Facing disbarment, Michael Siefkes relinquished his law license in September, after allegations he'd manipulated a vulnerable client into giving him cars and cash worth up to $300,000.
On the evening of Sept. 11, SeaTac Mayor Michael Siefkes made a surprise announcement.
“I have enjoyed being up here and doing this… but with some continuing health issues, and with other things, this is going to be my last council meeting,” Siefkes said at the end of a SeaTac City Council meeting. He resigned effective the next day and said he’d be leaving town.
Siefkes’ statement left a lot out.
By the time he quit, Siefkes (pronounced “Seef-kees”), an attorney specializing in elder law, was facing potential disbarment over allegations he’d wrongfully extracted as much as $300,000 from a vulnerable client, according to interviews and public records.
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He also had been investigated by the King County Sheriff’s Office, with a detective last year recommending a charge of first-degree theft, though no charges were filed.
On Sept. 20, Siefkes, 48, relinquished his law license in an agreement with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel for the Washington State Bar Association, which alleged he’d misappropriated at least $91,000 from his client, accepted an improper loan and provided false information to investigators.
As part of the agreement, in which he agreed to resign “in lieu of discipline,” Siefkes agreed to never again practice law in Washington — and to resign from the bar in any other state in which he’d been licensed.
“When my resignation becomes effective, I agree to be subject to all restrictions that apply to a disbarred lawyer,” Siefkes wrote in his formal resignation statement to the disciplinary board of the Washington State Supreme Court.
Reached by phone, Siefkes declined to discuss his resignation or his former client. “I have no comment. Good luck to you. Goodbye,” he said, before hanging up on a reporter. He did not reply to subsequent messages. His house in SeaTac is listed for sale, and The SeaTac Blog reported he’d moved to Tennessee.
The Seattle Times is not identifying Siefkes’ former client, the alleged victim, who along with his attorney, Jennifer Rydberg, filed grievances against Siefkes with the bar association.
The client, a Boeing retiree in his 60s, declined to be interviewed. “I want to stay out of the spotlight of this investigation. All I wanted was to have Mike disbarred, and that has happened,” the man wrote in an email relayed to The Seattle Times by Rydberg.
Rydberg, a Kent attorney who has practiced law for 40 years, said she’d “never had a case that was this egregious and involved a public figure.” She said Siefkes had betrayed not just his client, but the taxpayers of SeaTac, by “hiding his unethical, criminal conduct … He’s a coward.”
She started representing Siefkes’ former client in 2016, when the state of Washington sought to place him under a legal guardianship after a friend reported Siefkes’ alleged exploitation to Adult Protective Services.
The man allegedly victimized by Siefkes suffers from social anxiety and a disorder that affects his decision-making, a report by the bar association said: “This condition makes [him] vulnerable and susceptible to being taken advantage of.”
The man lives alone, never married and had amassed considerable wealth saved during his years working, more recently inheriting the estate of his parents worth more than $1 million.
Siefkes complains, client gives
A longtime SeaTac resident, Siefkes was elected to the SeaTac City Council in 2015 and chosen as mayor by his colleagues. The part-time job pays $14,400 a year. Siefkes previously had served on the nonpartisan council for a few months in 2003, filling a temporary vacancy. He ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the state Legislature in 2014.
Siefkes had been licensed to practice law in Washington state since 2001. The now-defunct website for his solo practice displayed stock photos of smiling senior citizens giving a “thumbs up” sign.
Siefkes had financial and other problems stretching back years, records show.
He filed for bankruptcy in Kansas in 1997. In 2008, his wife obtained a temporary domestic violence protection order from King County Superior Court, saying he’d been physically and emotionally abusive, including punching her in the side in church.
She also wrote that Siefkes had developed an addiction to the online role-playing video game World of Warcraft, playing for as many as 16 hours a day, causing him to lose most of his business, fall behind on their mortgage, and owe money to family and friends. The protection order was lifted within a few weeks at the wife’s request.
Siefkes began representing the client and his mother in 2009. He performed some legitimate legal work for them, including dealing with the parents’ estate. But he soon started inappropriately pressuring the client to give him money, investigators alleged.
“Mr. Siefkes frequently complained to [his client] about his financial problems, and often told him that he was behind with his bills and in jeopardy of losing his house,” wrote Kathy Jo Blake, managing disciplinary counsel for the state bar association, in an Aug. 30 investigative report.
The man felt sorry for Siefkes and considered him a friend; they often went out to lunch. Listening to Siefkes’ financial worries, the client began to offer gifts of money and on at least one occasion paid his mortgage.
At times, Siefkes billed the man for legal and other services, including charging him for visiting his mother at an assisted living facility, a Sheriff’s Office report states.
However, Siefkes would not provide written bills. Instead, he simply told the man how much he owed, and he would pay, sometimes with personal checks, and later on by withdrawing thousands of dollars from ATMs — in one instance giving Siefkes $5,000 cash from his home safe, according to the bar association and Sheriff’s Office investigations.
He also gave his lawyer several cars, the bar investigation found. In 2009, the man gave Siefkes his Ford Explorer after buying a new car. In 2012, after Siefkes complained about his finances, the client bought him a Honda Pilot for $31,000. In 2013, after Siefkes said it was difficult for him and his wife to share one vehicle, the client bought him a new Toyota Tundra for $41,000. The next year, after Siefkes said his wife was dissatisfied with the Pilot, the man traded it in for a new one, at a cost of $27,000.
Some friends of the client grew wary of Siefkes, and the man sought to fire him at least twice. But Siefkes persuaded him to continue their relationship. By 2015, Siefkes told him “he could only accept cash,” the bar report said, and between May 15 and Dec. 15 of that year, the client gave Siefkes at least $20,000 in cash.
Client gave voluntarily, Siefkes says
In 2016, the King County Sheriff’s Office began investigating Siefkes, with Detective Michael Glasgow subpoenaing bank records and interviewing him at his law office. Siefkes denied wrongdoing. He said his client had given him the cars and money voluntarily and that “he did not try to manipulate him in any way,” according to Glasgow’s report.
Siefkes asked Glasgow if he looked like the kind of person who would take advantage of a vulnerable person. “I told him that he does,” the detective wrote, noting that victims of financial crimes often mistakenly place confidence in professional-looking, well-spoken people.
In April 2017, Glasgow recommended Siefkes be charged with first-degree theft — a felony. But the King County Prosecutor’s Office declined to file charges, saying the Sheriff’s Office had not submitted additional evidence requested, including information about another friend of Siefkes’ client, who a deputy prosecutor thought also might be taking advantage of him.
Last November, Rydberg and the client filed grievances with the bar association, triggering an investigation.
When questioned by the bar association investigator under oath in May about his client’s cognitive abilities, Siefkes invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the bar report said.
In the same deposition, Siefkes also claimed he’d never accepted a loan from the client. When confronted with a promissory note for a $3,600 loan, Siefkes said he forgot about it. “Respondent’s testimony does not appear credible,” Blake wrote in her report, noting the loan was never repaid.
The bar association’s report accused Siefkes of violating several ethical standards of conduct.
Siefkes, the report stated, “knew he was charging … unreasonable fees” and “acted knowingly and with the intent to benefit himself when he accepted money [from the client] that he knew he had not earned.”
The presumptive penalty for that violation alone was disbarment. Siefkes also stood accused of violations including inappropriately accepting a loan and knowingly providing the disciplinary counsel with “false and misleading information.” Siefkes’ resignation came ahead of a hearing on the charges.
The story behind Siefkes’ resignation came as a shock to his council colleagues, said Erin Sitterley, who succeeded him as mayor.
“To my knowledge, it was a surprise to everybody. It knocked me flat,” Sitterley said in an interview last week. “This all happened as part of his private law practice. The city had nothing to do with it, and his actions should not reflect poorly on the city.”
As for Siefkes’ former client, he is hoping to recover some of the money he lost by applying to a special bar association fund. In his email relayed to The Seattle Times by Rydberg, he explained he is trying to move on with his life.
“Please understand I have been through lots in the past 2 years, and don’t want to do anymore with this,” the man wrote.