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By Ray Stern
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Elliston hadn't been paying Swanson's bills because the judge wouldn't release certain funds until FSI proved it had increased the surety bond to cover any potential losses. FSI had failed to increase the bond -- usually a simple task -- for months. Franks held a contempt hearing on the matter January 6, 1998.
Franks told Elliston and the attorney in the case, Paul Blunt, to submit proof of the increased bond within a day, or she'd kick FSI off the case. Finally, they complied.
"At the December 19, 1997, hearing, Ms. Elliston advised the court that FSI was in violation of bonding orders in three cases," Franks wrote after the hearing. "Counsel advise the court that they have reviewed FSI's cases and have determined that FSI is, in fact, in violation of bonding orders in seven cases. . . . Counsel avow they will perform internal reviews . . . to ensure that FSI is, in fact, in compliance with all existing orders, not only for obtaining bonds, but for restricting accounts, records restrictions of real estate, and filing inventories and accountings."
Shortly before Franks left the Probate/Mental Health bench, she also scheduled new hearings before her successor, Judge Daughton, on several other Elliston cases in which estate accountings were late and incomplete. Those hearings ended without sanctions being imposed against Elliston, FSI or her attorneys.
Judge Franks also ended her moratorium against appointing Elliston to any new cases.
"The private fiduciary acting as conservator for the estate shall provide competent management of the property and income of the estate. In the discharge of this duty, the private fiduciary shall exercise intelligence, prudence and diligence and avoid any self-interest."
-- from the Arizona Supreme Court Code of Conduct for private fiduciaries
FSI was falling apart by early 1999, but it was business as usual for the firm at Probate Court. Only Jack Cox -- the courthouse gadfly who watched with undisguised glee a few weeks ago when Nancy Elliston got hauled off to jail -- was saying anything bad about her.
Though FSI's accountings were coming in even later than usual, the court commissioners continued to rubber-stamp almost every application for fee approval that she and her attorneys submitted.
In March 1999, City of Phoenix ombudsman specialist Annette Buchanan wrote to commissioner Gary Donahoe about one of Elliston's guardian/conservator clients, Lois J. Clark.
"I am writing to make you aware of a recent situation," Buchanan wrote. "Several attempts have been made by the family to reach Nancy Elliston from Fiduciary Services regarding failure [to pay Clark's bills]. She has not responded. . . . We would like to make you aware of the court-appointed fiduciary's inaction on this case."
Elliston resigned as Clark's guardian/conservator a week later.
Donahoe ordered Elliston to file her final accounting of her work within two months, or by May 18. That date came and went without Elliston doing as ordered, but Donahoe didn't react until August 4 -- two and a half months late -- when he set a September 7 hearing to discuss things.
What happened at that hearing is a secret; Donahoe sealed the file and wouldn't comment for this story.
Last September 13, shortly before Elliston's license was suspended, a seriously mentally ill woman wrote Judge Daughton a letter from Madison Street Jail. Nancy Elliston had been Noelle Chase's guardian/conservator for a few years, and Chase was convinced that Elliston had been ripping her off.
Though it's uncertain whether Chase is right about her case, her handwritten note seems prescient.
"I beg, Your Honor, please don't let this all be swept under the rug," wrote Chase, who was serving a term for violating probation on a drug charge. "The behavior of FSI is so appalling that my probation officer was overwhelmed by their business practices. . . . I hope and pray two things from you -- that you will look into the accountings FSI has been submitting and that, two, that this can't ever happen again to another person. FSI is not what they appear to be."
With the courts' blessings, a firm called Southwest Fiduciary Services has taken over many of FSI's cases. Several of Nancy Elliston's onetime employees have gone to work for Southwest, though she apparently has no financial interest in the firm.
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org