On a June day in 2003, Paige Bilbrey was on the phone frantically trying to reach her boss, former Los Angeles Dodger great Steve Garvey, at Le Parc Hotel in Paris, where he was attending the French Open tennis tournament.
The matter couldn’t wait: Standing in the lobby of Garvey’s hilltop mansion outside Park City, Utah, was an employee of the local power company. Pay the overdue bill, the man said, or he’d turn off the lights.
The incident wasn’t the result of an embarrassing oversight. It was typical of the financial chaos that has reigned in Garvey’s life. For years, Garvey and his wife, Candace, have neglected bills large and small, leaving dozens of people who either worked for them or sold them merchandise wondering if they were ever going to get paid.
The Garveys drove luxury cars, shopped in upscale boutiques and traveled extensively even as they were pursued by creditors. Garvey’s gardener took him to small claims court to recover $1,773. A mirror installer did the same over $809. A caterer received a court order to seize valuable artwork from the Garveys until they paid her $14,000 bill.
Garvey owes attorneys more than $300,000, according to court records.
Many a former athlete has fallen on hard times, but Garvey -- known during his Dodger days as “Mr. Clean” -- is different. As his own financial troubles deepened, he continued to cast himself as a principled and accomplished businessman, charging up to $10,000 to give motivational speeches.
“To only focus on Steve Garvey’s baseball accomplishments would leave out a lifetime of achievements as a businessman, philanthropist, volunteer and most importantly a devoted family man,” reads the website www.stevegarvey.com, billed as his official site. “Garvey understands that in the ever-changing world we live in there is a great necessity of being a man of honor, integrity and quality.”
But records show that the Garveys have made a habit of dodging payments on almost every type of expense. Phone, gas and electric bills have been delinquent. Checks to the local supermarket have bounced.
Fed up with not getting paid, the Garveys’ pediatrician wrote a letter in March 2003 stating that any future medical services provided to their children would be on a “cash-only” basis.
Even the Garveys’ church had to wait nearly a year to receive the $2,700 it was owed for items the couple had agreed to buy at a charity auction, according to documents and interviews.
And, in violation of a court ruling, Garvey unilaterally decided to cut in half the amount of child support he was ordered to pay for a son he had out of wedlock. Just last year a judge threatened to jail Garvey if he failed to make payments in the future.
Until two years ago, Garvey and his wife lived in a $5-million mansion overlooking Utah’s world-renowned ski resorts. Yet despite the appearance of wealth, Garvey -- under penalty of perjury -- has repeatedly said in court declarations that he is deeply in debt.
In a two-hour interview with The Times, Garvey acknowledged having chronic financial problems but declined to publicly address specific information contained in this article. Speaking generally, he blamed his debt on a combination of tax liabilities, financial support for most of his nine children and stepchildren and costly legal battles over business and personal affairs.
“Do I expect to pay every debt? Do I want to? Absolutely,” said Garvey, now living in Southern California. “The day I’m able to be debt-free is the day I’m going to be the happiest guy around.”
Later, in a prepared statement, Garvey added that he was saddened by “the misuse of the L.A. Times by outside sources who clearly are intent on defaming myself and my family. I could positively address each issue but that would only validate this vicious abuse of a private family.”
People owed money by Garvey see themselves, not Garvey, as the victims. Attorneys who have sued him, for instance, believe he has more money than he is letting on and allege that he has hidden assets.
Quipped one attorney trying to collect on a $235,000 debt owed by Garvey:
“Once a Dodger, always a dodger.”
More than 20 years after his last at-bat as a Dodger, Garvey’s legacy in Los Angeles endures. The Dodgers keep Garvey on the payroll to make public appearances on the club’s behalf. He was at Dodger Stadium for opening day last week, and fans who attend the team’s July 28 game against the Washington Nationals will receive a Steve Garvey bobble-head doll.
Garvey was a 10-time All-Star and four-time winner of a Gold Glove, given for defensive skill. He was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1974 and playoff MVP in 1974, 1977 and 1984. He appeared in five World Series.
After 14 years with the Dodgers, Garvey signed with the San Diego Padres for the 1983 season. He retired five years later. At the time, his image as a strait-laced family man was tarnished by revelations that he had fathered two children out of wedlock. But the scandal was short-lived.
Trading on his fame, charm and movie-star good looks, Garvey, now 57, went into business for himself after baseball, working as a pitchman and motivational speaker.
At the website promoting him as a motivational speaker, it says that Garvey’s “playing field has changed from the baseball diamond to corporate boardrooms and lecture halls, but the integrity, intensity and the devotion for which this future Hall of Famer is famous for is the same.” A promotional DVD shows him standing at a lectern in a sharply pressed suit, the picture of success. In speeches laden with baseball analogies, he talks about teamwork and setting goals.
But that image is at odds with Garvey’s financially turbulent private life. A review of more than two dozen court files in California and Utah shows that he’s had money troubles dating back at least a decade.
In a 1996 court declaration, Garvey said he suffered a “financial disaster” when the Internal Revenue Service disallowed tax deductions he claimed in connection with an investment in First Western Corp. in the early 1980s. As a result, he said, he owed $937,000 in back taxes, penalties and interest.
In addition, Garvey said he owed $10,000 to his ex-wife Cyndy, $40,000 to his current wife’s parents, and another $40,000 to his former accountant.
“It feels like I owe everyone,” his declaration states.
By 2000, Garvey’s financial status appeared to improve. He and his wife moved into a 14,000-square-foot home near Park City, Utah. The estate came with its own name: The Boulders. It had a commanding view of the Deer Valley ski resort. The Garveys frequented the Stein Eriksen Lodge and drove luxury SUVs -- a Lexus and a Land Rover.
Their staff included a nanny, a groundskeeper, a handyman and Bilbrey, who served as a personal assistant to Steve.
But Bilbrey said there was a difference between the image the Garveys projected and what she witnessed in the Garvey home.
While working for the Garveys from July 2002 through June 2003, Bilbrey said, dealing with disgruntled creditors was part of her job.
Court records and financial documents reviewed by The Times and interviews with people who did business with the Garveys corroborate Bilbrey’s claim that the couple’s finances were in disarray.
From September 2002 to March 2003, dozens of businesses and people demanding payment of past-due bills called the Garveys or sent them letters.
In January 2003, a representative of the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles called to discuss a delinquent balance of more than $8,000 from a nine-day stay. In addition to the $495-a-night room, the Garveys were charged $828 for a necklace and bracelet, $189 for a bathrobe, $56 for Louis Vuitton stationery and $1,271 for dinner, according to their bill.
Andrea Messier said she worked as the Garveys’ nanny from December 2002 through June 2003. At first, she said, she had no trouble getting her $100 a day, for which she shuttled the Garvey children to and from after-school sporting events, practices and play dates.
But after a couple of months, she said, things changed.
“Candace would say ‘talk to Steve’ and Steve would say ‘talk to Candace,’ ” Messier recalled in a telephone interview from her home in Colorado.
At one point, Messier said, she wrote checks to pay her own rent, car payment, car insurance and other bills based on a promise that she would be paid by the Garveys the next day. The promise was not kept, Messier said, and her bank account was overdrawn.
When she told Steve Garvey what had happened, he offered to pay the overdraft charges, said Messier, now 25. But not before giving her some fatherly advice.
“Steve told me you shouldn’t send your bills out until you’ve got money in your account,” Messier recalled. “I just kinda stood there and looked at him,” she said.
After helping to organize a church charity auction in 2003, the Garveys bid on several items and agreed to buy others totaling about $2,700, according to records and interviews. Despite numerous calls to the Garvey home, the bill went unpaid. Nearly a year later, a church volunteer charged with collecting the debt said she reached Steve Garvey on his cellphone. The bill was paid a few days later.
A big source of Garvey’s money problems stem from a paternity suit filed by his onetime fiancee, Rebecka Mendenhall. She sued him in 1991, alleging that he was the father of her child, born in 1989.
In 1993, a judge ruled that Garvey was the boy’s father and that Mendenhall was entitled to child support. Three years later, as Garvey sought a reduction in the amount he was ordered to pay, he filed the declaration stating he was nearly a million dollars in debt.
Mendenhall agreed to a reduction. But in 2000, when she heard Garvey was expected to receive $3 million in disputed pension funds from Major League Baseball, she filed court papers seeking to adjust his child support payment.
Though the money never materialized, Mendenhall’s lawyers became convinced that Garvey was attempting to hide income through his current wife, Candace.
The Garveys stated in court papers that Candace Garvey was the sole owner of Garvey Management Group Inc., which oversaw Steve Garvey’s public speaking services.
Though the company grossed more than $900,000 in 1999, the Garveys said Steve Garvey received only a fraction. The vast majority of the profits went to Candace, whose assets, they argued, were separate and not subject to Mendenhall’s child support claim.
Mendenhall’s lawyers also discovered documents related to the purchase of the Utah house in which Candace stated she had more than $2.5 million in stock, according to court records.
The Garveys argued that those assets were hers alone, acquired when the couple temporarily separated. But a judge ruled that the assets were community property under California law, meaning Garvey’s half-interest could be considered when calculating child support.
In addition to finding that Garvey should pay increased support, the judge ordered him to pay $165,000 to Mendenhall’s attorney and accounting expert. With interest, the debt has since grown to $235,000, records show.
As the case unfolded, Garvey was also sued by two of his own lawyers.
One was from the law firm of Jaffe and Clemens, which he owed $196,000. He negotiated a settlement with the firm in 2004 in which he agreed to a deferred payment of $100,000. That amount is due at the end of June.
Last year, having failed to pay all the court-ordered child support to Mendenhall, Garvey was found in contempt and faced possible jail time. Unable to afford an attorney, he represented himself. He told Superior Court Commissioner James D. Endman that any time behind bars would do irreparable damage to his reputation, which he banked on to earn a living.
“I’m at the mercy of this court,” Garvey said.
Endman spared Garvey a jail sentence, but warned him of the consequences if he were to be found in contempt again.
“No more breaks,” he told Garvey. “OK?”
Times staff writers Mike Hiserman and Steve Henson contributed to this report.