Nancy Drew

Once considered a model private fiduciary, Nancy Elliston is now under investigation for allegedly helping herself to thousands of dollars belonging to incapacitated people

How, asks an attorney for one estate from which Elliston allegedly embezzled thousands of dollars, could anyone expect her to guard others' assets when she apparently couldn't guard her own?

Dyer declined to comment.

Nancy Elliston's motive seems to be obvious: She was broke, had ready access to someone else's money, and couldn't resist temptation.

Gary Donahoe, one of several county court commissioners who tolerated late and inaccurate accountings from Nancy Elliston and her firm.
Gary Donahoe, one of several county court commissioners who tolerated late and inaccurate accountings from Nancy Elliston and her firm.
Presiding Probate/Mental Health judge Donald Daughton, who recently ordered Elliston to jail.
Presiding Probate/Mental Health judge Donald Daughton, who recently ordered Elliston to jail.

It's not that the recently widowed woman was living lavishly. She drives an older car and lives in a modest home. And no one interviewed for this story -- many of whom have known Elliston for years -- could name a vice such as gambling or drugs that may have corrupted her.

"She was the industry's queen, the voice of reason," says presiding Maricopa County Judge Bob Myers, who headed the Probate/Mental Health Department before assuming the Superior Court's top slot. "She was very interested in educating the public about her business, and informing everyone that things could be done correctly. What's happened is a tragedy."

Adds attorney Paul Blunt, who worked for Elliston in many cases, "When she was in her game, there wasn't anybody better. She never seemed to want to get whatever she could out of the system. I still think Nancy is a good person, but if she did all of these things, she'll have to account for it."

"In recent years, the Probate and Mental Health Department of the Court has made significant strides and improvements in its quality, efficiency and monitoring capabilities to better serve and protect people unable to care for themselves, including the elderly, minors, mentally ill and wards of the court."

-- from the Maricopa County Superior Court Web site

Maricopa County's Probate Court is a clubby world, one that feels more like court in the hinterlands than one of the nation's largest cities. The attorneys who sat in at Elliston's recent contempt hearings chatted about their holidays and gossiped freely. It's not so collegial across Jefferson Street at the central courthouse, where prosecutors and defense attorneys often barely know each other.

Until recent years, Probate was the Superior Court's almost forgotten stepchild, where older judges marked time until they could retire. That changed during the reign from 1993-95 of Bob Myers, who dragged -- some would say bullied -- the Probate Court into modern times. One of Myers' legacies was how he handled the infamous Wayne Legg case.

In the wake of Legg, Myers personally lobbied state legislators to enact a law that mandated the regulation and registration of private fiduciaries.

Joining Myers in that winning fight was an articulate woman who seemed to represent the good side of the private fiduciary business. Nancy Elliston would take on the toughest cases as a guardian/conservator, and do whatever it took to make things work.

"She was trusted by everyone," Judge Myers recalls.

Pam Franks succeeded Myers as Probate/Mental Health presiding judge in May 1995. Franks is a humane jurist, but is known for being very tough when necessary. Her work in exposing the ineptitude of the Arizona Veterans' Service Commission as a guardian/conservator was instrumental in fomenting change at that agency.

It's not as if Franks ignored the problems she was hearing about FSI before she left Probate/Mental Health in May 1998 for an assignment in Juvenile Court. But she intentionally did ignore Elliston's financial personal woes after she became aware of them in early 1997.

In March 1997, a Probate Court investigator had sent Franks a memo that detailed the February 13, 1997, IRS tax levy against Elliston for $52,964. The investigator explained that the feds use such levies -- a forced collection of money -- as a last resort.

Franks tells New Times she recalls the memo, but says Elliston's precarious financial condition wouldn't have swayed her.

"The court does not ask about a fiduciary's own assets when we are appointing them," she says. "It's only relevant that some bonding company is going to insure them. As long as a legitimate bonding company comes forward and tells me, 'Judge I'm going to insure this fiduciary, and it will cover all the unrestricted assets and the income for one year,' that's all I care about."

Charles Arnold, a veteran Phoenix Probate/Mental Health attorney who represented FSI in some cases, disagrees with Franks.

"I have the greatest respect for Pam as a judge," he says, "but I think there's a higher calling here, a higher responsibility, because it's a fiduciary responsibility. Judges are the last line of defense -- and if the court's not there for the wards, who will be?"

Adds Fred Gamble, the attorney involved in the Black estate case: "I'd like to ask why the courts aren't doing background checks and audits to see if someone is financially irresponsible. Typically, an embezzler is someone who is having financial problems."

In early 1998, Franks placed a moratorium against appointing Elliston to any new guardian/conservator cases. Her action came shortly after she'd ordered Elliston to "personally appear and show cause why Fiduciary Services Inc. should not be removed as conservator, held in contempt of court, and/or have other sanctions imposed against it" in the case of an aged, incapacitated Phoenix woman named Anne Swanson.

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