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Orgy of Excess 

The woman convicted of fraud after one of Pima County’s costliest trials wants a do-over

The Pima County Office of Court Appointed Counsel—in other words, you, the taxpayer—paid more than $800,000 to unsuccessfully defend Maryanne Chisholm against fraud charges.

As far as anybody knows, that's a local record.

Veteran defense attorney Brick Storts—Chisholm's current attorney, hired by her family after scrounging up the funds to secure his services—does not understand why the bill for Chisholm's public defense was so high.

Storts is something of an expert in such matters. He defended Brad Schwartz during his trial for the murder of Dr. David Stidham. He also defended John Montenegro Cruz, who currently sits on death row for killing Tucson Police Officer Patrick Hardesty in 2003.

Caryn Caramella, the administrative services manager for the county's Office of Court Appointed Counsel, confirmed that the only cases she can remotely compare to Chisholm's, cost-wise, involve those defendants facing murder charges and the death penalty.

Chisholm was convicted in 2005 after a seven-week trial in Pima County Superior Court on more than 50 counts related to fraud and selling illegal stocks in her company. She was sentenced to more than 27 years in prison.

The 2005 trial marked the end of a five-year investigation by the Arizona Attorney General's Office that garnered statewide attention, after Chisholm was accused of stealing millions of dollars to fuel a lifestyle of expensive art, cars and jewelry.

The AG accused Chisholm of conning $24 million from investors in Safari Media, the company she owned and started with her husband in the mid-1990s. Back then, everyone wanted to get in on the dot-com boom by playing venture capitalist. Safari Media seemed poised for success; it was an Internet-based company that focused on Web and software design, with a music division that worked on the dance-club techno and trance music trend.

Trouble for Maryanne and Mark Chisholm began in 1997, when the Washington state Department of Financial Institutions issued a cease-and-desist order to the company regarding the sale of unregistered securities by unregistered salespersons. Shortly thereafter, the Arizona Attorney General's Office filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming that more than $14 million was illegally raised by more than 500 investors in Arizona from 1997 to 1999.

The AG criminal investigation painted a picture of the Chisholms as a couple surrounded by excess—spending millions on cars, homes, furniture, art, jewelry and clothing. In business, they rewarded inexperienced staff members with high salaries and cars, and paid for lavish work trips to do music-division promotional parties—that some say were drug-fueled—in Phoenix, New York and Spain. When Chisholm was convicted, Judge Christopher Browning wagged a verbal finger at them by describing what took place as "an obscene orgy of excess."

Chisholm doesn't deny that she and her husband spent millions of dollars to live well and run their company. However, she contends she's innocent of the charges brought forward by the AG's office.

The result would have been different, she says, if the $800,000-plus in taxpayer funds had paid for an effective legal defense attorney to begin with.

The Tucson Weekly is still waiting for a visitation request to be approved by the Arizona Department of Corrections, but talked to the inmate by telephone. Her mother, Jane Allen, has a cell phone with an approved phone number that Chisholm can call, collect, in 15-minute increments.

"In earnest, Andrew Diodati is a kind man, but an absolutely horrible attorney," Chisholm says, describing her attorney.

Chisholm says the problem boils down to one fact: Her court-appointed attorney's bulk of experience came in defending DUI cases.

"He was over his head," Chisholm quips.

Diodati did not return calls asking for comment regarding Chisholm's appeal and accusations regarding his work as her defense attorney.

Chisholm says Diodati constantly missed deadlines for important motions—except for motions that he had to file in order to get paid. He was sanctioned or fined by the court during Chisholm's last trial because of his lack of organization, and Chisholm recalls Diodati admitting to her as they headed into court that he had gone through only 10 percent of the 100,000 pages of discovery after five years as her attorney.

During those five years, Diodati handled two trials. Chisholm says, chronologically, the first trial to go to court should have been the securities-fraud case, but a federal case was allowed to go first. That federal case involved two paintings the Chisholms were accused of hiding after they filed bankruptcy.

The couple was convicted—and that was the only time her husband, Mark, was ever implicated in the legal morass. He was jailed for six months; because of this first conviction, Chisholm says, she was unable to speak on her own behalf during the second trial without the possibility of the AG charging her with perjury.

"Andy said (Assistant Attorney General) John Evans told him he hoped I would take the stand so he could get me for perjury, but then Andy never objected," Chisholm recalls.

Storts has examined the case as he prepares for an appeal, and what troubles him most isn't necessarily Diodati's lack of preparation and organization, he says. He's most bothered by the cost of a court-appointed paralegal—who billed Pima County $196,000 for her services.

"For a paralegal?" Storts asks. "That's a cost I've never heard of."

Also troubling is the use of a computer program called CaseMap. The program was first brought to Chisholm's attention when Diodati told her it could help organize the discovery in her case and help him with the defense.

Storts says CaseMap, however, was never used—but Diodati nonetheless billed the court $60,000 for CaseMap data entry. Chisholm says that Diodati told her that the court didn't approve the purchase of the program.

In an affidavit provided to the AG's office for their response to Storts' appeal petition, Diodati says that he found the computer software "not useful enough in appropriately distilling the information necessary for the defense of the charges."

"In my discretion, I chose not to use the CaseMap system at either trial," Diodati wrote.

While Storts' appeal suggests that Diodati didn't do a good job, according to the Arizona State Bar, Diodati has only faced one disciplinary action, but many previous complaints.

Last year, Diodati was suspended for 60 days for writing two non-sufficient checks against his legal trust account; he admitted to the bar that he didn't keep adequate records. In a third count, Diodati was reprimanded for failing to provide timely disclosures to opposing lawyers, in violation of a court order.

The disciplinary action summary lists physical and mental disabilities as mitigating factors, and notes that Diodati showed remorse and gave full disclosure in an effort to remedy the complaint.

Caramella says that Diodati has not had a contract with her office to do indigent public defense for several years, because he has not applied for a new contract

Like a typical proud mother, Jane Allen lines up photographs of her daughter's paintings and points out details, like the title of each work scribbled in the back of each picture in her daughter's handwriting.

Her face lights up as she points to a picture of pine trees and several bears out in the middle of a forest. At her eastside home, she displays a series of portraits of women surrounded in a cascade of colorful leaves or butterflies.

"Some of these have sold," Allen mentions, pointing to the portraits.

Those sales are to prison visitors who see Chisholm's work displayed in the visitation area of Perryville, the prison in Goodyear, Ariz., where Allen's daughter spends her days painting and teaching other inmates how to paint and draw. The money from the paintings goes toward the $21 million in restitution she owes after her conviction.

Allen says she is counting on Storts to win an appeal, which would allow Chisholm a new trial.

"While we watched what took place, we couldn't imagine that this is what the legal system was really like. This was justice?" Allen says.

After writing more than 60 friends for help, Chisholm's mother was able to raise $39,900—enough to pay Storts.

On a buffet in the family's living room, photos sit between vases and other knickknacks, but there's one photo in particular that stands out: a picture of a self-portrait of Chisholm dressed in prison orange, with her blonde hair pulled back and her face bright and smiling. The work, Allen says, was done on cloth by Chisholm in prison.

Besides Storts, Allen is her daughter's biggest advocate right now. She keeps in touch with Storts regarding the appeal and makes trips to Goodyear a couple of times each month—along with Chisholm's oldest son, one of Chisholm's three children—to visit.

"I'm almost 80," Allen says in a British accent, even though she's lived in Arizona for more than 38 years. "You feel so helpless in a case like this."

Allen says her son-in-law is on probation and works two jobs while raising the three children. The family is trying to keep its head above water—but it has been difficult. Allen says she and her husband have had their own costs to deal with regarding Chisholm's case, including the money it takes to visit and accept collect calls.

Allen says she tries to help out by having everyone over for Sunday dinners and driving her granddaughter to summer camp.

"Those visits are important. Still getting together as a family is important. They keep us all sane," Allen says.

When asked if she thinks her daughter is innocent, Allen looks down at her daughter's self-portrait and says, "She's a very big-hearted person."

One issue is that the court never allowed testimony about Chisholm's bipolar disorder, which Allen says, in hindsight, may have played a big part in how her daughter lived and ran her company.

"She didn't have the experience she needed to run this kind of business. She didn't know what she was doing, and people took advantage of that," Allen says.

On the phone from Perryville, Chisholm says she's let go of the anger she felt during her trial.

"Ultimately, this was my company, and I was responsible for what happened. While I didn't do anything illegal, I didn't do a good job, and I counted on other people to do the right thing," Chisholm says.

When the AG's office brought charges against Chisholm, they also charged Thuc Nguyen, a deaf Vietnamese immigrant hired by Chisholm to work for Safari Media.

Nguyen agreed to testify against Chisholm and spent less than three years in prison. Nguyen hoodwinked hundreds of deaf investors into buying fake shares of Safari Media by holding deaf-investor workshops in Washington and Utah. Nguyen posed as an authorized share broker and sold $12 million in Safari shares. Chisholm says nobody in the company knew about them.

"When he pled in Utah, he stated he acted alone, but that changed when he arrived in Arizona," Chisholm says.

Over the phone, as Chisholm thinks about Nguyen and her business, she admits that she would have gone about her defense efforts differently.

"I think if there's one thing prison has taught me, is that perhaps I was too defensive during the case. I should have spoken out less. I've learned that sometimes, being quiet says more."

She's says she's spent her time in prison getting better at her art and thinking about how she can make up the time she's lost to her children.

"There's no way I can make up for what happened, what was taken away from them, but I want to try. My family has stood by me through all of this. When I get out, I want a chance to repay them."

Assistant Attorney General John Evans says he does not know how much the prosecution of Chisholm's case cost the state, but the high cost of defending the case doesn't surprise him.

"You're dealing with a $24 million case," he says, referring to the millions of dollars Chisholm was convicted of stealing. "There was a lot involved to prosecute and to defend. We had to fly out-of-state witnesses in during the trial, and it was a long investigation."

Evans claims Chisholm is continuing to use the same old arguments in hopes of getting a new trial. Judge Christopher Browning, the last judge to hear Storts' argument before the case moved to the Court of Appeals, ruled against Chisholm.

"In the last ruling from Judge Browning, he agreed that the attorney had all these problems and spent all this money, but determined that (Chisholm) still wasn't prejudiced. ... That's really the bottom line in all of this."

If Storts were to win Chisholm a new trial, Evans says he does not expect much to change regarding what the AG brings before the court.

"Did you read the articles in the New Times?" Evans asks, referring to two articles written in the Phoenix alternative newsweekly about the Chisholms and the AG investigation. "Those are some great pictures."

The articles, written in 2000 and 2001, refer to accounts by former Safari Media employees regarding out-of-control spending. In one article, when Evans was asked why Chisholm's husband was not going to be tried regarding the $24 million in securities fraud, he told the reporter that it was difficult to figure out what role Mark had, "because he comes across so flighty." (See www.phoenixnewtimes.com/2000-09-07/news/ecstatic-fall/ and www.phoenixnewtimes.com/2001-10-18/news/from-ecstasy-to-agony/.)

Allen claims a grand jury early in the case determined there was not enough evidence to pursue her son-in-law, and that his personality had nothing to do with it.

Chisholm says she looks back at those stories with much regret.

"We invited that reporter into our home, hoping he would get a better idea of who we were. In the end, I think they just wanted a story about raves and drugs, and that's what they wrote," Chisholm says.

She says she understands that when her case is discussed, many people will continue to focus on the parties, which she frames as promotional events for the company's music division. She denies that the parties were raves and says that employees were not provided with Ecstasy left and right.

Allen says she was told Evans offered Chisholm a plea deal at one point: 10 years if her daughter pled guilty. Later, Allen was told that Chisholm could have received a deal of three to five years, but that never happened.

Evans says there was a deal discussed during a settlement conference for a three-to-five-year sentence, but the two sides never came to an actual agreement. When the federal case came up regarding the paintings and the bankruptcy, Evans says his office withdrew the plea.

Allen says she's not sure if her daughter would have accepted a deal in any case, because she never felt she was guilty.

"The primary charge was that she started a business with the intent to defraud people," Allen says. "She did not have that intent. She started a business to provide an income for her family."

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