seven figures," Ginsberg said.
Ginsberg has obtained a court order requiring Wong to return all accounts and records to the bankruptcy court in Richmond to allow Ginsberg and Vick's numerous lenders to try to find some of Vick's lost money. Wong has not responded to the court order. Nor did she respond to e-mails and phone messages from ESPN.com.
While in the Leavenworth minimum security camp, Vick began to suspect Wong was doing something wrong. He discovered that Wong had been permanently barred from working with any firm that traded on the New York Stock Exchange as the result of taking more than $150,000 from two elderly widows she met while working at Wells Fargo Investments.
The charges against Wong by the NYSE, which regulates brokers and financial advisers, include taking $147,000 from one widow to invest in a chicken restaurant. There was no restaurant, and the money landed in Wong's personal account, according to the NYSE, which also says she took almost $9,000 from Williams' account to reimburse the other widow. She claimed she had lent Williams the money to buy rims for a truck.
The arbitrators who reviewed Wong's conduct deplored her "deceitful, fraudulent and shameful" actions against her customers and were "appalled" at her "implausible, convoluted explanations for her plainly wrongful actions." That is remarkably strong language in the polite world of investment counselors.
Did Vick learn anything from his experience with Wong? Maybe. Maybe not.
He next turned to David A. Talbot, a medical school graduate from Hackensack, N.J., who claimed to have expertise in financial management. After a series of visits with Vick in Leavenworth, Talbot managed to convince estimable bankruptcy attorney Ginsberg that he was legitimate. Ginsberg asked the bankruptcy court to allow Talbot to manage Vick's affairs and to authorize Talbot to seek redress against all those who had defrauded Vick. Using the jargon of the bankruptcy system, Talbot was to be Vick's "responsible person."
It seemed to be a good idea, as Vick is in jail and unable to tend to his financial situation. But it was yet another bad decision for Vick.
Talbot started by taking one of Vick's cars, an $85,000 Mercedes Benz, to use in his efforts, and he used $35,000 to pay the out-of-pocket expenses of his attempts to find Vick's money.
That wasn't all. He was to be paid $15,000 per month for his efforts, too.
Talbot earned his "responsible person" status with an impressive résumé that described a life of success, emphasized his marketing and motivating skills, and listed his noteworthy clients.
The centerpiece of the Talbot résumé was his work as a "regional director" for the National Association of Self-Employed, a group that offers insurance benefits to small businesses and lobbies for their interests in Washington. He claimed he ran a $375 million organization and presided over "240 agents and 40 managers."
"We do not have any regional directors," a spokesman for NASE told ESPN.com. "He could not have been a regional director. Our records indicate that he was briefly a salesman for us. That is all."
Others listed as references on Talbot's résumé offered similar stories. Joe Franklin, a New York radio personality listed as a Talbot client, told ESPN.com, "I knew David's father. He has never represented me, and I haven't seen him in years."
Kenneth Moore, a rookie wide receiver drafted in the fifth round by the Detroit Lions, also was listed as a Talbot client. Moore's agent, Alan Herman, said, "Moore's only connection with David Talbot is that Moore knows Talbot's daughter from their days together at Wake Forest. Talbot does not represent Kenny in any way."
Another supposed Talbot client listed on a résumé that Talbot prepared in 2007 is Ron Jensen, a businessman who was CEO of a publicly held insurance company. Jensen died in a car accident in 2005.
In addition to the apparently false statements in his résumé, Talbot last week was accused of securities fraud in New Jersey in a scheme that ended just before he started visiting Vick in Leavenworth. Talbot and his cohorts, according to a legal action filed by New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram, managed to "defraud" several investors of more than $500,000 by offering them "asset enhancement contracts" that were touted as being guaranteed to pay between 12 to 35 percent per week.
The investment and the profits, Talbot told his investors, would allow them to build a new church they were planning in Wyckoff, N.J. To ensure the success of the venture, Talbot orchestrated "conference call prayer meetings" asking a higher power to bless their venture.
The money never made it to the church, and none of the investors collected any dividends, much less the promised 12-35 percent per week. The money, according to New Jersey authorities, went to Talbot and his son, Jonathon, to pay rent and Time Warner Cable and for purchases at Best Buy, Bergdorf Goodman and other retailers.
Talbot has not responded to calls from ESPN.com. His attorney said that Talbot is a victim of the scheme himself, then would not comment further.
The fraud charges were enough for Ginsberg to reconsider his commitment to Talbot, and he has asked the bankruptcy judge to eliminate Talbot as the "responsible person" in the Vick bankruptcy.
If Wong and Talbot disappointed Vick, the conduct of a sports marketing firm he hired in 2001 must be an even greater disappointment. As he prepared for the draft, Vick signed a contract with Andrew Joel of Richmond, Va., that gave Joel the exclusive rights to make deals for Vick to endorse products and make personal appearances. The agreement with Joel required Vick to pay Joel an astounding 25 percent of any deals Joel made.
Vick's deal with Joel did not last long. Joel's first action for Vick was to send him to Buffalo, N.Y., in January 2001 to study with Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and learn how to conduct himself as an NFL star. Less than a day into Camp Kelly, Vick was ready to depart.
In what Joel's lawyers later called a conspiracy, Vick claimed illness and demanded a ride to the Buffalo airport. There, Joel claims, Vick met Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks to discuss marketing firms that would charge less than 25 percent. Vick and Brooks traveled back to Norfolk and tried to fire Joel.
Four years later, after Vick had become a phenomenon and before the dogfighting investigation, Joel claimed that Vick had breached the 25 percent contract and owed him millions. Joel's battery of lawyers pounded Vick and his legal team, first in an arbitration, then in a court action.
None of ESPN.com's calls and e-mails asking about that situation were returned by Joel, his attorney or Vick's attorneys.
The result of Joel's efforts is a $4.5 million judgment against Vick. When Joel began garnishing Vick's accounts and levying on other assets, including his house, Vick was forced to go into bankruptcy court.
As he awaits his release from prison in about a year, Vick faces a growing series of demands from creditors and others. His financial situation is bleak. The combined efforts of Mary Wong, David Talbot and Andrew Joel have left him insolvent.
Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
It isn't just Michael Vick's football career wasting away while he's in Leavenworth. He's losing his fortune, too, thanks to a series of shady financial advisers, writes ESPN.com's Lester Munson.