Joker's Wild

Casino lawyer Michael Lazaroff cheated for years -- and the insiders knew. Now that he's cut the deal of his life, why does anybody believe him?

Michael K. Lazaroff was in free fall.

Once the state's premier casino lawyer, Lazaroff was on his way to becoming Missouri's best-known white collar criminal. He'd stolen from clients. He'd stolen from his law partners and recruited colleagues to launder political contributions. He'd just been forced to resign as a partner at Thompson Coburn, one of the state's most prestigious law firms. He was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Missouri Gaming Commission, which suspected he had tried using inside information from former commission chairman Robert Wolfson to help Station Casinos, one of his biggest clients.

Lazaroff had already made a sworn statement to investigators denying any wrongdoing by himself or Station. Now, he was in the Clayton office of his attorney, Art Margulis, for a meeting with Station lawyers Scott Nielson, Rich Haskins and David Helfrey. The casino's lawyers came together because they wanted witnesses -- Helfrey had warned them not to speak with Lazaroff alone. Helfrey did the talking, explaining the seriousness of Lazaroff's situation and what would happen to him. Federal prosecutors would likely be charging him with felonies, he'd lose his law license and he'd probably go to jail, Helfrey predicted. It was the first time anyone had explained to Lazaroff just how much further he could fall.

Michael K. Lazaroff (right) was contrite at his sentencing on Oct. 3. "At times, I was a monster," he told the judge. His attorney, Art Margulis (left), was less apologetic afterward, calling the case "overblown" and fed by "media hype."
Jennifer Silverberg
Michael K. Lazaroff (right) was contrite at his sentencing on Oct. 3. "At times, I was a monster," he told the judge. His attorney, Art Margulis (left), was less apologetic afterward, calling the case "overblown" and fed by "media hype."

"We don't think that the commission has anything," Helfrey said during that meeting, last December. "We have your sworn testimony that you did not have ex parte conversations (with Wolfson). There will undoubtedly come a time where you'll be tempted to lie in order to save yourself because of all of these other problems that you have, but we know that you'll do the right thing. OK?"

You'll do the right thing, Helfrey repeated.

To Lazaroff, Helfrey's statement sounded like a death threat. He later recounted leaving the meeting and telling Nielson, "I don't want to meet with that guy ever again. He scares the hell out of me." Breaking down in tears, he asked Nielson to take care of his family if anything happened to him.

Fear wasn't a familiar emotion for Lazaroff. Born into privilege, he attended Horton Watkins High School in Ladue, graduated with honors from Brown University and earned a law degree at the University of Michigan. He had the highest batting average in the state when it came to getting gaming licenses for his clients. Just 11 of 36 applicants have gotten the go-ahead to build casinos in Missouri. Lazaroff represented five of those successful applicants -- he never represented a company that didn't succeed. He would do anything to win, even going so far as to undermine competing proposals.

As one of the most prominent attorneys in St. Louis, Lazaroff earned $500,000 a year and rubbed shoulders with the rich, famous and politically connected. He was a rainmaker for Thompson Coburn, bringing in clients worth millions to himself and his partners. He also raised big money for Democratic political candidates ranging from presidential hopefuls to local politicos like former St. Louis Mayor Vincent Schoemehl. He had enough juice to secure birthday greetings from U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt and President Bill Clinton for friends of friends. He wined and dined at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport and used the home of former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton, a Thompson Coburn partner whose office was next to his own, for political fundraisers.

Lazaroff had spent his professional life helping others out of jams, but he couldn't see a way out of this one. He says he spent a day thinking about what Helfrey had told him. Then, expecting the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to run a story publicizing his forced resignation and his crimes, Lazaroff slipped out of his Town & Country home in the wee hours of Dec. 8 and went for a drive. At 4 a.m., he called the office of gaming commission director Col. Clarence E. "Mel" Fisher and left a voice-mail message:

" Hey, Mel. Michael Lazaroff. How are you? It's Wednesday morning and I just want to tell you something and I want you to listen to it very carefully. I am being as candid and as honest as I can possibly be under the circumstances. And I want you to hear this and hear this very clearly: At no time did Station Casinos ask me ever to get information from Robert L. Wolfson. At no time did I attempt through ex parte communication to get any information from Robert Wolfson. He and I talked an awful lot, but never did that occur. I did a lot of foolish things in my life, and I am going to pay the penalty for them, but I want them to be separated from all these other things, and I want that to be abundantly clear to you and to everybody else. And I pray that you'll not punish the innocent.... Do you hear me? Thank you. You are one of the finest men that I've ever known, and I hope that life is good for you, sir. Thank you."

Those were Michael Lazaroff's intended last words, delivered in an emotionless, measured tone, as if he were reading them. Without leaving a note for his loved ones, Lazaroff then swallowed a handful of Tylenol PM and prescription drugs. A security guard found him an hour later, passed out in his 1998 BMW 740i, which was parked in the grass in front of Woodlake Plaza Center, near the I-64/Highway 141 interchange. Police couldn't wake him. Even after several hours in the St. Luke's Hospital emergency department, he remained unconscious.

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