Checks & Imbalances

How the state's leading private fiduciary helped herself to the funds of the helpless

Some rob you with a gun, some rob you with a fountain pen.

-- Woody Guthrie

Greg Maruda doesn't know who Nancy Elliston is. Nor does he realize that, in her capacity as his court-appointed financial conservator, Elliston stole more than $40,000 from him by signing her name to a few pieces of paper.

Greg Maruda is one of many of Elliston's alleged victims.
Paolo Vescia
Greg Maruda is one of many of Elliston's alleged victims.

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The 51-year-old Maruda was born with Down syndrome, which left him with mental and physical handicaps, and a sweet, guileless nature. Maruda lives with 25 other developmentally disabled men and women at a west Phoenix assisted-care facility. He works part-time putting boxes together at the Gompers Center for the Handicapped.

Maruda shares a cozy apartment with three other men. In his bedroom is a TV set and a VCR. Maruda has a collection of horror movies. "The scary kind, like [A Nightmare on Elm Street's] Freddy," he says. He also adores Elvis Presley, whose visage adorns the bedroom walls.

He points to a framed, slightly faded color photograph on a wall near his pillow. "That's my mother," Maruda says proudly. "She's passed away now."

Greg Maruda fits Arizona's legal definition of a "vulnerable adult." He is incapable of doing things most people take for granted, such as balancing a checkbook or driving a car. He trusts just about everyone, and is susceptible to all manner of abuse.

A county Probate Court judge in September 1978 appointed Nancy Elliston as Greg Maruda's trustee/conservator. That put her in control of his estate, supposedly subject to the court's supervision. The Maruda Estate was then worth about $100,000, most of it from a trust that his mother had funded before her death.

Three years later, Maruda moved into his current residence. It feels like a real home, largely because director Joyce Ridge and her staff are compassionate and attentive to their residents' needs. The home is what mental-health activists envisioned in the 1970s when they won the fight to free the mentally infirm from the shackles of warehouselike institutional living.

"Greg and the rest of the people here are our family," Ridge says.

Maruda was one of hundreds of Arizonans released to the "community" during that deinstitutionalization phase -- in his case, after a long stint at the state's infamous asylum in Coolidge. Many in his shoes had to fend for themselves, after it turned out the "community" didn't have anywhere to put them. Maruda, however, was lucky in that he had money. The $800 monthly payment for room and board and other amenities was eminently fair. Maruda's physical safety there seemed reasonably assured, as did his finances under Elliston's watchful eye.

In the late 1970s, Elliston pioneered Maricopa County's private fiduciary industry, which emerged as Arizona's retirement population exploded. Her now-defunct firm, Fiduciary Services Incorporated, grew as Arizona became the state with the nation's highest percentage of incapacitated "wards."

Private fiduciaries get paid to serve as guardians and/or financial conservators for incapacitated adults and children who have no family or friends to properly care for them. The Public Fiduciary, on the other hand, takes on cases where little money is involved, the circumstances are complex, or when nobody else is qualified or willing to serve.

Both public and private fiduciaries are overseen by the Probate Court, which is the last line of defense in this area for those who can't help themselves. The law allows fiduciaries to hold almost absolute sway over every aspect of their wards' lives, a daunting and often thankless task. The dictionary defines the "fiduciary relationship" as one of "trust and confidence," and law books call it the most sacred of all legal duties.

Nancy Elliston won a reputation at Probate Court as a paragon of friendly professionalism who gave all appearances of being fiscally prudent and empathetic toward her clients. Elliston and her now-deceased husband, Fred, never lived lavishly or demonstrated abnormal spending habits. In hindsight, however, it's apparent their personal finances were in tatters.

Records show the Internal Revenue Service issued tax liens against Elliston as early as 1984. In ensuing years, the feds lodged more liens against Elliston and Fiduciary Services that totaled about $150,000 in unpaid taxes. Elliston also faced foreclosure seven times on her Glendale home and/or her office from 1995 to 1999.

Court documents indicate she staved off the government and creditors with money illegally drawn from her wards' estates.

On November 12, 1998, for example, Elliston took $9,782 from the bank account of Edward Black, an Ahwatukee man who died in May 1996, but whose estate still was being litigated. That day, she converted that exact amount into a cashier's check that saved her home from foreclosure.

It's unknown exactly when Elliston started stealing money from her unsuspecting wards and/or their beneficiaries. What is known is that, on December 19, 1990, she wired $39,566 from Greg Maruda's account at Valley National Bank into Fiduciary Services' account. The bank charged Maruda's estate $417 in penalties for the early withdrawal. Elliston referred to the transaction in her business ledger as a "personal loan."

The theft came a few months after then-Probate Court commissioner Ken Reeves approved Elliston's annual accounting of the Maruda Estate. That proved to be the last time she filed anything with the court regarding Maruda until resigning as his trustee/conservator in October 1999.

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